Australian Children’s Laureate and bestselling children’s author Jackie French was named Senior Australian of the Year in January, and in her speech she had one important message: ‘If you want an intelligent child, give them books. If you want a more intelligent child, give them more books.’
Of course, a follow-up question to that statement for many parents, teachers and booksellers is: ‘Which books do we give them?’
Buying books for young people can be tricky, particularly for ‘middle grade’ readers (aged 8-12) who are too young for The Hunger Games but have outgrown the junior fiction (ages 5+) section. This is a crucial age for young people, not least because it’s the time in a child’s life when they can set out on path that sees them becoming readers for life. Too often, though, teachers and parents get caught up in encouraging a more ‘industrial’ reading for children, rather than focusing on getting them hooked on recreational reading. In most Victorian primary schools, children’s reading is assessed according to the ‘PM Benchmark’ or ‘Fountas and Pinnell’ guided reading books. Released by educational publishers, these books are written to hit assessment targets rather than entertain children – they’re more interested in KPIs than character journeys, and that’s not helping kids fall in love with books.
James Patterson once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books.’ So how do we get the right books into the hands of budding bibliophiles? Well, the Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist is a great place to start.
Established last year, the Children’s Book Prize ‘recognises and celebrates books that families love reading together’ – the kinds of books that children tell their friends about. Last year’s inaugural winner was Julie Hunt, who took out the prize for her adventure-fantasy book Song for a Scarlet Runner (Allen & Unwin, 2013), which went on to become one of Readings’ best-selling children’s books for 2014.
The shortlist is chosen by Readings children’s-book specialists, with a mind to raising the profile of debut and up-and-coming Australian authors who are making a vital contribution to Australian children’s literature. The 2015 Shortlist offers a wonderful cross-section of Australian children’s books that are guaranteed to get kids hooked on reading.
Rivertime by Trace Balla is a charming and calming hand-drawn graphic novel about a ten-year-old boy called Clancy and his uncle Egg, who journey along the Glenelg River in a canoe. With a focus on the environment and a message to slow down and admire the view, this gorgeously illustrated book is a great reminder that graphic novels can be a sophisticated reading option for children.
Stuff Happens: Jack by Tony Wilson is an emotionally engaging book about what happens to a boy called Jack when a game at recess goes horribly wrong. It’s a very tender story with an immensely relatable incident at its centre. Best of all, kids who enjoy Wilson’s book will be delighted to discover there’s a whole Stuff Happens series featuring different characters, written by multiple authors.
The Mapmaker Chronicles: Race to the End of the World by A.L. Tait is a high-seas fantasy adventure with a great slice of escapism, and readers will be thrilled to discover that it is the first instalment in an ongoing series. This is a great book for young fans of Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest, or Andrew McGahan’s Ship Kings series.
Figgy in the World by Tamsin Janu was inspired by the author’s time working at a school and orphanage in Ghana. Figgy, the intrepid protagonist, sets out on a very different quest to America to get special medicine for her sick Grandma Ama. With a goat called Kwame as her faithful travel companion, readers will adore Figgy, and will find a lot to love in this book that shows them a very different world through her eyes.
How to Save the Universe in Ten Easy Steps by Allison Rushby is a laugh-out-loud novel about young boy, Cooper, who could never quite believe he was related to twin sister Molly, but is nonetheless surprised when she reveals she’s actually an alien sent to help him fulfil his destiny to one day save the universe! At 281 pages this is the longest book on the shortlist, but the plot is such a rollercoaster ride, and the characters so charming, that readers will zip through this book and then go back for an instant re-read.
Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy by Karen Foxlee begins thus: ‘Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard discovers a boy in a locked room and is consequently asked to save the world.’ This magical tale is sometimes heartbreaking and always enchanting, as eleven-year-old Ophelia faces her grief after her mother’s death, and finds herself embroiled in a magical realm’s battle between good and evil.
Children will adore these stories – according to Readings, they’re exactly the kinds of books they’ll want to read ‘under the covers with a torch, late into the night because they can’t bear to put it down.’ This is an invaluable list of truly wonderful Australian children’s books – teachers and parents need look no further for recommended reading, as these are exactly the right kind of stories to put into the hands of young readers, to help them become readers for life.
The 2015 Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist will be judged by Readings children’s specialists, along with guest judge and bestselling children’s author Sally Rippin – the winner will be announced in June and featured in the July Readings newsletter. The entire Prize Shortlist Pack is currently available online for a special discount price.