January is always the launch month for Oscar’s Book Prize, the nationwide search for the best pre-school book of the year. As we prepare to call for entries for the sixth time, it is worth reflecting on what has changed since we set out in 2014 with the simple wish to celebrate our son Oscar, who died at the age of three-and-a-half, and the type of books we know he loved.
First of all, there are more books to choose from. Last year we received another record haul with more than 100 submissions from publishers – twice the amount we received in year one. What has not altered is the vibrancy and range we are confronted with each time. I always worry there won’t be something in the pile as enchanting as our first winner, The Storm Whale by Benji Davies, or as heart-warming as The Koala Who Could, by the brilliant team of Rachel Bright and Jim Field. As soon as we start reading, I know there is no need to be concerned.
We detect more outward-looking pre-school books – those that tell very young children something about the world at large – and a nod to the variety of modern parental constellations. There are familiar maxims to “be yourself” and “dare to different”, which would be more powerful sometimes if the diversity of characters was greater. That mix is something we will particularly be looking out for this year with our £5,000 prize, which is supported once again by Amazon, the Evening Standard and the National Literacy Trust.
There are more books that try to work on a number of levels, delivering a blast of fun for the kids with a knowing wink to Mum and Dad. It is a difficult balance to pull off. Ditto those that seek to modernise an old tale for a new generation. We have found it is more effective to start from scratch. And books about books and the value of reading usually feel too instructive. Our judges – who have included Claudia Winkleman, Princess Beatrice and Katie Derham – reason that youngsters need to fall in love with books at this age without being told why.
But what do we know? Our longlist is always picked with help from the staff and children at Eveline Day Nursery in Wimbledon, which Oscar attended. It is very grounding to see our putative winner thrown across the playroom by a bored child in a matter of seconds.
They favour the bold, the colourful and often ridiculous. That is why There’s A Pig Up My Nose by John Docherty and Laura Hughes stood out last year. I am sure they will go down a storm when we take them to perform at the Hay Festival in May, by which time we will also have found our 2019 winner.
James Ashton is chairman and co-founder of Oscar’s Book Prize.