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Red House Children's Book Award 2006

Deciding to arrive in Hay early on the day of the award ceremony, I Berlingo-ed my way to Gloucester on Thursday afternoon, had an overnight stop, and continued on to South Wales straight after breakfast. In recent years the Award has been held in London, on a Saturday, at the Roof Gardens, Kensington. Moving the day to a Friday, and changing to a very much less accessible venue was always going to be controversial. I was keen to find out how the transfer worked in practice, and glad of a reason to visit the Hay Festival for the first time.

Rick Riordan, outright winner of this year's Award, could not attend the presentation and so his Puffin editor received it on his behalf. It was an incredible afternoon for Puffin, with their books winning all three of the age catgories. Riordan, an American, will be visiting the UK next month. In the meantime, he had recorded his thanks by video.

The sun shone (almost too strongly, especially inside the airless marquees) for both days, so the weather was in favour of a golden impression. Although I had only booked press tickets for children's events, I wondered whether any of the adult authors appearing at the Festival might tempt me to fill some of my empty slots of time. I eavesdropped outside one or two tents while adults events were in progress, but the dreary droning and the rather bored expressions on the crowd as they flocked back out into the sunlight were hardly inspiring.

My first event was Mini Grey. I'm a huge fan of her work, and was rooting for Traction Man Is Here to win the Red House picture book category. Grey gave the kind of presentation that must work well on school visits. She told the audience why she was called Mini (born in a Mini), and showed scans from a couple of the Ladybird books that she loved as a child. The connection between the illustrations in these books and her own current work was immediately apparent. When talking about Biscuit Bear, she displayed photos of different biscuits and encouraged the audience to identify them. The presentation also included an animated version of Egg Drop, with moving background music. Grey - seven months pregnant - appeared genuinely moved by her own work.

After that, I took the shuttle bus into Hay, wandered around for a while, took a few photographs, and had a coffee. But I was keen to soak up the atmosphere of the festival site, so I went back there for lunch - a tuna & lime sandwich in some rather dry granary bread - and tried vainly to get my pda phone linked up to the wireless network in the press tent. Although I hadn't requested a general press pass for photography, I was allowed into a session in which Celia Rees and John Boyne were in conversation with the books editor of The Guardian. I was struck, in particular, by how intelligently and cogently Celia Rees discussed her recent novel, The Wish House. It's a book I haven't read yet, but in that brief time she persuaded me I must put that right. Questioned about the age of his hero (9) and the assumed age of his audience, Boyne appeared less sure about himself, saying that yes, probably the book's readers would be a 'little older than nine'.

Wendy Cooling chaired a panel discussion (sponsored by Red House) with Sherry Ashworth, Cathy Cassidy and Kevin Brooks. Cooling is an effusive enthusiast, and made life easy for her panellists by chatting at length to introduce and prompt them. These were three distinctively different writers, but the session worked extremely well with each of them telling the audience interesting things about the way they work. Ashworth, talking about her novel Paralysed, revealed that she had been thinking of the Kinks' song 'David Watts' while writing it - and proceded to sing a line or two from the song.

Brooks, in response to Cooling's observation that he has a very economic style, told the audience that this is something he had learned in his many years as a struggling-to-be-published author - not to write too much 'waffly rubbish', and to use the odd piece of figurative writing as garnish.

Cathy Cassidy told us that one of her worst experiences at school was being told off for writing an 8-page story and "wasting her jotter". She was a daydreamer at school and said, "The way I like to work is to have a controlled dream." Brooks agreed, and said being paid to daydream was not a bad way to make a living. Ashworth felt herself to be more of a 'control freak'.

Cooling managed to identify love interest as a common factor in these three authors' writing. Ashworth, comparing herself to Mrs Bennett - "always dead interested in my daughter's boyfriends" - said, "I'm not going to write a novel without a love interest."

The younger half of Zizou Corder was in the audience and at question time told Brooks that she had found Kissing The Rain "so unfinished". The three authors had already discussed endings, with Ashworth preferring a fully resolved conclusion, and Cassidy and Brooks preferring things to be left in the air. Brooks handled the implied criticism of this young reader's observation by saying, "I don't know what happened. I think there's going to be a film. Maybe they'll tell us all how it ended."

Another young 'questioner', referring to the unpublished manuscripts that all three authors confessed to having in their drawers offered the following addvice. "What I do if I've got lots of stories that aren't good enough is pick out little bits from each and make one good story."

