Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cover Story: The Abingdon Carnegie Forum 2008

In a review of one of the titles on the Carnegie Shortlist, one young Shadowing Group member started by writing in big, bold letters "DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER". Which is excellent advice. Hoary old chestnut that it is, it's a sound piece of folk wisdom nonetheless.

As long as it's you following the advice.

If you work in publishing, however, it's actually better if you completely ignore that piece of wisdom - because it's utterly useless. Almost everyone DOES judge a book by its cover - and the penalties for getting this wrong can be costly. This is doubly true for children's books.

I dwell on this because covers - their design, how the get chosen, their suitability for the titles - loomed large at the annual Abingdon Carnegie Forum. I had the honour and privilege of being a judge at the event today - and it was a lot of fun, but quite an eye-opener.

I tend to obsess about what people think about books, especially when it's me who's done the recommending. How nice then to have a list of books recommended by other people - and then have the chance to eavesdrop on a series of heated debates and impassioned presentations that formed the core of the activities at Abingdon School.

The Forum itself was run with a precision and attention to detail that you would expect from the involvement of (as far as I could tell) eight current and retired school librarians (there may have been more). The Abingdon Carnegie Forum involves the six secondary schools in Abingdon: Abingdon School, Fitzharry's, John Mason, Larkmead, Our Lady's Abingdon and St Helen's and St Katherines.
In welcoming the students to the Abingdon School, Mark Turner (Abingdon Schools' headmaster) set the scene with some impressive statistics: in the 8 weeks or so between the shortlist being published and the Carnegie winner being announced, over 90,000 students will have taken part in the shadowing around the country (and one imagines, in a few locations elsewhere in the world). Yes, there is no getting round the fact that it's an institution, and not as sexy as some of the other awards out there, but for all the sniffy accusations of 'worthiness' it represents an important quality benchmark in children's fiction. And anyway, from what I saw today, there was plenty of buzz that should keep the marketing folk at the big publisher very happy, thanks very much.

The kids that take part in the shadowing have to get through the shortlist at a fair old crack (I know, I've had to read the books in the last few weeks). They then submit reviews, which are whittled down by the respective school librarians and submitted for judging - which was our role today.

For those that haven't seen the list, here it is:

Gatty's Tale - Kevin Crossley-Holland
Ruby Red - Linzi Glass
Crusade - Elizabeth Laird
Apache - Tanya Landman
Here Lies Arthur - Philip Reeve
What I Was - Meg Rosoff
Finding Violet Park - Jenny Valentine

We were also very lucky to have one of the shortlisted authors addressing the forum. Linzi Glass - author of Ruby Red - gave a short speech and then took questions from the audience. There were some good ones: was the main character based on her ("no, well not much"), did she pick the cover ("no, that was her publisher, Puffin"), what were her favourite children's books when growing up ("Folk of the Faraway Tree - and others"), was she writing another book ("yes, one children's book, one book for adults").


(She was pressed again on the cover by another young interlocutor - this time giving an extremely diplomatic answer about "trusting that the marketing department knows what they are doing". We always ask authors who come to mostly books about covers, and almost invariably it's been a bit of a fight, with some suspicion raised that perhaps the marketing people are not always right. The only authors who get to change their covers of course are the big names...)



Linzi was genuinely impressed by the questions - many focusing on aspects of the book and its characters which were perceptive and original - and I got the impression she would have loved to have carried on for a while longer - but we were on a tight schedule!

The students were broken up into groups, and whilst we judges were marshalled into a small meeting room with plenty of coffee to discuss the reviews, the groups set about discussing their particular book - with the end goal of preparing a presentation to convince us which book deserved the medal. Listening in on some of the disussions was very revealing; as well as the ever-present cover discussions, one theme I heard being discussed on more than one table was "is this a book for boys or girls".


Following the review judging, we then watched the presentations - and then had to decide on a winner from all the groups. Given that groups were mixed between schools, and they had had very little time to prepare their presentations, the standard was very high - and the case was made for the book on grounds of style, character, readability and plain old enjoyment. It was good to see.

Whilst we were away finalising the winners, all the students had a chance to vote on the book they felt deserved to win the medal. Perhaps swayed by the appearance of Linzi, Ruby Red pipped Finding Violet Park by a short head.

For what it's worth (and we'll know in a few hours time, making this bit somewhat superfluous) I reckon Crusade will win, with Apache as my each-way bet. But what do I know - my favourite was the Meg Rosoff, and I did wonder - as some of the reviewers did - whether this should be classified as a young adult or an adult book? And in any case, whichever book wins is not really the object of the whole Shadowing exercise - it's understanding that, whilst you might get to appreciate why a book is a great piece of literature, in the final analysis, it's what you think of the book that's important - and makes it a worthy winner. But, you know, if that cover isn't right, it can really put you off reading a book in the first place...



Thanks to everyone who made it a very successful day - and to my fellow judges, thanks for tolerating my request for a group shot at the end (and many thanks to whoever it was from John Mason that I press-ganged into taking the photo!)

(Update 2013: see what happened at this year's Carnegie event with tear-stained pages and some good deaths...)

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