As part of my exploration of book awards and their importance to literature I chose to read and review a book short listed for the Children’s book Council of Australia 2013 awards (Childrens Book Council of Australia, ©2012b). The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett was listed, and I chose it because Hartnett has been nominated for and won numerous awards including the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (Hartnett, 2012) for her writing I had not read her before.
Set in England in the early days of the Second World War, the novel opens as Cecily enjoys a game of hide and seek with her father and brother Jeremy. Their happy domesticity is disrupted when they are sent with their mother Heloise to Heron Hall, the home of their uncle Peregrine; Cecily will miss her beloved father and Jeremy feels he should stay to help the war effort.
On the train journey north they are confronted by emotional scenes as the city’s youngsters are evacuated. A comment from Jeremy leads Cecily to beg her mother to take an evacuee; May Enid Bright is selected and taken home to Heron Hall. Over the following days Cecily and May explore the countryside around Heron Hall and discover Snow Castle. So begins the other story contained in this novel; that of the Princes in the Tower as told by Peregrine in a nightly tale of power and intrigue. As the London bombings begin, Jeremy chafes at his exile and after a traumatic argument with Heloise runs away to London. At the same time May and Cecily realise that the mysterious boys they have encountered at Snow Castle are the shades of the historical princes.
I have often used book awards as a readers’ advisory tool or “guarantee “of quality. However in considering whether I thought this book worthy of an award I realised I knew little of how judges determine award winners. I enjoyed this book, (the prose itself was excellent) but found Cecily’s character somewhat childish and unlikeable. However as I deliberated on the book and read about the awards process, I began to appreciate two things; literary quality is what determines awards consideration (Childrens Book Council of Australia, ©2012a; Yokota, 2011); and Hartnett’s decision to challenge her readers with Cecily’s shortcomings. I began to see the echoes of C.S. Lewis in her use of character and form (Eustace in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)(Lewis, 2000).
Personal taste is an element of reading and part of what makes it so enjoyable to discuss books. So it is no surprise that book awards are often controversial. The description of the 2011 Miles Franklin Shortlist as a sausage fest (all male judges and authors) is just one example (Romei, 2011). Awards for young people have also been criticised for lack of “balance” in terms of theme or gender of protagonists, or that judges are out of touch with the general public. In the case of the CBCA literary merit is the criteria for CBCA awards and NOT “balance” or popularity. An important consideration here is the way we read as children differs from the critical distance and perspective we bring to a work as adults; but that each way of reading has its own validity (Miller, 2008) and that joy of reading is the important thing to share.
*Spoiler alert – certain plot elements are revealed in this review that some may regard as spoilers.
Childrens Book Council of Australia. (©2012a). CBCA Awards – FAQ, from http://cbca.org.au/awardsfaq.html
Childrens Book Council of Australia. (©2012b). Children’s Book of the Year Awards, from http://cbca.org.au/awards.html
Hartnett, S. (2012). The children of the king. Camberwell, Vic: Penguin.
Lewis, C. S. (2000). The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Sydney, NSW.: HarperCollins.
Miller, L. (2008). The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s adventures in Narnia: Little, Brown and Company.
Romei, S. (2011). The Miles Franklin: Another “Sausagefest”. Retrieved from http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/alr/index.php/theaustralian/comments/the_miles_franklin_another_sausagefest/
Yokota, J. (2011). Awards in literature for children and adolescents. In S. Wolf, K. Coats, P. A. Enciso & C. Jenkins (Eds.), Handbook of research on children’s and young adult literature (pp. 467-478). New York, NY.: Routledge.