Children's Book Awards, and Why They Matter
last updated 28 February 2018
Awards in the Children’s Picture Book industry are announced throughout the year, but it really takes some skill to be long-listed, let alone win.
In celebration of the artists we work with at Bright, here we list some of the awards dearest to us and those which we feel truly reflect and recognise huge talent and achievement.
I asked five award winning author/illustrators about what awards truly mean to them — if indeed anything at all? The response is awe-inspiring, candid and honest — in fact reading it back gives me goosebumps. It’s good to know that these are the people our kids are reading. It’s a brilliant moral grounding into what can be a very unforgiving world at times. LM
At the 2013 Bookseller Industry awards, the Children’s Bookseller of the Year title was awarded to the well known supermarket chain, J Sainsbury. A year later, the supermarket announced plans to launch its own children’s book award, highlighting to their customers the best in children’s books.
In 2015 the Sainsburys Children’s Book Award was won by Benji Davies for his picture book, Grandad’s Island [Simon & Schuster]. In fact not only did Benji win for his category, but he was the overall winner. In the same year, he won The AOI (Association of Illustrators) award, also for Grandad’s Island. Two incredible awards — two from a commercial retailer, the other from industry experts. So what do awards mean to Benji Davies?
A spread from Grandad’s Island, with atmosphere and a magical light that reminds me of Alfred Bestall’s endpapers in the Rupert annuals.
“AS MUCH as some people might tell you they don’t… awards DO matter.
They matter primarily for two reasons:
The first one is about YOU.
It’s about being recognised by your peers, and yes, admittedly that does mean an ego rub. There is nothing wrong with a pat on the back now and again (repeat calmly into eternity. Thank you). When you spend most of your days working, focussed on the darkened corner of a room, scratching away at sketchbooks and post it notes, with little but your emails and the ping of Instagram for company, it’s elevating and humbling to know that there are other people out there who are as passionate about what you do as you are. They can see what you’re trying to do — what you’re grafting at. What an award says is, “well done old bean, you’ve done a great job here — keep going!”. It has an afterglow I imagine that winning a medal at the Olympics brings to an athlete. You’ve worked bloody hard, bored your wife/boyfriend/cat to tears, cried your own blood/sweat/tears, drawn on a forest’s worth of paper, laid awake in bed making vast and nonsensical ‘story notes’ in the dim glow of your iPhone, finally pulling it all together at the last minute. And then you have to wait an eon for the thing to be published! So when at the end of it all somebody has decided that you’ve done the BEST thing…
Thats the sound of a million brain cells firing up inside your head.
All those wide awake at night moments are definitely worth it.”
Illustration From Goodnight Already! [Harpercollins] By Jon Jory and illustrated by Benji Davies.
Benji with one of his awards, and the incredible reviews that literally came pouring in.
“Being an author-illustrator can be a solitary and seemingly thankless task. Like looking for something in the long grass when you’re not sure what it looks like, you poke about with a big stick and the longer you look the more it feels like it’s going to rain. You ask for help but really you need to find the thing yourself or… well it won’t be yours. And when you find it you hope that what you find won’t look the same as the one somebody else already found. Although it needs to look similar or nobody will have clue what it is when you show it to them. So it can feel fruitless — until you find it.
Illustration from The Storm Whale, published by Simon and Schuster.
Don’t get me wrong; to write and illustrate children’s books is also an incredible privilege. If somebody told me at the age of eight that one day I would be writing and drawing all day, every day I would have been ecstatic. If they’d told me about the emails and the accounts, the insomnia and the moustache-nibbling anxiety of whether anyone would like, let alone buy my next offering, probably less so. And then I would have gone back to my drawing . . .
Grandad’s Island winning the AOI Children’s Book award was a moment of real pride for me. To be recognised by true industry experts. It felt like a real benchmark in my work. So on the evening I was set to collect that award from Somerset House, it also turned out that I would be going to the Sainsbury’s Book Awards the very same afternoon. I had no expectation of winning anything so it was completely mind-blowing to come away with Best Picture Book and on top of that, overall Sainsbury’s Children’s Book of the Year. Then on to Somerset House to pick up the AOI award. Three gongs in one day was incredible, and from two such different organisations, one commercially focussed, the other industry.
Sometimes it takes that extra boost to really get a book out there, into the hands of children. How books do this is sometimes a bit of a mystery. What it comes down to is writing a decent book in the first place then buoying it up with good marketing, loyal fans and a dash of luck. But cream rises. We should have faith in that and as long as we keep making the best books we can, then the rest of the publishing machine will do its job.
Winning the right award can be rocket fuel in the process though.
Illustration from On Sudden Hill, by Linda Sarah, illustrated by Benji Davies.
