Behind the Scenes at The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize
“Hello,” I say to the person standing next to me in the lift, “You’re Katherine Rundell!”
Well, there’s nothing quite like stating the obvious when you’re feeling a little star-struck. I’ve just arrived at Waterstones Piccadilly for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize award-giving ceremony, and so for Katherine to be the first person I meet – winner of the 2014 prize for the exquisite Rooftoppers – feels like a particularly auspicious start to the evening.
It all began six months ago when I signed up to be a long-list reader: one of fifty booksellers around the country who promised to read (in around just five weeks!) the forty-six books on the list, score them, comment on them, and assess which ones were the best and most deserving of a place on the much-lauded shortlist. Basically this involves eating, sleeping and dreaming children's books (never a bad thing), but the absolute best thing about it is discovering so many wonderful stories I may never have read otherwise, from the intensely dark and captivating Only Ever Yours (Louise O'Neill) to the Triffid-esque Boy in the Tower (Polly Ho-Yen) and the uplifting and - ahem - udderly heart-warming Cowgirl (G. R. Gemin).
Now, adorned with bright bunting, giant balloons and blown-up copies of the shortlisted books, the newly expanded Piccadilly children's department is teeming with people and anticipation. I am equal parts excited and nervous: large parties full of mostly strangers are so far out of my comfort zone as to be in the outer reaches of the Milky Way. But after speaking to the genuinely lovely Katherine Rundell, I'm joined in the entry line by one of the few faces I know, and then welcomed by another as I step behind the floor-to-ceiling black curtains dividing the party off from the rest of the store. There’s no reason to by shy, I realise: everyone is here because they love children’s books, and they're here to celebrate that fact. What's not to love?
Once the shortlist is selected, voting is opened to all booksellers across the company, from Scotland to Manchester, London to Cornwall. Everyone is given a chance to read the books and then place their tick on the ballot for their favourite of each of the three categories - and that's another one of the special things about this prize: it's voted for by booksellers. This year, choosing which to give my vote to was so tough. SO tough. Every book is different and has something different to offer. But which is the most unique, the most enjoyable, with the best plot and the best characterisation?
The evening gets underway with an introduction from James Daunt (Waterstones' managing director), followed by a little speech from Katherine Rundell, who shares with us how winning last year changed her life. She used her prize money to fund a trip she'd dreamt of making since reading Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea: down the Amazon River. She never knew, she told us, that you could dive into a river and come face to face with an underwater forest, or how intimidating five-year-olds (who boat themselves to school even at that young age) could be.
Everyone is gathered around the stage and I am standing on tip-toes toward the back of the crowd. Melissa Cox (head of children's buying) introduces a bright, animated video outlining the shortlisted titles and I try to identify the authors as groups in the crowd cheer their books as they come on screen. Because the thing with writers is that most of them are actually quite anonymous - I know what a few of them look like from Twitter or book signings, but of those I don't, how will I know who to go and introduce myself to?
And then it's time to announce the category winners…
After bookseller voting closed, the electronic ballots were counted and a panel convened to count the votes and confirm the winners – which basically involved an afternoon talking about children's books, writers, illustrators and all the things we love about them. It’s true I may have tried to vote for two books at once, but the really tricky part came afterwards: not revealing the winners!
James Daunt is back on stage now, a golden envelope in his hand. The crowd practically leans forward, collective breath held. First up is best illustrated book, and I think Rob Biddulph (Blown Away) is truly astounded as his name is read out – he hasn't prepared anything, he says, because he never imagined he'd win, and just about remembers to include his wife among his thank yous. Robin Stevens (Murder Most Unladylike) takes it up a step, though, as winner of best book in the 5-12 fiction category: she is so beautifully overwhelmed that it’s several moments before she’s able to form any words at all. And then, to especially large cheers and whoops, Sally Green (Half Bad) becomes the winner of the best book for teens.
Photos ensue; clinking of glasses; gobbling of canapés. Champagne is making the rounds now and I edge my way to the side of the stage to get a better view of the Children's Laureate, the wonderful Malorie Blackman, as she comes on to name the overall winner. Always exuberant, always with the perfect thing to say, and always with a touch of humour, she is a brilliant speaker. I wonder how nervous and tense the three authors are, waiting on tenterhooks, while I’m just trying to decide if I’m daring enough to introduce myself to Malorie later.
When I speak to Rob Biddulph afterwards, he seems (sorry) quite blown away by the whole thing. Shocked just to be named best illustrated book, never mind the overall winner – best children's book – he is clearly ecstatic but also genuinely humble about it. I learn that he worked on the book for five years, perfecting every aspect and getting the wording just right. Ironically, one of the things that is so good about it is how effortlessly the rhyming story flows, but to get there involved an awful lot of work and dedication. His wife asks me what I think it is that makes the book so appealing - the polar bear named Clive, I tell her. But truthfully, it's the whole package: the characters; the language; the bright and charming illustrations full of detail; the distinctive voice; the interplay of story and picture; it's an adventure story, but it's also more than just an adventure story. It’s massively appealing and a joy to read. Look out Julia Donaldson.
I spend the rest of the evening stalking authors and illustrators, chatting children’s books with publishers and the Waterstones team, soaking up the relaxed atmosphere and having a generally lovely time. Alas, I miss the opportunity to speak to Malorie Blackman, but meet instead a remarkably well-behaved dog, hoovering up the occasional dropped crumb. Bottles of bubbly are handed out to each shortlisted author to take home, and Lara Williamson (A Boy Called Hope ) somehow acquires Rob’s trophy – “I’m just looking after it!” she says.
Children’s books are often eclipsed by those for adults, especially when it comes to prizes, so it’s great to be part of something that puts the merits of children’s writing back at centre stage. Being involved in the book prize this year has been brilliant: I feel really privileged to be a children’s bookseller with Waterstones; I get to read and vote and see the winners take the stage, visibly awestruck, to claim their prize, and watch out for what they write next – and maybe even meet those winners in an elevator…