Once upon a time there was no BFG...

Quentin Blake is freshly garlanded as the first ever Children's Laureate. About time too. `Kiddie lit' has never been taken as seriously as it should be. So what does the great man have to do for his butt of sack?
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The Independent Culture
How does it feel to be the first ever Children's Laureate? "Very nice," says Quentin Blake quietly. He is not a gushy man. He says he enjoys these moments vicariously in his drawings, with "honking motor horns, figures whizzing on roller skates, that sort of thing".

This is one of the extraordinary things about Blake: the person is quite unlike the work. It's as if all his high spirits and emotional energy dance through his nib on to the page, leaving him quiet, considered and modest. His scratchy drawings and spindly fingers are known and admired by just about every parent and child in the country.

His work, such as The BFG, is ingrained deep in our psyches, and has been for the past three generations. "The most fascinating thing about this award," he observes, "is that nobody knows quite what it is."

Created by children's writer Michael Morpurgo, sponsored by Waterstone's and backed by Culture Secretary Chris Smith and the late Ted Hughes, the Children's Laureate is to be awarded once every two years to an eminent writer or illustrator of children's books to celebrate outstanding achievement. The Children's Laureate is not a Royal appointment, but decided by a judging panel comprised of librarians, critics, specialists, booksellers and young readers from selected schools.

Seventy writers and illustrators were nominated this year and the short list was whittled down to Anne Fine, Peter Dickenson and Quentin Blake. The laureate will not be expected to produce work for public occasions.

So, there will be no illustrated Sophie and Edward Have a Baby or Beatrice and Eugenie go Skiing. And unlike the Poet Laureateship, which is basically honorific, the Children's Laureate comes with a prize of pounds 10,000. A decent sum and about time too, says Lois Beeson, the award's administrator.

"If you're a writer for grown-ups, then of course you're worthy of a prize that's at least pounds 10,000, if not pounds 20,000; but if you're a children's writer, then the feeling is you should be grateful for a sandwich that's curling at the edges and a couple of fivers."

And here lies the emotional thrust behind the award: anger. "I've been writing children's books for 25 years now," says Morpurgo, "and the adult world cares precious little about who produces the books and how they are produced."

Advances for children's books aren't as big; reviews aren't as long; awards aren't given the same press coverage - David Almond, who won this year's Whitbread children's award with Skellig was the only Whitbread winner not to appear on television. Children's books aren't taken seriously because children aren't taken seriously, observes Morpurgo: "This is transferred into a type of snobbery, both towards people who work with children and the art that is created for them."

"Anything to do with children is seen as being inferior," says Dr Kimberly Reynolds, director of the National Centre for Research into Children's Literature at Roehampton Institute, who herself has to contend with colleagues referring to her field of study as "kiddie lit".

"Children's literature is not a minor, devalued, inferior form of literature, but an important part of the cultural life of this country. This award is a recognition of that."

Hooray for the Children's Laureate, say all the academics, publicists, bookshop owners, publishers, and librarians who have felt sidelined and patronised. This is our big chance to change things. But exactly how this is to be achieved, and what the role of the laureate should be, is altogether vaguer.

"Originally, we imagined that the Laureate would be out there banging drums on behalf of children's literature," explains Morpurgo. He or she would go into schools and libraries around the country, would be on hand for quotes, television appearances, lectures, discussions.

But this was not to be. The idea of an ambassador for children's literature had to stop before it started. "What became very apparent is that we could not dictate to the laureate." The nominees just weren't having it.

The new laureate explains. "It's important to me, and anybody else who gets this award, that it must not stop us from carrying out our proper work."

Blake is 66, has drawn for as long as he can remember, illustrated some 200 books including 15 of his own, rarely takes a holiday and has a bit of a problem with not drawing. He gets twitchy and panicky.

"I felt, and most of the other nominees felt, that the person who was sufficiently well-known to receive the award would not have the sort of time to travel about being active on behalf of children's books."

The laureate committee took these reservations on board and the plan now is that there is no plan. "We are to do what we think is appropriate," says Blake, who is thinking about setting up an exhibition celebrating illustration, as well as continuing to give lectures on the subject. How does it feel knowing that people are looking to you to make a difference?

"Daunting," he laughs, "but I'm trying not to think about it." But then, Quentin Blake has already made a difference. This prize is a fitting honour to a great talent, not a job offer that obliges him to do even more.

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