Friday, 8 May 2009

Amy from George Heriot's School: Judging the Royal Mail Awards

My name’s Amy, I’m from George Heriot's School and this year I was helping to pick the shortlist for the 12-16 and (with the help of my baby brother) the 0-7 categories of books in the Royal Mail Book Awards. I was very happy to do this, partly because I’ve always loved reading and given any opportunity will pick up a book …and partly because I had to write a 1000 word essay on Macbeth and was delighted to be offered a legitimate excuse to avoid starting it.

I’d taken part in the Award a couple of times and wondered how the shortlist of three books was chosen so I was really interested in what happened when a teacher at my school asked me if I’d like to help. I was given a box of twelve books and a couple of months to read them at the end of which I went to the judges' meeting. Everybody had already passed on their favourites and it was the five books that had received the most votes that we talked about. Everybody gave their views on each book and at the end there was loads of argument about which deserved to be on the shortlist! Finally the matter was decided by a vote (the last of about five) and the current shortlist was settled.

The overall quality of all the books I read for the award was excellent - there were one or two that I didn’t like quite so much but in general I was surprised by how good they were and I found choosing the ones I thought were best really hard! One of the first ones I decided on and which later at the judges meeting was passed by (I think) a unanimous vote was Keith Gray’s Ostrich Boys which I thought was fantastic. The first thing that struck me about it was how original it was; I’ve never read anything like it and I thought the central idea was brilliant. Despite dealing with serious issues; primarily death and also mourning, bullying, stress it always keeps a lovely tone; humorous and lighthearted- it’s definitely a feel-good book. It’s also quite unusual for two reasons; firstly in that all of the main characters (which are all brilliantly written; realistic and well-developed) are teenage boys, which for teen-fiction concentrating on emotions is unusual, and secondly in that, despite the main characters being boys, it still appeals to girls and girls can still - I thought - identify with them.

The second book decided on in this category was Crash. Again I found this very original - it’s definitely the first children’s book I’ve read that discusses mental illness in a way that combines it with humour, adrenaline and giant, Dundee-destroying tsunamis. The style of writing is simple yet dynamic with cliffhangers at the end of practically every chapter and the plot is satisfyingly complex without being confusing. It also has loads of twists and many separate plot-strands covering various genres that come together for a satisfying conclusion with no loose end left untied. All the characters are credible and, unusually for a teenage thriller or adventure story, it has important female characters meaning that it will appeal equally to boys and girls (despite the boyish front cover that will probably put some girls off).

The third book to be confirmed on the shortlist was The Reckoning. Out of all these books it probably had the best opening - an immediate hook grabbing the reader and setting the tone for the fast-paced thriller that follows. Like Crash it is exciting with lots of twists but also focuses on deeper social issues and questions – while I have to admit I preferred The Witness I think that these elements of The Reckoning are more credible and will strike a chord within many of its readers. Centrally though, The Reckoning is a mystery story with a gripping plot, an interesting and well-developed main character and a shocking ending.

I really enjoyed helping judge the Royal Mail Book Awards and would like to say a huge thank you to all those involved in setting it up and who invited me to take part – thank you very, very much!

(Pictures: top-right, Amy speaks at the Royal Mail Awards Shortlist press launch; above, Amy, centre, with shortlisted authors and Alana, also from George Heriot's, who helped judged the Younger Readers category)

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