For the first time, the best Australian children’s books of the year have been decided by the young people reading them.
The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) enlisted 2,000 children, some as young as five years old, to judge the best books of the year for early childhood, young readers and older readers.
Following the announcement of the prestigious Children’s Book of the Year awards last week, the winners selected by the young judges were revealed on Friday in the Shadowers’ Choice Awards, with some different results.
Mirroring the official judging process, a group of eight students at Caringbah High School were among those who read all six shortlisted books and ranked their favourites.
“It was quite challenging because there were people that liked some books and people that liked others,” said Liza Solomonova, 13.
“So we kind of laid them all out on the table and kind of ordered them and decided which ones should go in which place.”
The young judges took the responsibility seriously.
“We’re the ones that the authors are writing to, so it could help determine what things we’re kind of interested in and what things we want to see and read more of.”
As their favourite, the Caringbah High School students chose Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn.
The book is about a 15-year-old mixed-race girl and her mother who live in a shantytown in South Africa.
“I’m usually into action and adventure books at a fast pace, but this one really just slowed it down and analysed the characters in different ways and really got you to know them,” said Kiara Naylor, 12.
Sarah Napper, 14, agreed.
“All the characters in that book, such as Amandla, and her mother were really well developed,” she said.
“And they were really good characters to follow as they discovered things about themselves.”
Their peers seemed to agree with them.
Children choose different winners
While Tiger Daughter by Rebecca Lim won the award for Book of the Year for older readers chosen by the traditional judges from the children’s literature field, Malla Nunn’s Sugar Town Queens was selected by the young judges.
Nunn said she was really proud that her book had been chosen by young adult readers.
“To know that my book has connected with this younger, and I think smarter generation than mine, is amazing,” she said.
“Female friendships are at the heart of it so to know that teenagers are reading it and relating to those girls, even though they’re in South Africa, is really so fantastic.”
For the young judges, the characters they related to most strongly were a big deciding factor.
“I think we have different aspects and different features that we’re looking for that might not be as skill-driven as judges are looking for or adults,” Kiara said.
For younger readers, children involved in the judging process voted for Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief by Katrina Nannestad.
In the early-childhood category Walk of the Whales was the kids’ favourite.
All the awards differed from the official awards chosen by authors, illustrators, publishers and others involved in children’s literature.
Encouraging young readers
CBCA chair Wendy Rapee said it was important to empower young readers.
“We shouldn’t underestimate our young voices, they’re really articulate,” she said.
“They may use slightly different language, but that’s part of the process too … learning the language of critique, learning the language of talking about language.”
Ms Rapee said the feedback from the young people involved was that they enjoyed talking about books with their peers and it had expanded their reading repertoire.
“They’re saying, ‘I wouldn’t have read that book had I not been here, and I really liked it. And I’m going to look some more in that kind of genre, I’m going to look for more by that author.'”
Students were also able to submit creative responses to support their decisions, with some groups submitting portraits of their favourite characters, writing alternative endings or creating music to accompany sections of the story.
To explain their reasons, Caringbah High School created a gameshow about the shortlisted books, even including a blooper reel.
“That was really fun because we got to explore why we liked each book but in a really short format that was really interesting,” Sarah said.
2022 award winners
Book of the year, older readers
Shadowers’ choice winner: Sugar Town Queens, by Malla Nunn
CBCA winner: Tiger Daughter, by Rebecca Lim
Book of the year, younger readers
Shadowers’ choice winner: Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief, by Katrina Nannestad
CBCA winner: A Glasshouse of Stars, by Shirley Marr
Book of the year, early childhood
Shadowers’ choice winner: Walk of the Whales, by Nick Bland
CBCA winner: Jetty Jumping, by Andrea Rowe, illustrated by Hannah Sommerville