Headline: Monster wins book prize…

I was at the Oscars yesterday. Yeah, baby. The OSCARS!!!  I don’t mean these Oscars:


And I don’t mean I flew out to :

But for children’s writers, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards amounts to the same thing, even if the ceremony was bereft of a red carpet and held in a building (the Barbican, London) that rejoiced a little too much in the use of concrete, inadequate lifts and confusing walkways.

Usually an author is only invited to the ceremony if they’re on the shortlist. Sadly, my classic Girls FC series was once again overlooked (ahem) so I was there in my capacity of Chair of CWIG. Oh, it was exciting. Just looking at the name badges on the table in reception made me tingle. David Almond, Patrick Ness, Sonya Hartnett, Annabel Pitcher, Wendy Cooling, Jim Kay,  Caroline Royds, Joy Court, Tim Bowler, Vicky White, Klausse Flugge… A mixture of writers (the Oscar equivalent of the actors) illustrators (Best Picture) librarians (the hosts, organisers, gophers, you name-it-they-do it) publishers (the directors) editors (producers). Or are the writers the producers and the librarians the actors? My Oscar comparison is breaking down here but anyhow, it was a thrill to be part of the audience. We even received a goody bag:


The ceremony began at 12.00. TV producer Kate Silverton welcomed everybody with a jolly opening speech and then we heard from a young blind girl called Emma. Emma, in an ace stripy top and cool black ankle boots spoke movingly about how brilliant it was that the publishers had made all the shortlisted titles available in braille so that she could read them. She talked about how important books were to her and how she loved reading. I’m not going to lie to you, I was dabbing away tears already. Past Carnegie winner Tim Bowler, on my right, was doing the same.

Then came a short video of the Shadowing process, where participating schools read the shortlisted books and choose the one they think should win. Something like 90,000 children participated last year. Astonishing! Who says kids don’t read?

After that, again on the screen, came an overview of the books on the Kate Greenaway shortlist. The books all looked fabulous but the one I could imagine sharing with a toddler most was Puffin Peter by Petr Horácek. Puffin Peter looked so sweet!

image ©Petr Horácek’s website

The winning title, however, was not for a traditional picture book (ie one to read to a small child) but Jim Kay’s  ‘A Monster Calls.’ Jim’s dark, brooding charcoal sketches perfectly reflected the text of Patrick Ness’s book, as all good illustrated books should.

Jim’s acceptance speech was wonderful. A slim, bespeckled man was a boyish air, he bounced onto the stage. His delight at winning was obvious; his acceptance speech was gracious and witty. ‘The last time I won anything it was sewn onto my swimming trunks,’ he declared. His speech was also highly moving. (Yep, me and Bowler were crying again). ‘I owe everything in my life to libraries,’ he said. ‘That’s why it troubles me that libraries are closing. If we close libraries we lose a child’s potential.’  That was such a striking thing to say. He made losing a child’s potential sound like the worse thing that could happen to anyone. And you know what? It really is. He also likened visiting Walker Books (the publisher who swept the Oscars this year) to ‘walking into a huge trifle’. Hear, hear.

Then came another overview of the Carnegie shortlist. Boy, what a shortlist. There were some heavy hitters on there. The overriding theme seemed to be of dealing with death.

And the winner was… Patrick Ness for A Monster Calls. So A Monster Calls wins the double, which is appropriate seeing as Ness is a huge tennis fan, and a first in the award’s 70 year history.

OK, so Jim Kay’s speech was moving but Ness’s blew me away. Here we have an outstanding writer with outstanding views. Like many of us he is passionate about saving libraries and promoting reading and once more (he won last year, too) he used the Carnegie event to fight that cause.  After praising Jim Kay, Walker Books and the late*  Siobhan Dowd (from whom the original idea for A Monster Calls came), Ness got down to the nitty-gritty of his speech. Not in a belligerent, ranting way that intimidates and makes you back away. It was more with an air of the quiet kid in the playground who’s had his dinner money nicked once too often and knows it’s time to take a stand. ‘Excoriating’ was the word journalist Alison Flood used in the Guardian’s report.

Ness voiced his dismay at replacing librarians with volunteers. ‘Would you want your appendix to be taken out by a volunteer?’ He attacked as ‘pathetic’ the inaction by the government to stop libraries from closing.  He then stood up for teenagers, bemoaning how they only get negative press. ‘All teenagers feel like they’re on the outside. To be a teenager is to yearn.’ He talked of his own adolescence, growing up as the gay son of fundamentalist Christian parents in America. I’m guessing the word ‘angst’ doesn’t cover the half of it.

Illustrator Jim Kay (left) and Patrick Ness ©telegraphnewspapers

As you can imagine, the applause was loud and it was long at the end of Patrick’s speech.

I don’t know whether his message will get through to people. I hope so, I really do. The people in the room; the kids who came to watch, the librarians fighting to save their jobs, the publishers doing their best to produce books in an ever-shrinking marketplace, the writers who keep writing even though they earn next to nothing, are already on-board. Its Whitehall we need to convince.

I do know one thing. I’m going to have to spend a bit more time polishing my acceptance speech for when I win. The bar just got higher.

*Link to Siobhan Dowd leads to the Siobhan Dowd Trust


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