Small eyes, big prize

THE winners of the 67th annual Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards were announced yesterday. The results are unlikely to cause controversy, although a dominance of heavy themes may raise the familiar debate about whether the awards reflect - or should reflect - what resonates with young readers.

That said, the CBCA has always maintained that the intention of the awards is to recognise literary merit, not popularity. In any case, the titles selected this year might just tick all the boxes.

OLDER READERS

OF THE 77 books nominated for this category, The Dead I Know by Victorian writer Scot Gardener came out on top. The compelling story focuses on teenager Aaron Rowe, a sleepwalker with a lot of instability at home, as he starts a new job at a funeral parlour.

It's a memorable read that manages to be understated while tackling heavy subject matter and delivering believably complex characters.

The judges called Gardner's book ''a confronting story'', praising it for balancing ''the violence and desolation of Aaron's life in the caravan park with the routine and studied peacefulness of the funeral parlour in exquisite counterpoint''.

Bill Condon's A Straight Line to My Heart and Robert Newton's When We Were Two were named Honour Books (the latter, a 1916-set road-trip story about two brothers - with shades of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men - won the Prime Minister's Literary Award this year). Michael Gerard Bauer's Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel, Ship Kings: The Coming of the Whirlpool by Andrew McGahan and my personal favourite, The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, rounded out the shortlist.

An additional 16 titles were listed as Notable Books, including works by previous CBCA award-winning authors Steven Herrick, J.C. Burke and Barry Jonsberg.

YOUNGER READERS

KATE Constable, another Victorian writer, took out top honours in this category with her time-slip story Crow Country, about a young girl, Sadie, trying to right the wrongs of generations past in a small country town where indigenous and white Australians fail to understand one another.

The judges said Constable's work was ''strongly Australian'', and ''sensitively handles difficult subject matter in a narrative that is engaging and powerful''.

The similarly themed Nanberry: Black Brother White by Jackie French was named an Honour Book alongside the more light-hearted, London-set mystery, The Truth about Verity Sparks by Susan Green.

The wonderfully versatile Emily Rodda took two of the remaining three shortlist spots, one with the utterly Australian Bungawitta (a fun-filled, uplifting story of a drought-stricken rural town) and another with The Golden Door, the start of a new fantasy adventure series. John Flanagan's Brotherband: The Outcasts - another ripping adventure - was also shortlisted.

EARLY READERS

PICTURE-book masters Nick Bland and Freya Blackwood joined forces to win this category with The Runaway Hug, which turns an unremarkable domestic scene into a story that's fun, wonderfully warm and perfect for bedtime reading.

''It is a picture book to ponder and appreciate, being deceptively simple, yet marvellously harmonious in concept,'' the judges said. ''The lively detailed illustrations and lyrical text work closely together to add humour and pathos.''

Sonya Hartnett's Come Down, Cat!, with illustrations by Lucia Masciullo, and Elizabeth Honey's That's Not a Daffodil! were named Honour Books, while No Bears by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge, The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen and James Foley, and Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay were shortlisted. Winner of the Prime Minister's award, Goodnight, Mice! by Frances Watts and Judy Watson, wasn't shortlisted but featured on the list of 23 Notable Books.

PICTURE BOOK

BOB Graham's picture books are award magnets and he's done it again, winning this category with A Bus Called Heaven.

Graham's books always imbue a wonderful sense of community and validation of the role of young people in society. This one is no exception, seeing a young girl gather support and rally to save an abandoned bus called Heaven.

''This is a heart-warming and inspiring work that amply demonstrates the expertise of its creator, his capacity for subtle inclusion and his strong affection for ordinary people,'' the judges said.

The author-illustrator partnerships of Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, and Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, have proven successful once again, with the duos receiving Honour Book status thanks to The Dream of the Thylacine and Flood, respectively.

McKinlay and Rudge's No Bears was shortlisted in this as well as the Early Childhood category, this time alongside For All Creatures by Glenda Millard and Rebecca Cool, and Look, a Book! by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood.

THE EVE POWNALL AWARD FOR INFORMATION BOOKS

ONE Small Island: The Story of Macquarie Island by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is the winner of this non-fiction category.

This insightful picture book tells the story of the tragic degradation of a natural marvel, bringing together historic documents with detailed illustrations and simple, straightforward text.

''The stunning illustrations reinforce the unique characteristics, the isolation and the beauty of this small island,'' the judges said. ''The final landscape that we view is Macquarie Island's sunrise, accompanied by words of environmental hope.''

The Little Refugee by Anh and Suzanne Do, with illustrations by Bruce Whatley, was the sole Honour Book selected.

The shortlist included Surrealism for Kids from the Queensland Art Gallery, Playground by Nadia Wheatley and Ken Searle, Bilby Secrets by Edel Wignell and Mark Jackson, and Carole Wilkinson's Fromelles: Australia's Bloodiest Day at War.

The story Small eyes, big prize first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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