Younger Readers Judges’ Report
Books entered in the category of Younger Readers are expected to be enjoyed, understood and provide insight into growing into early independence, both as a reader and an individual. It is important that the books embrace a range of topics that enhance the reader’s life experience in that they adhere to subjects which may be of interest or concern to audiences from eight to twelve years old. This does not exclude topics such as death, grief, inclusion and belonging, bullying and honest depictions of the way life is sometimes cruel providing they are written well and don’t become patronising or didactic.
The books in the Younger Reader category were broad in topics and genre. A proportion would be challenging for the lower end of the intended age readership, but herein lies the strength of the annotations, which provide a wonderful guide to the prospective reader (and book gifter). The judges were treated to an expansive array of illustration in these books suited to varying levels of readership, ranging from detailed illustrations, to chapter illustrations to just chapter headings or numbers. In lieu of illustrations several Notable books, or those that just missed out on being Notable cleverly used different typefaces to identify key characters and transition dialogue and scenes.
A recurring theme throughout this year’s entries was racism throughout Australia’s early history. This was generally well-depicted and texts which shone made good use of research which was insinuated into the texts without ‘blinding’ the reader. Perhaps this is a consequence of a renewed interest in historical Australia in the school curriculum; which may be an indicator that schools could become a driving force for content of our literature. Treating racism as a theme needs to be carefully contained so storylines don’t become a portrait of good and bad. Historically there were more reasons to see another as different – having space invaders land in your backyard may generate feelings other than hatred or intolerance and by including these observances, well rounded stories such as Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim are presented. Wai Chim provides experiences for the reader to respond with a range of feelings, some of them being ambivalent – the ‘bad guy’ is not simply ‘bad.’
Several books, including ones that narrowly missed out on being listed as Notable, extended knowledge and understanding of other cultures. A great proportion of works were set in Australia, or had features that would be readily recognised by an Australian readership. This does not however diminish international readership appeal, due to the diversity of the protagonists. An important benefit of literature, particularly for young people, is that life becomes visible through the eyes of others whose experiences may be outside our own. Books like Mrs Whitlam and The Other Christie give insight into the lives of families from a range of cultures and communities and are written in language suitable to be fully appreciated by the younger audiences of this category. Several books also clearly established themselves as platforms for family discussion and had a multi age appeal.
It was also pleasing to have many quality and accessible sporting themed books for both genders which are easily relatable in terms of sporting success, fears and becoming a part of the team—all with the sub theme of friendship in its varying guises. These books will continue to entice more readers and, for some, will assist them to navigate their own sporting and life challenges. Pocket Rocket encapsulated these components well, however many readers will be attracted to the books which feature the sports they themselves play or watch.
Dystopian works, ideas and adventure also featured in this year’s list. Cybertricks proved itself Notable because of its very different approach to new worlds. Other works that very narrowly missed out on Notable, were confident, strong and positive in the roles children can play in a world that is so different from our contemporary lives. Time and place slippages were used very effectively by a number of authors and for some formed the basic premise of the book.
The books submitted included something for everyone. Stories that could be easily enjoyed by both girls and boys, by being read alone, or being read aloud. Notable books carried with them an excellence in both categories but, perhaps, a third category of being able to stand up to scrutiny is the one that made a difference. When books are so well written that the audience should pause a moment to consider the language, the insights that have been discreetly unveiled and contain references to emotion that will be as meaningful now as they will be in ten years’ time. Jealousy, family relationships, love, death – these are themes that can be revisited time and time again regardless of the character experiencing them – stories that work are built on internal struggles – look at Shakespeare – still readable and applicable today.
Several books suffered through editing that wasn’t savage enough – there were many places where ‘kill your darlings’ would have enhanced an already well written book. Over-writing, repetitive phraseology and a confused battery of characters take a toll on the reader and the book fails. Texts that pander to a reader by being overly-sweet, or using texts that were too simplified, often only needed the assistance of an astute editor and a red pen.
There were so many books that could have been included in the Notables list. So many adventures and delights that it became very difficult to sort one against the other. Largely, adventure books were the most exciting and the ones that narrowly missed did so for the slightest oversight or lack of editing scrutiny that is essential to the success of a story.
Edit, edit, edit seems to be the most salient point. Editing that involves discussions about the nature of characters and protagonists and basically, ‘what is this story about?’ and ‘why is it written?’ Unless the reader can find a way to explain ‘what is it that the author wants me to know?’ then perhaps, as a literary contender, it is misplaced.
Rockhopping – Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Balla has used the graphic novel to tell her story of Clancy and Uncle Egg’s journey into the Grampian wilderness. The visual telling of the journey makes it so much more than just a simple hike. There is resilience when Clancy has to train to do his walk, which he accepts readily and without argument. Items that need to be carried are easily identified as illustrations without interrupting the flow of the story and thus a great deal of information is able to be shared effortlessly. As well as proving to be a very efficient medium, it also opens the work up to readers from early independent to more advanced. Discussion is generated simply by looking at the items and their volume. We see companionship, an easy relationship between child and adult with both looking at the emu in the sky. Without enlightening text, as to why this might be, further delight is in store when an explanation is sought out – and this, in its own way, opens more doors and more discussions and research into media other than text. During the journey, Uncle Egg proves his trust in Clancy’s training when he is forced to leave him. Clancy, for his part, comes through with flying colours. It is exciting and worrying at the same time. No space is wasted with unnecessary details or words – we experience all the emotions of being thankful, obedient, being a contributor and sharing and enjoying conquering tough conditions with determination and grit.
