Whitbread judges whittle down record children's book entry

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The Independent Culture

The success of J K Rowling and Philip Pullman in popularising children's fiction is reflected in a record number of entries for the children's category of the Whitbread Book Awards, whose shortlists are announced today.

Four titles have been shortlisted for each of the five categories - novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children's book. Category winners are revealed on 7 January, followed by a face-off between them for the £30,000 top prize, to be announced on 27 January.

Two years after Pullman became the first children's author to take the overall prize, publishers nominated 111 children's books for the awards.

Making the shortlist are two previous winners of the Whitbread children's book award: Michael Morpurgo, the present children's laureate, for his novel Private Peaceful - charting the childhood of young Thomas Peaceful in the early years of the 20th century, and his eventual underage enlistment in the British Army to help fight the First World War - and David Almond for The Fire-Eaters, a novel about young Bobby Burns in a new school, with the Third World War imminent and a strange fire-eater to contend with.

The other contenders are Catherine Fisher for The Oracle and Jeanne Willis for Naked Without a Hat.

The four shortlisted children's authors can breathe a sigh of relief that they are not competing with JK Rowling. The fifth instalment of her Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was eligible but was not submitted by Rowling's publishers, Bloomsbury.

Whoever wins the children's book award will face stiff competition from the other category winners for the overall prize.

The Man Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre will be a strong contender in the first novel category with his black comedy about an American high school shooting, Vernon God Little.

The other debut novelists on the Booker shortlist, Zoe Heller and Monica Ali, have been shunned by the Whitbread judges in favour of Buddha Da by Anne Donovan, An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, and An Empty Room by Talitha Stevenson.

Mark Haddon, the author whose absence from the Booker shortlist was most lamented by John Carey, the chairman of the Booker's judges, gets a chance of glory in the novel category with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Shena Mackay and Barbara Trapido, both of whom made the Booker longlist, get on to the shortlist this time, as does Rachel Cusk for The Lucky Ones. Martin Amis, whose Yellow Dog was longlisted by the Booker but slammed by the critics, fails to make the grade.

The poetry prize will be fought out between the multi-award winning Lavinia Greenlaw, Don Paterson, Jamie McKendrick and Jean Sprackland. And it will be a battle of heavyweights in the biography section, in which three books about writers - Patricia Highsmith, Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell - will battle for honours with a tome on Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister.

Gillian Cross, an author and one of the children's prize judges, said the number of entries this year demonstrated how much good quality writing was published for children.

"We certainly didn't feel we were scrapping around looking for a prize winner," she said. "There is a terrific sense of excitement about the variety and inventiveness of what is being produced."

But the entries showed there was a false divide between adults' and children's fiction with a vast amount accessible to all readers. The Mark Haddon book was originally entered for the children's book and the novel awards before the publishers realised that books were only eligible for one category. George Grey, children's editor at Waterstone's bookstores, said: "People like JK Rowling and Philip Pullman have certainly raised awareness of children's books, and that you can get good quality fiction which can be judged on the same level as adults' books."

To be eligible for the awards, books must have been published in the UK or Ireland in the year to 31 October, and authors must have been living in the UK or Ireland since 2000.

The category winners each receive £5,000, with an extra £25,000 going to the overall winner.

Five shortlists for the 2003 Whitbread Book Awards

The 2003 Whitbread Novel Award (130 entries)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (Jonathan Cape)

Favourite for the award is this murder mystery novel with a difference. The detective and narrator is Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy with a form of autism.

Heligoland by Shena Mackay (Jonathan Cape)

Rowena Snow moves into the Nautilus, a strange south London building, in search of her own utopia.

Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido (Bloomsbury)

A tale of childhood in the apartheid South Africa of the 1950s, following Dinah and her sister Lisa's journey into adolescence.

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk (Fourth Estate)

The conflict between the public and personal and between love and mortality is played out in the story of lawyer Victor Porter and his journalist wife, Serena.

The 2003 Whitbread First Novel Award (67 entries)

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan (Canongate Books)

Jimmy, a Glaswegian painter, decorator and Buddhist, embarks on a spiritual journey ­ round the Carmunnock bypass ­ changing his life and that of his wife and 11-year-old daughter. Favourite for the award.

An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton)

Heavy drinking, greyhounds, and mistaken identity feature in this witty novel detailing a relationship between a brother and sister.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Faber and Faber)

A Columbine-style massacre in a Texan backwater prompts media and townsfolk to turn their ire on teenager Vernon Gregory Little and put him on trial.

An Empty Room by Talitha Stevenson (Virago)

After a summer of clubbing, sex and drugs before university, Emily finds herself unfulfilled. In her search to believe in someone, she embarks on an affair with a married man that forces her to confront right and wrong.

The 2003 Whitbread Poetry Award (62 entries)

Minsk by Lavinia Greenlaw (Faber and Faber)

From London Zoo to an Essex village and the Arctic Circle, Greenlaw explores questions of place: those of our childhood memories; those we look towards; and those we believe to be missing from our lives.

Inkstone by Jamie McKendrick (Faber and Faber)

McKendrick's fourth collection of poems, his first as a Faber poet, explores the natural world and the way we see it in discomforting detail.

Landing Light by Don Paterson (Faber and Faber)

Paterson, the poetry editor of Picador books, is favourite to take the prize with this examination of the swings of light and dark that mark our most intimate feelings and takes the reader into the depths of private emotion.

Hard Water by Jean Sprackland (Jonathan Cape)

Sprackland's poems of light, weather and water show everyday domestic and natural lives lived in dreams, in grief and in love.

The 2003 Whitbread Biography Award (98 entries)

Margaret Thatcher ­ Volume Two: The Iron Lady by John Campbell (Jonathan Cape)

The first comprehensive study since the demise of the Thatcher government, covering her reign from beginning to end.

Martha Gellhorn by Caroline Moorhead (Chatto & Windus)

The story of Martha Gellhorn, war journalist, traveller, and minor fiction writer, whose reporting tracked so many of the defining moments of the 20th century.

Orwell: The Life by DJ Taylor (Chatto & Windus)

Drawing on a wealth of previously unseen material, Taylor is the favourite for the award with his powerfully human portrait of the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury)

In the first biography of the author of Strangers On A Train and The Talented Mr Ripley, Wilson finds a vast archive of personal documents to detail the links between Highsmith's life and her work.

The 2003 Whitbread Children's Book Award (111 entries)

The Fire-Eaters by David Almond (Hodder Children's)

The tale of Bobby Burns, a Newcastle boy up at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, whose world is fraught with change and uncertainty mirroring world events.

The Oracle by Catherine Fisher (Hodder Children's)

Mirany is the girl who could save or destroy an ancient civilisation. Action, betrayal and mystery which draws on the rituals of ancient Greeks and Egyptians.

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (Harper Collins)

Favourite for the prize, this First World War tale is told through the voice of a young soldier, and charts the last hours of a young life lost in the horror of a muddy battlefield.

Naked Without a Hat by Jeanne Willis (Faber and Faber)

The story of Will, his lucky beanie hat, and the relationship between him, his mother and his new love, Zaraš.