April Dinner Meeting Report

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Michelle Prawer, the Victorian judge for the CBCA Book of the Year 2011 and 2012 Awards, gave an entertaining talk to Editors Victoria on 17 April, revealing the process behind the selection of the Children's Book Council Awards shortlist.

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CBCA judges are unpaid and undertake the work for love, sacrificing personal and family time to the never-ending imperative to read: in this year's case, 380 books, necessitating reading at traffic lights, in supermarket checkout queues and on the toilet!

The judges - one from each state and territory - receive identical boxes of books throughout the year. They read and report on each book leading up to the conference. While they may not have known each other prior to working as judges, they certainly get to know each other's quirks and personal preferences by the end of the five-day-long conference at which the shortlist is selected.

Running from Thursday to Tuesday, the conference is the site of impassioned debate, so the union background of this year's chairperson proved invaluable. The judges spend one day per category, beginning with a show of hands for each book to determine whether it will be considered. Every book that gets five hands or more is discussed, and all judges are given time to make their case about the book. Further shows of hands determine whether books are deemed notable or shortlisted.

Voting procedures are complex and strictly adhered to. Michelle made an impassioned plea to publishers to take care with their submissions to the book awards. Firstly, she said, there was nothing to be gained by waiting until the end of the year to submit - it is a fallacy that this makes the books more memorable in the judges' minds. If anything, they are more likely to remember standout books from earlier in the year when they were less rushed. Also, care should be taken to enter books into the right category, especially from next year onwards, when the rules regarding the judges' ability to move books to a different category will be tightened. A book which is shortlisted in one category cannot be shortlisted in another, although it can be a notable in more than one category.

There is a strong emphasis on the upper end of the younger readers category, and this year there were many books on the cusp of older readers. A lot of time was spent discussing which category these books should be placed in, so publishers should take care in their submissions.

Early childhood refers to pre-reading, where an adult reads to a child. Younger readers are independent readers up to the ages of 12 or 13, and older readers are high school readers to the age of 18. Picture books can be for any age at all: this category is not the same as the younger readers category. Instead, its emphasis is on the interrelationship between text and image. Michelle noted that as a teacher she had booklisted picture books for Year 11 and 12 students.

The other reminder Michelle had for publishers is that the CBCA awards are for works of outstanding literary merit. These are not the 'bum' and 'fart' books, which may be wildly popular and successful with children. She advised publishers to enter only books that can genuinely make a claim to such outstanding literary merit (similar to the Miles Franklin or Stella Prize for adult books), and went to expand on what this meant. Michelle used some of this year's titles as examples of the following important aspects:

  • crafted language ("grandmotherly wiseness", "a Tishkin-shaped absence" in The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk)
  • layers of complexity (The Children of the King has to do with power and storytelling and references the history of Richard III and the myth of Merlin)
  • intertextuality (in picture story book Peggy, a chicken blown into downtown Melbourne is drawn in a reimagining of John Brack's Collins St, 5 pm)
  • attention to detail (the endpapers of Too Many Elephants in This House reflect the journey and resolution within the text).

So far, no self-published books have successfully made the shortlist.

In terms of trends, Michelle reported that the vampire trend appears to be over at last, and that we are seeing more psychological thrillers and books celebrating what it means to be Australian. Elephants also appear to be popular!

Michelle ended her talk by emphasising how lucky we are to have such depth of writing and illustrating in the children's market in Australia. It was sad, she said, to see that this year's CBCA didn't warrant any coverage in The Age, overshadowed as they were by the Stella Prize. Interestingly, female authors are well represented in the CBCA, with 271 female authors and 113 male authors this year.

Kirstie Innes-Will