I’ve just got back from the Southern Schools Book Award ceremony: still buzzing, shimmering, sparkling with the sheer delight of it!
The kids were fascinated to hear their favourite authors talk about the books they’d all been reading, reviewing, discussing and debating so passionately for the last few months – it really put the books in context to discover what the authors had to say about them. They were thrilled to meet them, talk with them and get their copies of the books signed, too!
SALLY GARDNER – Maggot Moon
Both the character of Standish Treadwell and the structure of the novel Maggot Moon, with its page-turning short chapters, spoke out for children who find it difficult to read, or feel ‘the-odd-one-out’ in many ways. Gardner admitted it would be difficult to summarise the novel succinctly, so she shared that it was her own childhood experience as a slow reader that had fed into the structure and character of this novel. Where the eerily strange world, reminiscent of 1950s/60s-America-turned-dystopian had emerged from, she didn’t reveal, leaving us to wonder at the perfectly crafted opening as she read us the first two chapters – in full!
Later, I asked Sally about her characteristic fairy tale style, as she was signing two books for me: I, Coriander – hailed by The Times as ‘a rich fairy tale for our times’ – and Tinder a tale starkly illustrated in black, white and red by David Roberts. She said that fairy tales speak to us so deeply and, ‘we all have the choice of whether to go into the woods or not,’ but there’s no other story-type so powerful for bringing us face to face with our own darkness – anger, jealousy, desire – and be so transformative. ‘It holds all this with just the simple Once upon a time,’ she said.
KATE CANN – Witch Crag – Highly Commended, SSBA 2013
Kate Cann spoke beautifully, richly and powerfully about the power of metaphor to show us the Divine – the ineffable which cannot be grasped by mere words alone, but can only be suggested in symbol. She talked about the evolution of human spiritual consciousness, and the importance of her main character Kita being able to ‘see through the dogma’ of the society she’d been brought up in. She explained the symbolism of Arc, as a character who completely turns around in his attitude and understanding as the story unfolds. Cann admitted that it was only when she was midway through writing the book that she realised that it was itself a metaphor for the awakening human consciousness we are experiencing. She told us that these ideas ‘are not just fiction’.
I was blown away by the spiritual honesty and raw clarity of her words. It’s the first time I’d ever experienced someone being so open about spirituality and consciousness with an audience of young adults, and it struck a chord deeply in me. And, I hope, with the students too.
KEVIN BROOKS – The Bunker Diary – Winner, SSBA 2013
Kevin Brooks was genuinely moved to have won the award this year. He told us how it had taken around twelve years to get this novel into print – no publisher would touch it because it was so dark and devoid of hope. They encouraged him to change the end, change certain characters or events, change the style, but he valued the story as it is and didn’t want to make it ‘a different one’. The short-listing, and subsequent winning of the award, vindicated this decision, he said. I admired his tenacity and faith in his own creation.
He read a passage from the novel, which, even though I hadn’t liked the story overall, was lyrically poetic and beautifully woven.
He told us he’d been having a difficult time over the past year, health-wise and more generally, and that the award marked a shift into a brighter future for him: he dedicated the award to his wife, whose birthday it is today.
When asked if ‘He’ in the novel was meant to represent God, he told us that he ‘doesn’t believe in God’. Yet both his writing and his speech betrayed an underlying belief in ‘something’ that’s ‘behind all the things that happen to us in our lives, whether they’re good or bad’. Brooks is clearly a man of suffering and sorrow, and I think it’s telling that he’s also the only author of the evening who doesn’t have a spiritual context to his art. I pray that he will discover the joy of Divine Reunion this year.
The entire evening was hosted gloriously by the ebullient and effusive Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, who got us all fired up with stomping drumrolls and lots of loud cheering!
This was a truly wonderful event, held at Roedean School and organised for the tenth year running since it’s inception by the fabulous Mandy Rutter, librarian at Homewood School, Tenterden. Thank you!
Thanks also to Gina Pellett, Willingdon School librarian, who gave me the opportunity to be involved, and to all the hard-working and wide-reading students in our reading group. The quality of discussions and reviews throughout the judging process was astounding, and I’m so proud of our truly discerning young readers. Well done!