Books for babies to win their own literary award

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BABIES ARE to get their own version of the Booker Prize for literature. Authors such as Helen Oxenbury, Rod Campbell and Jan Pienkowski will compete for a pounds 2,000 prize.

A panel of judges will pick the best book for the under-ones, and the results of the first competition will be announced this autumn. For the first round of the Sainsbury's Book Award any book for babies that is in print will be eligible.

In future years, the scheme will be run along the same lines as other main book awards and titles published only during the preceding 12 months will be eligible.

The award is the latest attempt to encourage the introduction of children as young as seven months to books, and to encourage more authors to write for this age group.

A scheme run by Sainsbury's and the charity Book Trust is already presenting babies with free books at their health check at between seven and nine months old.

Book Trust began the Bookstart scheme in Birmingham seven years ago when 300 babies were given a free book. When they started school, teachers found that their literacy and numeracy had benefited. Three years later they were three times as likely to be more interested in reading than children who had not taken part.

A spokeswoman for Book Trust said: "Some publishers take a picture book for older children, cut out some of the words and reduce the size so that it is small enough for a baby to handle. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. We want to encourage more books for babies."

What will the judges be looking for? Book Trust suggests: "What is important is to give babies the idea of books being fun. They have to be durable, have thick pages and be the size a child can hold."

Liz Attenborough, project director of the Government's National Year of Reading, said: "The Baby Book Award is a huge bonus, highlighting the special skills needed to get books right for this age group, with text and illustrations working perfectly together. The best books have adults and children wanting to share them."

The judging panel for the first award will be chaired by Wendy Cooling, the children's book consultant who inspired Bookstart.