Cheers for children’s choice authors

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IT is a strange kind of life being a writer, said Nicola Morgan, standing on the stage of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and blinking in the spotlight.

On the internet, two days ago, she had read a review of her latest book, Wasted. The reviewer griped that it was the worst book he had ever read. The only mystery about it was why it had been published at all, and he only kept on reading to see whether it would get any better. It didn’t, he moaned.

And yet there she was yesterday, having just received a £3,000 award for writing the book that Scotland’s young teens voted the best they had read this last year. She had just seen the Lyceum Youth Theatre Group act out a scene from Wasted – they did that for all three shortlisted authors – and when her name was read out as the winner, she walked onto the stage to deafening cheers.

That’s what you get when you have 600 children from all over Scotland crammed into one theatre. The cheers really are deafening. They don’t have this problem at the other literary awards I’ve been to.

With the Man Booker, it’s just five judges who call the shots. For the Scottish Children’s Book Awards yesterday afternoon, it’s 23,720.

That’s the number who voted for this year’s awards. Of them, about 600, from Inverness and Moray to the Borders, had come to deafeningly cheer their favourites.

They started cheering at about 1:30pm. First there was the onstage band, then BBC Scotland presenter Clare English, then all the participating authors and illustrators, who had to be welcomed on to the stage.

The latter were competing for three £3,000 prizes in three different age ranges. But really yesterday was about cheering as loud as possible. Just in case there could be any possible doubt about that, Chae Strathie, author of the shortlisted Loon on the Moon, pointed out that at last year’s children’s book awards everyone had been amazed at how loud the cheers had been.

Even when Chae didn’t win the picture book category and Ross Collins did for his excellent creation Dear Vampire a big cheer went up for him and a big cheer for the Book Bug, Gruffalo-sized yellow chrysalis with tiny wings with whom Collins walked offstage hand in hand.

Apart from the decibel levels of the cheering, there’s an even bigger difference. The Scottish Children’s Book Awards have a kind of collective weight behind them. It isn’t just in the numbers, though this year’s 23,700 votes are up 42 per cent from last year and from just 1,000 in 2006. Nor is it just the 1,000-plus children who entered the competition to find the best book reviewers.

No: if you had sat in the audience next to all those cheering children, you would have noticed something else. On the screen above the Lyceum stage there had been pictures of children in their classrooms around the country making film trailers and advertising campaigns for their favourite books, arranging quizzes, acting out scenes, talking about their favourite characters.

On the stage itself you would have seen shy six-year-olds walk across to receive certificates from children’s minister Aileen Campbell, and known that it would have been the proudest day in their young lives. And you would (if, like me, you were a judge of what they’d written to get that certificate) know how much those books they had written about had meant to them too.

A cheering thing, in other words, the Scottish Children’s Book Awards.

The Man Booker can’t even begin to compete.