First World War tale beats best-selling rivals to book award thanks to votes by 25,000 children

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The only literary prize to be judged entirely by young people has been awarded to a tale of a First World War soldier by the Children's Laureate.

The only literary prize to be judged entirely by young people has been awarded to a tale of a First World War soldier by the Children's Laureate.

Michael Morpurgo has beaten writers including Jacqueline Wilson - who recently overtook Catherine Cookson as the most-borrowed author from libraries - and Anne Fine to win the Red House Children's Book Award on the basis of reviews from 25,000 children across the country.

He said he was astonished that Private Peaceful, a novel told from the perspective of a soldier in the First World War, had won. "It seemed to me that this was history, it was a long time ago and a pretty grim subject. I hoped for some children it would resonate, but was taken by surprise by this vote," he said yesterday. "I'm all the more convinced of the ability of children to rise above what we expect of them. They have a very strong sense of what is well-written, not as literary critics, but what carries them along."

The impossibility of escaping an awareness of war, either in Iraq or through the D-Day commemorations, may also have contributed to the children's response, he said. "War is in the consciousness at the moment.

"When I first started writing seriously 20 years ago, I wrote a book called War Horse, about a horse that went to the First World War. I was a runner-up for the Whitbread [prize] and the chairman of judges said it didn't win because children didn't like history. At the time people weren't writing historical novels. But recently children have been put in touch through radio and television with an awareness that war goes on. They have picked up on the great suffering of war."

Private Peaceful follows the lives of two brothers brought up in Mr Morpurgo's village in Devon who find themselves caught up in the horrors of the First World War. The story is told from the perspective of one of the brothers who looks back on his life as he waits through the night for the execution for cowardice and desertion that he knows will come at dawn.

Mr Morpurgo was inspired to write Private Peaceful after visiting Ypres to speak at a conference on writing about war for young people. While there he discovered that about 300 British soldiers - some still teenagers - had been executed, mostly for desertion and cowardice, when they were traumatised by their ordeals and in deep shock.

The Children's Laureate said he was motivated to write the book after being "outraged" at the recent government decision to acknowledge the injustice of these executions but not to pardon the slain men. "A country that does not acknowledge its faults and deal with its shame cannot be called civilised," Mr Morpurgo said in a recent Royal Society of Arts lecture. He took the name of his eponymous hero from the gravestone of a First World War soldier who was killed at Ypres.

The award, which is in its 24th year, is organised by the Federation of Children's Book Groups, and prides itself that the children involved in the testing have spotted writers including Quentin Blake, Jacqueline Wilson and J.K. Rowling before the adult book world took note. Ms Wilson said: "It is the award that means the most to me because it's the one where the children do the voting."

Books are shortlisted in three categories: those for younger children who are not yet reading themselves; books for younger readers; and books for older readers. Billy's Bucket by Kes Gray and Garry Parsons was chosen as the best book for the youngest children, while The Mum Hunt by Gwyneth Rees was judged the best title for younger readers. Private Peaceful won the category for older children and was also the overall winner.

Mr Morpurgo's prize was collected at the weekend by his grandchildren, Léa, 17 and Eloise, 12, as he is touring Scotland as part of his promise as Children's Laureate to visit places where children never normally see an author.

Marianne Adey, the award's co-ordinator, said that the award had a vital role to play in encouraging children to read. She said: "It gives the opportunity for thousands of children from deprived inner city areas to outlying rural areas to come into contact with the latest children's literature."

WHAT THE CHILDREN SAID

Children's reviews of 'Private Peaceful' by Michael Morpurgo

This is a beautiful book full of love, compassion and care. It encapsulates the innocence of childhood, the blossoming of adulthood and the terrifying bloody raw effects of war, evil and hatred in the battlefields.

Michael Morpurgo is a truly talented writer for young and old alike. Memories of this beautiful book stay in your mind long after the last page is turned. The final pages are the most poignant I have ever read. Alexandra Holroyd. Oxford Children's Book Group

I loved Private Peaceful so much. I actually read it backwards, because it was my friend who was reading it, and she read the end out to me (and I'll tell you - she's a real drama queen) and we were both in floods of tears. Then, of course, I had to read it from the beginning! My favourite bits were where they were talking about the happy beginnings of their lives. Constance Bamford, Wiltshire Children's Book Group

I liked this book a lot as it showed what life was like in a small English village at the beginning of the 20th century and the huge influence the local gentry had. It also makes us understand that somebody labelled an army deserter is not automatically a coward and can have extremely powerful reasons for his behaviour. I liked the sadness, but at the same time, hopefulness. Charles Partington, Leeds Children's Book Group

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