Winners of the Picture Book category, Jonathan Emmett & Steve Cox

Then it was time for the award ceremony, held in the Cafe Direct marquee. One of the best things about the event at the Roof Gardens had been the pre-lunch author signing, and I was pleased to see that the Federation organisers had ensured that this tradition was transferred to the new venue. A very large number of authors and illustrators were present and spent almost an hour busily signing prior to the meal and prize announcements. These included Jacqueline Wilson who had already spent five hours signing in the bookshop after an event earlier in the week.

Andrew Cope, winner of the younger fiction category.

Essentially, the format of the Award event was the same as in the past. Each local federation group had sent two children. The children, authors and other adults were distributed equally around each of the tables. However, the nature of the reading group representation this year was considerably different. Usually there has been a wide age range, with primary age children present in equal if not higher numbers to secondary age children. This time round, because attendance at the venue required, in most cases, an overnight stay, most of the children present were aged 12 and over, attending with their parents, and not necessarily the most active or informed readers in their group.

Many more fotos from the signings will be available in the gallery.

The lack of younger children is apparent in the prize presentation photos, and particularly notable in the picture book category. Speaking about this after the event, at the late night author party, the federation organisers are well aware of this and the need to find a way of continuing to involve younger members of the reading groups if the Red House Book Award is to come back to Hay next year. As far as I could gather, the decision on this has not yet been made, and relies on several factors, not least funding. The move to Hay this year was dependent on significantly increased sponsorship from Ted Smart and on money from Surestart. Whether Ted Smart considers the expense of staging the Award at Hay is worthwhile or not depends, I suppose, on what degree of increased exposure he feels the award has achieved from its change of venue.

As to the views of authors and illustrators, these were, like mine, mixed. The presentation was extremely well staged. It is a fantastic venue, but one which has significant logistical flaws. I spoke with one author who had been found somewhere to stay in Hereford, 10 miles away. The taxi fare to the festival site was £40. An illustrator from the southeast said that he favoured a return to London. Certainly it's not just Ted Smart's pocket that is emptier at the end of this week. £40 taxi fares leave a hole in anybody's pocket. Like the illustrator, I'm from the southeast, and attendance at the Roof Gardens was straightforward and economic. It used to cost me about £15 in rail fare and nothing else. Covering the Book Awards this year cost ACHUKA well in excess of £100 and if I hadn't spent a night sleeping in Berlingo, the expenses bill could have doubled. Much as I enjoyed attending Hay this year, if the Award stays there in 2007 I shall have to think carefully before committing myself to attending.

The site security crew were somewhat curious when a bleary and bearded figure emerged from a blue Berlingo at 5:30 am. On reflection I should have parked in one of the charity car parks, where site security would not be such an issue. Anyway, they didn't arrest me, and I walked in to the middle of Hay, hopeful that in festival week somewhere might open early for breakfast. I had to mooch around for quite a while, reading the paper, and taking photos, before a cafe near the main car park opened and served me up a splendid veggie brekkie. Fizzy white wine and hard cramped bedspace don't make for the freshest of morning heads, but by the time I was on the shuttle bus heading back to the festival site I was really looking forward to Saturday's two main events.

Both Eoin Colfer and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) drew sell-out crowds. In both cases their presentations were only peripherally about their books. Colfer's was supposed to be an introduction to Fletcher Moon, the hero of his new book, Half Moon Investigations, but it was really an hour-long stand-up act. The audience rarely stopped laughing. Of all Colfer's work, I love his short younger fiction most, because in it his sense of character is more on display than in the longer action novels. And what a reader of childhood character he is! Story after story revealed, in hilarious detail, his sure eye for the way children - boys in particular - operate. It's an eye he delveloped as a teacher, and has now honed as a parent. He is a remarkable man.

As is Mr Handler. Handler's author appearance is a carefully staged act, from his initial appearance - a portly, full-cheeked man in suit with an orange tie, carrying a rather floppy briefcase - through frequent jumpings on and off stage and forays into the audience, to a climactic song with an accordion. It included a reading from the first Lemony Snicket book, the copy of which was apparently stolen from a girl in the front row. The venue for Handler was even bigger than it had been for Colfer, with queues forming nearly an hour before the start of the event. Not all the adults attending were accompanied by children. I saw one adult totally distraught because she could not find her ticket. She was attending with another adult, not with a child. But in the main this was a family audience, and as with nearly all bestselling children's authors, both Colfer and Handler are fully aware of the need to appeal to the adults and the children in almost equal measure. Handler does not sign books in person, but this did not diminish the queue for the specially date-stamped and 'signed' copies in the bookshop. It's a trick that Colfer must wish he'd thought of, I imagined, as I jumped into Berlingo, hit the road for Gloucester an Oxford, and headed back to Sussex.



© ACHUKA 2006