Tuesday 17 September 2019

Books: A stellar selection vie for Children's Book laurels

Big adventure: Oliver Jeffers' book is a serious contender
Big adventure: Oliver Jeffers' book is a serious contender

Are we entering a golden age of Irish Children's Books? Looking at the titles for the Specsavers book of the year, it certainly seems so.

The shortlists for this year's awards - Senior and Junior - are littered with international success stories: from Louise O'Neill, the Clonakilty woman who is currently the darling of Hollywood where her first YA (young adult) novel, Only Every Yours, is being filmed; to Belfast's finest, Oliver Jeffers whose picture book, The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt, was a number one New York Times bestseller last year. Children's books are big business at the moment, with many 'adult' writers debuting their children's books next spring, from Sheila O'Flanagan to Cecelia Ahern. Recent statistics show that over 80pc of YA books are bought by adults.

In Asking for It (Quercus Books), Louise O'Neill's main character, Emma O'Donovan is Queen Bee of Ballinatoom. Her closest friends may be rich and privileged but Emma is the most popular and she knows it. But all that is about to change. An arresting, unflinching and deeply disturbing look at sexual consent and how society treats rape victims, it's an important book in both an Irish and an international context. Jeanette Winterson says O'Neill 'writes with a scalpel' and she's right. O'Neill is a strong contender to win the Senior Award.

As is Sarah Crossan. Her carefully crafted novel in verse, One (Bloomsbury Children's Books), is the story of two 16-year-old conjoined twins, Grace and Tippi. They are beautifully drawn characters and in a short space of time you grow to love and care about them. It's a brave, compelling, unusual book that deserves to be read.

Joining them on the Senior shortlist is the first book in Derek Landy's new horror series for teens, Demon Road (HarperCollins Children's), a rip-roaring road trip set in a very dark world indeed, with one of the most arresting opening lines I've read in a long time: 'Twelve hours before Amber Lamont's parents tried to kill her, she was sitting between them in the principal's office…'

Darkmouth: Worlds Explode by Shane Hegarty (HarperCollins Children's Books) is also set in a dark world, but it's witty fantasy adventure rather than horror, aimed at a younger readership (age 8+). Set in the mist-swirling town of Darkmouth, the last Blighted Village in Ireland plagued by Legends, mythical man-eating monsters, this book sees 12-year-old Finn trying to save his father, Hugo who is trapped on 'the Infected Side'.

John Boyne revisits World War II in The Boy at the Top of the Mountain (Doubleday). When his mother dies, Pierrot is sent to live with his aunt, a housekeeper at the Berghof, Hitler's infamous mountain-top residence in the Bavarian Alps and becomes twisted by the man's philosophies. A powerful, unsettling novel for all ages.

Finally Once Upon a Place, edited by the Children's Laureate, Eoin Colfer (Little Island), is a handsome collection of original short stories and poems from Irish writers, illustrated by award-winning PJ Lynch.

I'm proud to have a story in the mix, which sits beside pieces by Roddy Doyle, Siobhan Parkinson and Derek Landy.

The Junior shortlist is equally stellar. Oliver Jeffers has two picture books on the list: Imaginary Fred, written by Eoin Colfer, a heart-felt ode to friendship and the power of the imagination; and The Day the Crayons Came Home, written by Drew Daywalt, a joyously funny book about the adventures of lost, forgotten and broken crayons with exceptional, highly original mixed-media illustrations. Both are published by HarperCollins Children's Books.

Yasmeen Ismail is back with the exuberant I'm a Girl (Bloomsbury Children's), a celebration of being yourself, with spirited illustrations that zing with colour; and Chris Judge also returns with The Snow Beast (Andersen Press), a beautifully designed wintery picture book featuring an old friend.

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower (Walker Books), set in the 1600s and told in the first person, is P J Lynch's first foray into writing. John Howland (a real historical figure) tells his story of emigration and overcoming adversity. The Atlantic has never looked as dark and swirling as in PJ's magnificent illustrations.

And finally, newcomer Nicola Colton's A Dublin Fairytale, a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story, is full of charm and gentle wit and congratulations must go to her Irish publishers, O'Brien Press, for supporting new picture book talent.

Who will win the Specsavers Junior Children's Book of the Year? It has to be Oliver Jeffers for The Day the Crayons Came Home, a children's classic in the making.

Sarah Webb is a writer and a children's book commentator. Her latest book for children is Sunny Days and Mooncakes (Walker Books).

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