Wednesday 18 May 2016

Read-it-twice books

The Costa Prize this year got me thinking about book prizes. The Costa is an odd one. Five category winners, novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children’s book going head-to-head against each other. How’s that going to work? Surely the poetry and the children’s book are always going to lose out. Well, not always, as shown by this year’s fabulous winner, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree (see my review). But if you look at the the list of previous Costa winners, it’s clear that most of the time the children’s books are passed over. On only one other occasion has the children’s book won. And I’m ready to admit, it’s a pretty tough call asking judges to choose between the disparate adult categories, without throwing in the puzzle of how to judge a children’s book against adult books. Some judges may even be under the impression that children’s books can never measure up to adult ones (see the cringe-making quotation from the University of Kent in this blog by S F Said).

So that got me wondering what adults who judge children’s books value in them. It’s interesting to compare a book prize given by a panel of children, such as the Blue Peter Book Awards or the Children’s Book Award  (formerly the Red House Prize), with a prize given by adult writers or librarians, such as the Costa or the Carnegie. Not invariably, but often, the children will go for what, if we were talking about adult fiction, we’d call ‘popular’ fiction and the adults will go for what we might call ‘literary’ fiction, and I like to think of as read-it-twice books.

It’s those read-it-twice books that I want to talk about. They’re the ones that most children will never read on their own. Not because they’re bad, of course not. It’s because they perceive them as hard. Most children will read these books in class or because they get them as a present or because they’re all they can find in the library. If they’re lucky, a marvellous teacher or parent or librarian will guide them through the tricky bits, or persuade them to keep at it when the plot doesn’t come at them as thick and fast as they’re used to. Or they’ll come across one of these books when there’s nothing and no one else to distract them, so that they can surrender themselves to it thoroughly. These are the books full of ideas and references to things they’ve never come across before. Books that’ll make them  think and wonder about things they don’t know, and toss them out at the end a different person from the person they were before they started reading. Books that’ll make them wonder about the past or architecture or religion or the Arctic and make them reach for other books. Books that’ll never leave them. Why do I call them read-it-twice books? Because they’re deep books, books that no one’s ever going to get completely by wolfing them down breathlessly, thoughtlessly. You need to stop and think. Savour them. Or else wolf them down, but then go right back to the beginning and start again.

And what is more, these are books adults should read too, and books adults should value. They may be readable by children, but they’re books with plenty to say to adults. And that’s why they win those prizes that only adults judge. And why they deserve their chance at the Costa.

Ten read-it-twice books everyone should read
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Skellig by David Almond
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Jennie by Paul Gallico
Once by Morris Gleitzman
The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
Call of the Wild by Jack London
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Pearce
The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman
Holes by Louis Sachar


  1. I'd add Rosemary Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers, and I am David (Anna Holm). I Capure the Castle? Books that offer morally ambiguous situations, but subtly suggest a code for negotiating them.


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