Young readers, tough judges

<p>The Red House Children's Book Award, won recently by Simon James for Baby Brains (Walker Books), is in its 25th year.</p><p>The prize is the only major book award to be judged entirely by children, and with the list of past winners reading like a roll-call in the hall of fame of children's books, it has proved its worth to the authors and illustrators involved.</p><p>The young judges have proved adept talent-spotters, giving the first major book awards to Roald Dahl, for The BFG (1983), and to J K Rowling, for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1998). They also buck the trends being followed by adult publishers and booksellers: this year they chose a picture book over fiction.</p><p>The award is co-ordinated by the Federation of Children's Book Groups (FCBG), an umbrella organisation for 30 children's book groups across the UK. About 25,000 children are involved in selecting and reading the prize shortlists, and choosing the ultimate winner.</p><p>FCBG was set up 37 years ago, following the start of the first children's book group by Anne Wood, the creator of Teletubbies. "The federation is about promoting a love of books among children," Jo Williams, joint co-ordinator, says.</p><p>"We are trying to bring different and new books to the attention of children and teachers. It can be quite difficult for teachers to find out what's new in children's literature." Children's book group organisers include parents, as well as teachers, librarians, publishers, authors and illustrators.</p><p>Unflagging interest</p><p>On top of co-ordinating the children's book prize, FCBG holds an annual conference; promotes initiatives such as National Share-a-Story Month; and maintains links with independent consumer magazine Carousel: The Guide to Children's Books.</p><p>The organisation's main strength is its regionality and in the unflagging interest in children's literature generated by the local book groups. Each group organises events in their town or village using often extensive local networks. Events can range from Pyjama Evening storytelling sessions for young children, to larger school-based author events.</p><p>The Plymouth children's book group has been operating for 20 years and counts about 50 families as members. "The group has established strong links with local schools and libraries," Alison Clibbens, group secretary, says. "We try to ensure that our events appeal to different age groups, from young children to interested adults." As the make-up of the group changes, so does its events schedule.</p><p>"Adults may get together to talk about books for dealing with specific topics such as dyslexia or divorce," Clibbens says. "And for young children we organise story events and puppet sessions. We may organise events around themes, like science or Christmas, for older children."</p><p>In Dudley, the West Midlands children's book group is run by Ros Bartlett, FCBG chairwoman and assistant head teacher at Earls High School in Halesowen. Book group events hosted by the school attract audiences of up to 300 people. A recent visit by Andy McNab brought with it a security alert; author Rodman Philbrick also visited as part of a promotional tour on the same day.</p><p>"We hear so much about the literacy strategy in schools, but holding these events--with such excitement for children in meeting authors--puts the fun into books," Bartlett says. "We also have a breakfast club where we talk about books. Now children strike up conversations with me about books as we walk down the school corridors."</p><p>Parents and other adult members of the groups have been encouraged to try out titles that they might otherwise overlook: Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko) and A Gathering Light (Jennifer Donnelly) have proved to be good crossover titles.</p><p>Good relationships</p><p>Many events are made possible by existing ties between FCBG and children's book publishers. Publishers provide reading copies of the titles that young people select for the prize shortlists, as well as making authors available during promotional tours.</p><p>But Bartlett believes that FCBG's links could be used more effectively. "We can connect publishers directly into large, and interested, local networks," she says. Booksellers can also tap into the groups: the Children's Bookshop in Huddersfield, for example, regularly invites its local children's book group to events. Sonia Benster, proprietor, says: "FCBG gives us immediate access to an interested audience."</p><p>FCBG has been a well kept secret until now, but is working hard to raise its profile. Members attend events such as The Guardian Hay Festival to distribute literature, and Red House's sponsorship of the children's book award has given an extra injection of support.</p><p>The next step is to build up the children's book group network. FCBG's website, www.fcbg.org.uk, explains how new groups can start. Bartlett's ambition is modest but firm: "We want five more groups by the end of the year."</p><p>A Decade of Past Winners</p><p>2004 Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (Collins)</p><p>2003 Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz (Walker)</p><p>2002 Noughts&amp;Crosses by Malorie Blackman (Doubleday)</p><p>2001 Eat Your Peas by Kes Gray&amp;Nick Sharratt (Bodley Head)</p><p>2000 Kensuke's Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo (Mammoth)</p><p>1999 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling</p><p>1998 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J K Rowling</p><p>1997 The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog by Jeremy Stone (Viking)</p><p>1996 Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson (Doubleday)</p><p>1995 Harriet's Hare by Dick King-Smith (Doubleday)</p>