Dragonfly Song – Wendy Orr (Allen & Unwin)
A clever, well researched book that moves between prose and poetry and realism and magic (e.g. when Aissa discovers she can sing to the snake). It is a wonderful story whose construction echoes the structure and tone of Classic Greek myths. Its setting clearly places it in Mythic Bronze age and well serves a story of searching and mastering skills, and self-survival. Using clever plotting and construction, Orr moves Aissa, from an outcast with no name, to a skilled survivor. Initially the simple act of bathing – a clever analogy for leaving her old life behind as she washes and then steals a clean tunic – is used to send her into her journey to become a bull-dancer. Language in blank verse elevates the reader’s emotional connection to the work as it is so effortlessly flowing. Aissa is an ‘elective’ mute, a clever device used to alienate her even more from her community and to ensure her own history cannot be revealed. The undulating lines of poetry, often used to give speech to her innermost thoughts, becomes a part of her reality. This is a skilled work that could springboard readers into other mythical stories and remains an excellent, beautifully plotted story in classic style.
Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade – Kate and Jol Temple, illustrated by John Foye (Allen & Unwin)
This book champions successfully stories told using minimal text. It is an example of how character development can be relayed through the perceptions of another, in this case, Jimmy Cook. We meet his teacher through his eyes and we know so much about her by Jimmy’s reactions. Jimmy’s involvement with history says more about Jimmy than any description could do. It certainly doesn’t extend our understanding of history lessons. The authors have created a delightful portrait of a family, a classroom and friendships. It is a diary which, while capturing Jimmy Cook’s daily progress, reveals so much more about his attitude to life, his self-image and this determination to accept life on his own terms. The language is economical and selected to paint accurate pictures of the cast of characters that make up Jimmy’s life. There is a clear sense of place with illustrations that demand a little extra reading to fully appreciate them – an excellent addition to this fun book. Jimmy’s determination to win a trip to Hawaii is commendable and his efforts in the face of defiance are a wonderful example of commitment to a cause. His acceptance, also, of Alice Toolie, despite his early misgivings, add to the theme of ‘giving life a red hot go’.
Other Shortlisted Books
Within These Walls – Robyn Bavatti (Scholastic Australia)
The strength of this book is in the setting. Not only does the setting show living conditions inflicted on communities in Warsaw during Nazi occupation, it provides a vehicle for showing how belief can be trampled by brutality. In the beginning of the work we experience the place, the importance of beliefs and observance of traditional celebrations. Using holidays as a background to the beginning of the Warsaw invasion, the gradual slide from the joyous family lifestyle into horror is even more brutal. The awful lives of the families are depicted through the eyes of Miri, a young girl who suffers the loss of her own family and finally escapes from the Ghetto. The writing style is that of a viewer and we are ‘told’ many of the instances which, for this age group, is an essential tool. A writing style which involved a great deal of showing and using language to generate an emotional response that can only delve more deeply into pain would be inappropriate. Miri is based on a true story which the author reveals in Notes and Acknowledgements in the back of the book. These notes give additional details about the research and research undertaken to complete the work. It is to the author’s merit that these details do not intrude too deeply into the text. If survival equals hope, this is a story full of hope, although its graphic descriptions and mature themes make it more suitable for the older readers in this category.
Mrs Whitlam – Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books)
The story of a girl, her desire and a horse becomes so much more than this. This is a work which reveals community, characters, issues and pressures obliquely – through clever use of dialogue and observation. The dialogue is not only clever and succinct, it is perfectly tuned to reveal the characters speaking. This is a unique talent that Pascoe uses to make visible the essence of dialogue in storytelling. Without adopting bias, the brutal double face of racism is introduced. With the clever construct of the protagonist, Marnie, we are simply introduced to a young girl and a horse and can easily misunderstand the cruelty of Indie and the pony club girls. Using this device other family members are developed in a simply constructed elegant dialogue. There is a wonderful economic use of words – the best words used in the best way at the best moment – for example ‘I leant my face into her neck and made it all wet.’ Lovely. The focus on the relationship between Marnie and her horse expands the simple life that the Clarks live with, tension building steadily in anticipation of something awful happening. These essential plot structures are cleverly concealed beneath entertaining language and the reader’s desire for Marnie to win.
A Most Magical Girl – Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin)
This book triumphs through wonderful selection of language so carefully controlled that there is no doubt about a setting, a character or a mood. The protagonist is swiftly painted with well-chosen language constructs. We see Annabel through the eyes of others and situations in which she is placed reveal another aspect of her character. We are pitched into the story with an unusual conflict in which no words are wasted. Secondary characters are strongly written, each serving their roles well. The descriptions of faeries and their cruelty take us to other worlds and new spitefulness. The ultimate defeat of the evil wizard and the blossoming relationship between Annabel and Kitty form the basis of a story about bravery and accepting that which must be. There is opportunity for another book but this one meets its own satisfactory conclusion.
- Meet the Judges of the Younger Reader category at https://readingtime.com.au/judges-views/