‘Why should adults judge children’s books?’ Australian kids take over prestigious book awards

This year, the Children’s Book Council of Australia has created a new set of awards judged by 2,000 children around the country. We meet some small judges with big opinions

Kids don’t get much of a look-in when it comes to children’s book awards. It’s the grown-ups who do the judging, decide the winners and, in doing so, dictate what titles will be prominent in bookshops and on library shelves.

But this year the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) has handed the reins to their target demographic. On Friday, the winners of the CBCA’s inaugural shadowers’ choice awards were announced, decided by panels of primary and high school-aged readers.

Around 2,000 children from all states and territories – 155 groups in all – took part in judging the shadowers’ choice awards, which used the same judgment criteria as the adult-appraised CBCA book of the year awards. The young readers were “blind” to the choices the adult judges had made, and vice versa; the result is two completely different sets of winners.

The children Guardian Australia talked to believe they should make the choices every year.

“These are children’s books! Why should adults judge them?” says Isla Furey, aged 8.

Her friend Tiana Long, also 8, agrees. “Adults might choose books that have big words or are just boring,” she says. “Adults can judge adult books, but I think children should judge children’s books.”

With the help of a CBCA facilitator, each panel of young judges has debated books in five categories: older readers, younger readers, early childhood, picture book and information book.

Isla and Tiana were in a judging group of six girls for the picture book category. They are both big readers. “Time speeds by when I’m reading,” says Isla. “I might not be having the best day but when I get home and read, my mind gets taken away to other places.”

Their group chose The Boy and The Elephant by illustrator Freya Blackwood as its nominee because “the pictures are so pretty and detailed”, says Isla, who turns each page pointing out the sad bits and the happy bits.

“He’s sad on the floor, sad in the bath and then so sad in bed that he can’t sleep,” Isla says. “It makes me cry but it’s also beautiful.”

“It’s not too sad though; like everything dying,” says Tiana. “That would be horrible.”

She thinks children’s book authors should write books with smaller words and cuter pictures. “Make them funny and not boring,” she says.

“No creepy pictures,” adds Isla. “Zero percent creepy.”

Their pick didn’t end up winning the category; the overall children’s vote for picture book of the year ended up going to Stellarphant by James Foley. Still, Isla and Tiana would love to be judges again.

“It was so fun,” says Isla. “Who wouldn’t want to be a judge?”

Isla Furey and Tiana revisit the shortlisted books.
Isla and Tiana revisit the shortlisted books. Photograph: Isabella Moore

One of the older judging panels included Kiara, 12, Liza, 13, and Sarah, 14, from the Caringbah high school book club. They judged the category for older readers, aged 13-17, and chose the book Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn, a Swaziland-born Australian author.

“There were a lot of social issues like violence against women, gay rights, child poverty and racism, as well as discovering who you are,” says Sarah, who loves to read fantasy books and wouldn’t normally opt for some of the nominated titles. “I was really surprised to find I liked the wide range of stories. I especially liked Sugar Town Queens because the characters were older than me and I hadn’t experienced those things in my life yet.”

Kiara normally chooses to read adventure and action: “For me, I got to read stories that have a lot more character development.” Liza loves romance novels and crime: “I read new genres and I really loved making a video response to the books and doing some acting.”

Children’s author Victoria Mackinlay acted as the younger group’s facilitator. She says it has been empowering for young readers to not just air their opinions but see them count. And occasional voting deadlocks were handled with maturity: “We did blind voting to select the winner and the group was split so we had to do a revote with just the top two books. I was impressed how the girls weren’t swayed by other’s opinions. They were very loyal to their favourites.”

As an author, Mackinlay says she learned something about her readers from the process. “It’s been a joyful experience,” she says. “I was able to transfer some of my behind-the-scenes knowledge to the girls, but I think I got more from them. What they liked and didn’t like was sometimes surprising, but humour in the stories was a big winner. It’s so important to children and a fantastic vessel to deliver a serious message.”

The project has put the “children back into the CBCA awards”, she says. “It’s also another opportunity for children’s book creators to be recognised and I think it will be extra special for the winners to know that their book was chosen by the children they are creating for.”

Children’s Book Council of Australia award winners 2022

Shadowers’ choice awards

Older readers: Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn

Younger readers: Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief by Katrina Nannestad

Early childhood: Walk of the Whales by Nick Bland

Picture book Stellarphant by James Foley

The Eve Pownall award: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Peculiar Pairs in Nature by Sami Bayly

CBCA awards adult judges’ choices

Older readers: Tiger Daughter by Rebecca Lim

Younger readers: A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr

Early childhood: Jetty Jumping by Andrea Rowe and illustrated by Hannah Sommerville

Picture book: Iceberg by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Jess Racklyeft

The Eve Pownall award: Safdar Ahmed for Still Alive, Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System

New illustrator award: Michelle Pereira for The Boy Who Tried to Shrink His Name


Elissa Blake

The GuardianTramp

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