As the current Tasmanian Judge for the Book Awards in the final stages of reading and reviewing titles published in 2011 and entered for the 2012 awards, I have been reflecting on that elusive quality (or set of qualities) ‘literary merit’.
Children’s Book Council of Australia guidelines for judges state:
The judges assess entries for the Awards primarily for literary merit, including:
- cohesiveness of significant literary elements;
- language chosen carefully for its appropriateness to the theme;
- style of the work with proper regard to the aesthetic qualities of language; &
- originality in the treatment of literary elements as they apply to the form of the work.
Appeal to readership under the age of eighteen is also taken into account. Judges should also consider quality of illustrations, book design, production, printing and binding.
Of course, each category for the Awards carries different emphases:
- Older readers – awards will be made to outstanding works of fiction, drama or poetry which require a degree of maturity to appreciate the topics, themes and scope of emotional involvement.
- Younger readers – awards will be made to outstanding works of fiction, drama or poetry for readers who have developed independent reading skills but are still developing in literary appreciation.
- Early childhood – awards will be made to outstanding works of fiction, drama, poetry or concept books for children who are at ‘pre-reading’ or early stages of reading (they may, of course, be picture books for young children).
- Picture Book of the Year – awards will be made to outstanding books of the Picture Book genre in which the author and illustrator achieve artistic and literary unity... (a set of artistic criteria apply).
- Eve Pownall Award – will be made to outstanding books which have the prime intention of documenting factual material...
Over the years, in my various levels of involvement with CBCA, I have often been asked ‘Why didn’t this book do well? It’s so popular.’ The answer is that there are lots of ‘Kids Picks’ awards out there, but CBCA has always had the mission to recognise and promote ‘the best’ works published in Australia for young people. CBCA Awards have a major impact on sales, impacting on authors, illustrators and the Australian publishing and retail industries. As well as supporting their living through sales and the Awards prize money, the Awards promote Australia’s outstanding authors and illustrators overseas; Graeme Base was little known when he created Animalia, now he’s a best seller in the US and throughout the world.
Which begs the question of ‘literary merit’ and there is no doubt that making such judgements is partly subjective; one man’s fish is another’s poison!
Judges decisions are informed by the guidelines, by skilled chairing and thoughtful debate at the four day Judges’ Conference and by the breadth of experience with literature and young people that each brings to the table. From my personal point of view, I highly value originality in approach to a theme; I take language very seriously and look for it to be richly metaphorical and lyrical, or edgy and biting, depending on the content; I expect characters and relationships to develop and plot elements to connect and cohere; and I really appreciate emotional involvement – I want to care about these characters and what happens to them; I want memories of that book to linger with me for repeated contemplation.
So, when the short lists are announced on 3 April this year at Government House, North terrace, Adelaide, we’ll see how the judges’ choices are received by the general public. There might well be disagreement, but public discussion about ‘what’s a good book for children and young people’ is extremely healthy in a civilized democracy.