As a result of Grandad’s Island winning at Sainsbury’s, it doubled sales the following week, and for weeks and months following the TCM figures stayed high. Not only was it great recognition for my work personally, it was also a tremendous commercial boost because it meant that a supermarket would be selling my books — something that hadn’t happened until that point. Supermarkets get a bad press in bookselling circles I feel, but you have to remember that commercial is not a dirty word. And when supermarkets sell books they sell them by the barrow-load. Ah, you’re thinking, he’s just checking his royalty statement. Yes of course it’s a bonus — but essentially that’s the pay cheque we all hope for. Advances are the publishers way of placing a bet, and they keep us all in bread, shoes and bricks while we’re busy working on the next book, dreaming that it will be a success, and dream upon dream — break into royalties. If you don’t want your book to be a success (i.e. to be read and enjoyed by lots of children) then I’m not sure why you’d be writing children’s books.
Anyway, I got paid and could afford to keep doing what I do. But even more rewarding it means that up to twice as many families now have a copy of my book than would have done. And that means actual real people will read it and look at the pictures, and if they like what they see maybe even look up my other books, or recommend it to a friend or buy it for someone’s birthday. Or be interested in picture books and stories full stop. As a knock-on effect, even more supermarkets are now taking my books. So the whole thing redoubles and feeds into itself and all mine and the publisher’s efforts have been rewarded in so many different ways.
So your goal shouldn’t be to win awards, but when you do it’s fantastic.
And because of that they really do matter an awful lot.” Benji Davies
When The Roald Dahl Book Prize came to a close last year, a rather large gap was left behind. It was a special kind of award, one which was voted for solely by its true audience (although — really, who isn’t drawn to a funny, intelligently made, beautifully drawn and designed picture book?) BUT… I am of course referring to children — those for whom the books were truly made…
So Scholastic stepped in and saved the day with Michael Rosen — the perfect teaming to create a new children’s funny book prize called The LOLLIES, or The Laugh Out Loud book awards; an award voted for solely by children.
This year, the award in the picture book category was won by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet for I Need a Wee [Simon & Schuster], a hilarious book for children, but equally amusing for adults to read — which is Sue and Paul’s secret really — it’s truly fun for everyone.
Sue Hendra: “Winning the LOLLIES was an enormous honour; beyond enormous actually. Partly because it was the first award of its kind since the the Roald Dahl Funny Prize was paused. I’ve always been a huge fan of Roald Dahl, of his stories for children and for adults. I’d always fantasised about winning that funny prize but I never dreamed that it would/could happen. When it was stopped (apparently temporarily I’ve just discovered) that was that. But then hurrah! Scholastic announced the Laugh Out Loud Awards and oh my goodness one of our books was shortlisted!
The other reason it was such an honour was because after the shortlist of books had been chosen it was completely voted for by children. I’ve never understood how grown ups could be qualified to judge what is a funny children’s book, surely that can only be decided by children themselves.
It’s no secret that Paul and I have fun making up these stories, so much so that on occasion tea has been known to come out of my nose. However, aside from us enjoying our work it’s exciting to think that children liked the book enough to vote for it.
I think a competition like the Laugh Out Loud award is very important. Laughing is very important, so books that make you laugh are surely vital. This award celebrates silliness, reading and children having the right to choose for themselves.”
Paul Linnet: “It was a huge surprise to be shortlisted for the first annual LOLLIES award and a huge honour to win. Firstly because it is an award for funny — just good honest silliness.
Secondly, apart from the shortlists being chosen by adults, the winners are voted for by children. I’m never sure about children’s book awards that are voted for by adults. I mean, why not ask a selected group of toddlers to choose the next Booker Prize winner?!
I think children really benefit from being involved in awards. It shows them that their opinions matter and that it’s good to involve yourself in the wider world.
Hopefully from this humble beginning we can encourage a more socially involved generation (or maybe that’s pushing the optimism)…!”
The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize has been running now for twelve years. With its main focus on the best new and emerging talent in children’s writing and illustration, this particular award is voted for by booksellers — those who are there first hand, the essential link between publisher and customer. Booksellers have a unique insight into the world of books. They are surrounded by them everyday, they unpack them, they display them, they read and review them, and they share what they know with us, the customer who often can’t decide whether we do or don’t want a bag, and also how to use a PDQ machine…
And although bookselling includes a multitude of tasks, the joy and reward is in having access to so much art and literature. In 2014 a very new author/illustrator hit the scene in style, winning the prize for her extraordinary take on an original fairytale idea. Nicola O’Byrne thinks so much outside the box, she can virtually transport you into the very book itself, or as this book proves, characters inside the book are equally liable to escape!
“I cannot over-emphasise the difference that award has made to me, not just in how publishers view me but in how I view myself.” Nicola O’Byrne
“Winning the Waterstones award felt unexpected and incredible! In the case of Open Very Carefully [Nosy Crow], it was especially welcome because that book was particularly difficult to get out. It had several permutations and hiccups along the way and took three years from signing the contract based on a book I wrote at university, to the version that was published. When it won, I felt a new sense of confidence that sometimes I can have good ideas, that the work I do — despite my own anxiety over it, has value and is worth being published. Prior to the award I had been considering leaving children’s book illustration as I had been under pressure for over a year to try a more stable career path. I had been struggling to find a part-time job and and was at an all time low. There is so much uncertainty in those first few years. I am glad I didn’t leave. Stubborn! I cannot over-emphasise the difference that award has made to me, not just in how publishers view me but in how I view myself.
