Philip Pullman won the Carnegie Medal, nicknamed the Booker of the Playground, for his fantasy, Northern Lights, the first book in a trilogy inspired by Paradise Lost. In his acceptance speech, he ridiculed Booker prize- winner A S Byatt's latest novel in particular, and castigated contemporary novelists in general.
Receiving the award from Rabbi Julia Neuberger in London yesterday, Mr Pullman (pictured below) said he could only have told such a vast story and dealt with such large themes in the form of a children's book. "In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance," he said. "Other things are felt to be more important - technique, style, literary knowingness. The present day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.
"But stories are vital. There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy, and there's a hunger for stories in all of us. Children know they need them, and go for them with passion, but all of us adults need them too. All of us, that is, except those limp and jaded people who think they're too grown-up to need them.
"What characterises the best of children's authors is that they know how important the stories are, and they know that if you start telling a story you've got to carry on till you get to the end. And you can't provide two ends, either, and invite the reader to choose between them. Or, as in a highly praised novel I'm about to stop reading, three different beginnings. Can't she make up her mind?"
Prize officials confirmed afterwards that Mr Pullman was referring to A S Byatt, and her new book, The Tower Of Babel.
The Carnegie Medal was first awarded to Arthur Ransome in 1936. Philip Pullman, a former teacher, who writes in a shed at the bottom of his garden, says of his new book: "I wanted to say everything I know about the really big things in life, and was inspired by the majesty of the images in Paradise Lost. Children's books are the only place where really great writing can happen these days, so it had to be a children's book."
Mr Pullman's win highlights the problem many British authors feel, of books being pigeonholed into the children's market, and then being ignored by adults. In America, Northern Lights has been marketed as an adult book and has been given a print run of 100,000.
Linda Saunders, of the Youth Libraries Group, which selects the winners, said: "A 399-page book inspired by Paradise Lost is not perhaps the most natural choice for a children's book prize.
But Pullman's magnificent, archetypal storytelling is a life-enhancing challenge to young readers. There's an enigmatic intensity to the book, which has scene after scene of power and beauty."
Leading article, page 15
Section Two, page 13