A week in Books: No HP? The sauce! So why did Harry lose?

Hilary Macaskill
Friday 16 July 1999 23:02

"WHY ARE we bothering with this discussion?" said one of the Youth Libraries Group panel on an April morning as they met to select the shortlist for this year's Carnegie Medal for children's literature. "Here's the winner."

She was right. On Wednesday, Skellig by David Almond (Hodder) received the medal at the British Library. One criterion for the Carnegie specifies "the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through... a real experience that is retained afterwards". Skellig certainly provided that, with its tale of a mysterious creature who appears to its young hero at a time of family crisis. "The kind of book you can't stop thinking about" and "You feel you've been on a journey by the end" were typical remarks.

The selection process was not quite cut-and-dried. There was, however, remarkable unanimity over the five shortlisted books. Controversy, too - although the Carnegie is no stranger to that. This year, the protest was not about "unsuitable content" but about the omission of J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - described by the Sunday Times as a "deranged" decision by a "secret cabal".

Harry Potter did cause intense debate. One view was that, as part of a series, it did not fulfil the criterion for a stand-alone book. It had the "tingle factor" ("so imaginative it takes your breath away") but not, it was agreed, the "linger factor". "Good fun but it doesn't transcend that." Put to the vote, only four judges thought it outstanding.

Titles nominated included poetry, picture books, slender paperbacks, solid tomes for bookworms. Theme of the year was bullying, which recurred in different guises, but only one title made the shortlist: Chris d'Lacey's Fly, Cherokee, Fly (Corgi Yearling). Other subjects included horror, magic, time travel and gritty realism. ("The boy was just too forgiving. That mother! And was it four dads? He should have been taken into care.")

After Skellig, three more books quickly joined the "yes" pile: Heroes by Robert Cormier (Hamish Hamilton), a novella of a disfigured war veteran seeking revenge ("Bleak but beautifully written"); Fly, Cherokee, Fly ("An empowering book with strong characterisation"); and The Kin by former winner Peter Dickinson (Macmillan), a 632-page epic set in Africa 200,000 years ago ("A wonderful blend of adventure and big ideas").

Then came Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake (Scholastic), an intriguing mix of 16th-century history and 21st-century science fiction. The temperature changed again. "I didn't want to finish it. Action-packed but poetic and humorous". After the enthusiasm, the caution: "For older teenagers, because of the sexual content." But the overriding verdict: "a modern classic". So it joined the shortlist.

The discarded piles were reviewed again. But the conclusion was that this looked a stronger list with just five books - for the first time anyone can remember. The panellists would have to read them all again; a task they probably enjoyed.

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