For me, creating my own stories is more than double the work of illustrating someone else’s. When I read someone else’s story for the first time, I get ideas immediately about how it might look, which inevitably all changes, but that burst of energy is there. When I get to the artwork stage with my own stories, I have already spent a considerable amount of time on it and it can be harder to make it look fresh. But it is so worthwhile and I am lucky to do both. I like to use my own stories to push my artwork forward as well. With each book I’ve set myself an intention; for example, learning to draw people, interiors, creating solely digital artwork, using a limited colour palette and so on.
Both industry awards, and those voted for by children, are important. I wouldn’t put one above the other. The criteria is so different for the two sets of judges! I don’t feel any pressure to keep winning awards because I have no control over it. I finish books at least one year before they are published. By the time it’s nominated it could be two years from when I worked on it, and by that time I’m already working on something else, trying to make my new work the best it can be. Of course I want all my books to do well — and I love being nominated for awards. But I don’t want to chase them. I just want to keep working, keep improving, and keep writing and illustrating books for children. My dream job.”
In 2014 there was a flurry of activity from various illustration and children’s book awards around a young art graduate from Dublin. Yasmeen Ismail had been running a successful animation production company in London, when she found herself turning her craft to the art of picture books. Her debut picture book, Time for Bed Fred! [Bloomsbury] is where all the excitement began, and it has continued consistently from there. Amongst a great many nominations and awards for Fred, Yasmeen won the V&A award for best illustrated book. Yasmeen’s illustrations are inky and gentle with a beautiful sense of movement, and unlike anything else out there in children’s picture books. Here are Yasmeen’s thoughts on awards, and what they mean to her . . .
“I may say that I don’t care about awards. That it’s the work that I love and the children that I do it for, but that would be a lie.
Yes, I DO love my job, it’s fulfilling in a way I never knew work could be, and the kids are amazing, they essentially represent my publishers, editors and clients, they are my end audience and they are so forgiving and wonderful and funny, but I also LOVE awards!
It’s not just the prize to place on the mantlepiece, it’s so much more. It’s the parties at the award ceremonies, the anticipation, the FOOD! It’s great to get the shiny invitations on thick card through my letterbox, the chance to really dress up, to feel excited about the wine and the good company on an awards night. Everyone is ready to have a good time. I find that if my name is not pulled out of the envelope it is a little disappointing, but I can still have a great evening. Rarely have I felt ‘robbed’ and usually the winner truly deserved to win.
But when I do win! WOWEE ZOWEE! It takes an already good time and kicks it into the stratosphere! There are claps and smiles and hoorahs! The awards are usually quite heavy and the weight of one in my sweaty, grasping hands feels like the world as I hold it aloft above my head!
With winning comes mixed emotions, I am in the sunlight for a time, with congratulations flying into my inbox. It gives my reputation more gravitas, and works in my favour when it comes to negotiating contracts, but there is a dark side too.
What if I never win an award again?
Each ceremony is fraught with nervous anticipation from then on. Have I peaked?
I come down from my award high and think about holding onto my titles. I feel greedy. MORE! MORE AWARDS!
Eventually I level out (especially after losing out a couple of times), and I remind myself of the work, the children and the parties. How I chuckle to myself when I am writing stories, and that time my editor and my designer and I laughed until we cried during a meeting.
I love awards, but I think it’s safe to say that I have already won.” Yasmeen Ismail
In his own words, David Litchfield didn’t always know he was an illustrator, and it took him a long time to work out that he was. He has always drawn, he went to art school, but it is only more recently that he discovered his true potential as an artist. David’s own story is inspirational, and his artwork style so different to anything else — it is also completely recognisable in everything he does. Earlier this year, David won The Waterstones Book Prize for Best Illustrated Children’s Book. Having only recently found his career in picture books, an award was not something he had ever expected. Here’s David’s take on awards . . .
David won the award for his debut picture book, The Bear and the Piano [Francis Lincoln]
“Winning the Waterstones Illustrated Book Prize earlier this year was really incredible. I very much did not expect the book to win as it was up against some incredible books. Also, it meant my mum was proud of me as it was on the BBC Radio 2 news the next morning.
What has been really amazing is the support Waterstones put into the book once it won. The book appeared front of house in their shops, it was featured on their social media pages and best of all I have got to visit Waterstones shops all over the country doing signings, window art and workshops.
It’s also incredible that the book has been nominated for so many other awards. I really did not expect any of this to happen and sometimes it doesn’t feel real. Like someone is playing a horrible joke on me and soon they will tell me it’s all an elaborate prank 🙂
Anyway, the awards and nominations have been fantastic in a number of ways. They are obviously helping to publicise the book as well as giving me a personal boost that I am doing something right.”
David’s TedX talk – inspirational watching.
“I’m really grateful for the nominations that come directly from the readers. I’m super proud when someone picks my book over all the other incredible books that they could have chosen. That really does mean a lot.” David Litchfield
Illustration from The Bear and the Piano, published by Francis Lincoln.
With huge thanks to Benji, Sue and Paul, Nicky, Yasmeen and David.
If you’re looking for an artist for future projects, or if you are an artist and you’d like to work with us, you can get in touch here.