THE publication of shortlists for the different children's book awards, like the first swallows, signal that summer is coming and remind us of the pleasures of our winter's reading. The now three-year-old Dublin Airport Authority awards for the Irish Children's Book of the Year are very welcome, signalling the extent to which children's literature can now be read and judged in the same context as literature for adults. It is particularly gratifying to see children's authors accepting their awards alongside established writers for adults.
The DAA awards have a very different judging process from that of the long-established Children's Books Ireland/Bisto awards, in that the DAA shortlist for the awards is based on wide consultation with booksellers and librarians, and might be said to have a popular base, whereas the CBI shortlist is drawn up by a small judging panel. In spite of these differences it is interesting to note that there are strong similarities between the eventual shortlists, and that winners of both awards in recent years included Kate Thompson and John Boyne. The introduction this year of two categories, for younger and older readers, is an interesting development in the DAA awards.
It is always interesting, and a cause for speculation, when well-established writers for adults turn to write for children. There is often the sense that they do so when for some reason or another their work for adults must be put on hold, perhaps because of writer's block or more drastic physical constraints as in the case of Salman Rushdie when he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories while in hiding from those who wanted to kill him.
There is a parallel sense that children's writers really would prefer the higher status of writing for adults, and hope to be writers for adults when they grow up! Recently, perhaps because of the commercial success of both the Harry Potter, and the Artemis Fowl series, and the intellectual and commercial success of Philip Pullman, (it is really not possible to discuss seriously the relationship between religion and non-belief without reference to Pullman in our time), there is at least the possibility that this often unstated prejudice in favour of works for adults is beginning to break down. In this context, a very interesting feature of this year's DAA shortlist is the presence of two writers of books for adults, Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt. Both are highly regarded and popular writers and both have won highly prestigious prizes, the American Pulitzer prize for biography in McCourt's case, and British Man Booker prize in Doyle's.
In the junior (under eight) category there are rich seams to be mined, and I list them in in author alphabetical order. Eoin Colfer's charming and sensitive story about sibling rivalry, The Legend of the Worst Boy in the World, is beautifully written and constructed. Colfer can get to the heart of the feelings and anxieties of pre-school boys in a reassuring, gentle and humorous way in language not over-simplified or patronising.
The context is a realistic family one. Colfer's art here is deceptively simple, but none the less art for that. Oliver Jeffers' The Way Back Home is a sophisticated picture book which works on a symbolic level. The relationship between text and image is interesting and varied. Line and colour are subtly developed from night skies to mountain landscapes. They embody the limitless possibilities of childhood imagination. There is lots of space for the child to enjoy and interpret along with an adult reader. This text, like Colfer's, would appeal primarily to pre-school boys.
Frank McCourt's Angela and The Baby Jesus is a gentle old-fashioned Christmas story which reminds the adult reader of Angela's Ashes, but without the angry cynicism of that book. The use of the Hiberno- English dialect of the Limerick variety is very refreshing at a time when globalisation is increasingly eliminating regional or national idioms in children's books. This is a positive feel-good version of poverty-stricken Limerick in the early 20th century, when even priest and policeman are decent and kind and faith is shared by all. There is rather too much text in relation to pictures for it to work happily with younger readers, however, and the relationship between text and pictures is very static.
Finally,, Brendan O'Brien's graphic history, The Story of Ireland is a really innovative, witty, accurate and beautifully illustrated work that does justice to the range and complexity of Irish history and to children without patronising them. From the O'Brien Press, this marks another innovation in Irish --and not just Irish-- publishing for children.
In the older category, is the superb Wilderness by Roddy Doyle. This is the book that gives the lie to the notion that established writers for adults write for children when suffering from writer's block, or when inspiration fails. This story is among the best things, if not the best thing, that Doyle has written. It defies categories, a gripping adventure story, set partly in Dublin, partly in the far north on an exciting and dangerous Arctic safari, it combines real excitement with a subtle profound exploration of family relationships and especially mother/child relationships, in contemporary Ireland.
Tom Kelly's The Thing with Finn is an interesting exploration of intense loss and grief in the character of his 10-year-old protagonist and narrator, Danny, who has recently lost his identical twin brother, Finn. Because of the language used and the degree of telling and reflection, it could lose readers of 10 and seem too youthful for older readers. There is also a difficulty with Danny as narrator in that the voice is not maintained and the language uneven. The funny 10-year-old boyhood obsession with bodily functions such as farting etc does not quite match the somewhat prudish way in which Danny refers continually to his "bottom", instead of using a more popular term like "bum". It is, however, a very promising first book for children.
Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant is a fresh detective story with a difference. The detective is a skeleton, the eponymous Skulduggery. It is a witty lively tale, very gripping at first, but could have done with more editing and pruning, as the action becomes repetitive and the book is overlong. Michael Scott's fantasy/horror/thriller The Alchemist has all the qualities we associate with Scott's work -- sharp writing, good pacing, tight plot. It has all the contemporary ingredients of this very fashionable genre.
There are two books that I was surprised and sorry to find were omitted from this shortlist of best books for readers of nine and over. The first was Siobhan Parkinson's very fine novel Blue Like Friday, which is a beautiful study of bereavement and loss in a well-paced, beautifully-written adventure story with excellent characterisation, and the second is Enda Wyley's superb first novel for children, The Silver Notebook. These two books are very well written, entertaining and have something important to say to children. I find it hard to understand how they could have been overlooked in the DAA shortlist (and indeed in the current CBI/Bisto one as well). Their omission seems particularly striking in view of the fact that not a single woman writer is represented on the DAA shortlist!
However, book awards and literary shortlists are invariably controversial. There are some excellent titles on these lists. The younger category will be the most hotly contested and provide the biggest challenge to the judges. I think that there are three hot contenders, Eoin Colfer's The Legend of the Worst Boy, Oliver Jeffers' The Way Back Home and Brendan O'Brien's The Story of Ireland. I would like to see O'Brien's Story of Ireland win, but I think it may be slightly misplaced in the under-eight category.
I'd be inclined to recommend it more to readers of nine and over. I notice it is also nominated for the "Eason's Award" for an Irish published book, and it would certainly be a worthy winner there. It is, incidentally, a sad and worrying reflection on decline of Irish publishing in English for children at the present moment, thatThe Story of Ireland is the onlyIrish-published book on the entire shortlist. In the older category, I am putting my money on Roddy Doyle's Wilderness to win the award. It is simply the best by a long shot. I'll be eagerly watching for the Irish Book Awards final results!
Celia Keenan is a senior lecturer in English and directs the MA programme in children's literature in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra