Friday, 16 May 2008


Every year the Dutch award prizes for the best books of the previous year for readers of 12 to 16. The prizes are called Kisses. The Golden Kiss goes to the best of the best; Silver Kisses are awarded to the others. Generously, books in translation are included, though they can only receive a Silver Kiss, not the golden, which, quite rightly, is reserved for Dutch books only.

This year my novel Dit Is Alles (This Is All) was eligible. Many people thought it would receive a Silver Kiss. It didn't. But the Jury made the following remarks (translated here by Annelies Jorna, the translator of Dit Is Alles):

"We do not want to leave it unsaid that the aforementioned novel Dit Is Alles by Aidan Chambers for us, too, is one of the most important and beautiful books of 2007. The high expectations with which each one of us started out reading it were fully met by the author. In fact, this in all respects spectacular novel about Cordelia Kenn's road to maturity impressed us so deeply that for some time we were unable to read another book. We would have loved to award the novel with the maximum prize which according to the rules is available for a translated work - i.e. The Silver Kiss - if we had felt convinced that reading Dit Is Alles does not require the deep understanding and reading skills that most readers between the ages of 12 and 16 lack to the extent that at some point in the book they will become dispirited and give up.
We might have given the book the benefit of the doubt. However, this would have meant withholding another special though more accessible book from the target group. We chose not to do so. Even those who claim that not everything in a book should be understood in order to learn from it will agree that sometimes readers may as yet not be experienced enough and had better wait for a while.

Naturally, I'm grateful to the Jury for their approbation. And of course it is their prerogative to decide which books will be given prizes and which won't. What interests me about their comments are the questions and assumptions that lie behind them. They are questions and assumptions that bother the judging of all book prizes, especially those for the young. I wonder if other people find them as bothersome as I do? For example:

1. Are the prizes intended to acknowledge literary worth? By which I mean, the use of language, form, narrative structure, depth and nature of the subject matter, the treatment of character and themes, and the innovative nature or exemplary standard of the writing. Or are they intended as support for those books which are exemplary because they are credit-worthy examples of the kind of books young readers already know they like (usually referred to as being 'accessible', 'readable', 'appropriate for the age range', etc.)?
It seems to me that the Jury for the Kisses fall between these two intentions, as juries selecting books for the young very often do.

2. Are the prizes based on assessment of the worth of individual books, which are judgements made detached from opinions about readership, or are they actually merely a form of marketing and publicity - that is, they support those books which will sell and which will not disturb anyone, whether adults or young readers, with difficulties of language, thought, feeling or subject-matter? It seems to me that the Jury for the Kisses is erring on the side of marketing and publicity.

3. Are young people of 12 to 16 radically different from people over the age of 16? Let's ask the question: If James Joyce's Ulysses or Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, or Harry Mulisch's Hoogste Tijd (Last Call) or Cees Nooteboom's Rituals were in the running for a major national best book of the year prize, would anyone seriously argue that they should not receive a prize because they require 'deep understanding and reading skills that most adult readers lack to the extent that at some point in the books they will become dispirited and give up'? (I know several adults quite as intelligent and educated as myself who gave up on Joyce's Ulysses long before the end and never tried again. I think this is probably true of the majority of adult readers.)

4. Literature for the young is no different from literature for adults (if we insist on making the distinction) in that the best literature is always too difficult for many readers at a first or even a second reading. But if prizes are to be given only to those books deemed to be within the grasp of the majority of the supposed readership, no literature of any kind that is innovative, profound, linguistically rich and dense in subject and treatment will ever be awarded a prize, will never be publicly acknowledged by independent-minded jurors and opinion-makers, and literature as a whole will descend into the pit of banality and the illiterate grip of money-making commerce.

5. Of course, there are those who claim that children's and youth books have an educational function. They are partly meant to help the young become readers who enjoy reading for its own sake. And, therefore, books must be judged by how pertinent they are to that aim. This thinking seems to me to be partly behind the Jury's judgement of Dit Is Alles. But again, I'd argue that it is an educational aim to provide literature that asks young readers to reach further than they know they already can. No one grows in any activity if they are not stretched, and unless they encounter that which is beyond what they know and can already do. By excluding books that offer and indeed require the young to pay more attention, concentrate harder and tackle difficulty, we limit their opportunities for growth.

As I say, the thoughts provoked by the Dutch Jury aren't simply to do with whether or not Dit Is Alles is worth a prize, but rather whether book prizes should only be given to books which a majority of readers will find within their grasp at the expense of recognising books which offer more than the majority can manage.

I'd be interested to know what others think.


Richard Thiel said...

Dear Aidan,

As for your first two questions:

Yes, the Kisses are definitely intended to acknowledge literary worth. The two books that received the Silver Kisses this year were "The book thief" by Markus Zusak and "The year the gypsies came" by Linzi Glass.

And the Kisses may be viewed as a form of marketing and publicity, but I would prefer to view them as a form of publicity for literary works that really deserve that publicity. The Kisses draw attention to books that would otherwise might go unnoticed, because they are less accessible and readable than average books. Some people criticize the Kisses for awarding prizes to books that will appeal to only a small number of readers!

I think the Jury of 2008 was in a rather unique position, facing a dilemma that no other Kisses Jury had faced before. And although I do not agree with them (I am one of those that thought that Dit Is Alles would receive a Silver Kiss) I respect their point of view.

The Netherlands

Ted van Lieshout said...

"... may as yet not be experienced enough and had better wait for a while."
'Wait for what? Wait for nothing, as the jury does not provide any alternative. They simply state: we do not give this book the award although it deserves to be given it, but not by us. And what about 'the benefit of the doubt'? The benefit of the doubt means that you doubt the quality of the book, which is by no means the case here. The jury doubts the quality of the accessibility of the book for young readers, and a literary award is tailored accordingly. The jury even says so in so many words: 'Young readers lack experience and had better wait.' Wait for what? For nothing. Chambers has proclaimed for years that the young deserve the best, and that is exactly what he expresses in his work. The jury does not see the point of that: 'Even those who claim that not everything in a book should be understood in order to learn from it will agree that sometimes readers may as yet not be experienced enough and had better wait for a while.' Young people are simply too stupid, the jury seems to say, and so they get what they can cope with.
Who is going to tell Chambers that he does not get an award because his book is too good? Not me I'm not!'


Jan Meutgeert said...

I think "This is all" is not the most easy book to read, it is not a Harlequin romance novel, it is literature. The jury of the kisses seems to believe that literature like "This is all" is too hard for young readers (aged 12-15) to understand, so they decided to disqualify the book, although the report they made makes undoubtedly clear that they liked "This is all" the best of all.

It is a good thing that the jury protects young readers from this hard to understand books, their vulnerable little brains might explode when exposed to literature.

Their teachers on the other hand should be ashamed, while good willing people like the kisses jury protect the young ones from too much literature their educators make them read Brontë, Austen and even Shakespeare!

Or is "This is all" so much harder to understand than Wuthering Heights and Hamlet? Not forgetting to mention Pride and prejudice.

Linda Newbery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda Newbery said...

Aidan, I agree with you that there's a lot of muddled thinking about book prizes for the young. A great many awards in the UK are now judged by children (although in most cases it's adults who make the preliminary selections), and these projects are successful in involving readers who might otherwise be diffident. But I think the muddiness creeps in when attempts are made to involve child judges in what's meant to be seen as a literary prize. For instance, the Costa (formerly Whitbread)each year appoints two child judges for the children's award; they join the panel of three adults with specialist knowledge. How can this work? The children are usually aged 10-12, whereas books longlisted can be for any age up to young adult. How would Cordelia have fared, judged by a 10-year-old? However, the child judges are sometimes overruled by the adults - so their contribution is really a token gesture, and a bit of publicity for Newsround, which selects the child judges. But then Newsround don't like it if their children's views aren't reflected in the final decision.
There's similar hoo-ha about the Carnegie Shadowing, a scheme which has grown and grown. The children's vote is recorded on the website, so there's a "Shadowing Winner", which is usually different from the actual winner. Teachers and librarians report that the children are disappointed to realise that their vote doesn't affect the outcome, so there's pressure each year for the shadowing vote to be somehow included. Fortunately, CILIP have resisted, so far. There are plenty of prizes which reward popular appeal and easy readability, and for CILIP to involve child judges would surely diminish the status of the Carnegie.
I also agree that, for some well-intentioned librarians and teachers, accessibility, pace and relevance have become all-important when assessing books for the young - quality of writing, or not, can be overlooked completely.
Cordelia should have got her Kiss. Undoubtedly.

Jan Robbins said...

As an avid 73-year-old reader of Aidan's books, this latest debate draws me into making my first blog contribution ever - mainly to say (write!) how delighted I am by the strength of the support for 'This Is All' demonstrated by other commentators.

Though British, I live in Sweden and sell English books for young people, and I'm struck by the irony of the Astrid Lindgren Award going to Sonya Hartnett, whose books, if anyone's, refuse to be 'for' a particular category or age-range. In a newspaper interview today she hotly defends a book's right to be what it is and not address itself to a particular age-group.

As well as selling books I travel around lecturing on them, and time and again I've been thanked for encouraging teachers to buy Aidan's books for their class libraries - in particular his two latest works. There is as yet no Swedish translation of 'This Is All', so the people who read it are doing it in English - and the youngest reader I know of (because I sold her the book) is 13.

To express here what I thought of 'The Book Thief' when I read it last year would be unethical and unfair, but to learn that it took precedence over 'This Is All' for a Silver Kiss came as quite a shock.

Col said...

As an avid 40 yr old reader of Aidan's books, I am shocked and horrified that This is All was not awarded a prize on account of its being the strongest literary contender in the running. That the Astrid Lindren prize went to Sonya Hartnett proves that this kind of writing which does not pander to an age-stamp, can be judged on its proper merits and worth. As the previous commenter chooses, I also would not put my opinions of The Book Thief in the same comment box as the superlative This is All.

Julianne said...

As a 27 year old Dutch reader, who's also an aspiring teacher of the lovely Dutch language, this Kisses predicament was brought to my attention by our 'books' teacher Coen. We have several classes in youth literature.
Aidan Chambers is by far my favourite writer of literature for young adults. His books have captivated many people, as can be seen by reactions here, his style is great and I feel it's admirable that he's a writer that doesn't make others feel they're not ready, smart or sophisticated enough to read his works. He doesn't seem to underestimate children. At this point in time, we're preparing series of lessons with a theme, the theme is a writer of youth literature and it kind of goes without saying which writer is my chosen one. Reading his work has really helped me made up my mind about teaching and wanting to introduce children to literature.
Some teachers, if not most, see it as their goal to get children/youth to read and they don't seem to care if it's too easy, too lighthearted, and kind of far from the truth sometimes. As long as they read, it's all good. And they will read, probably until they're done with school, but the appreciation for literature will not be sparked, I think. Some children need more challenge to really appreciate a book. You cannot put the ladder up too high ofcourse, but 'too easy' can be just as demotivating.
I feel the Kisses jury has made a big miss here. This is a book worth giving attention to (and it did, ironically, get more than it would have if You'd just been given the kiss) because it's very much alive, as I feel it, for young adults. The way the characters are being described, open, honest, human, shameful, makes it very accessible for everyone. There are pages filled with life experience and wisdom, what good would it be to keep children from reading that? The whole series describe possible journeys we all go or went through and personally, I feel it can be a great comfort to read about people like ourselves, going through stages we are going through without judgement. There's no judgement, but we can be our own judge. I feel that's a huge strenght and I cannot wrap my head around the fact a jury could feel that it would be 'too much and the kids aren't ready'.
Basically, books can be judged in many ways, the jury might be focused on style and structure and decide it's too difficult to read. That would be ignoring the way life is portrayed, the closeness to reality and the fact that not all youngsters are discouraged by 'difficult reading'. There's no other reason I can think of to make this call as they did.

I've read many sites that review this book, among them sites for kids, and there were two reactions of girls on there, aged 13 and 14, devastated to have finished this book since they lost a friend. Cordelia became their friend, it was somewhat like reading their own diary, well, this is a 'need I say more?' situation if I ever saw one. Apart from the professional reviewers, none of the 'kids' seemed to mind the language, choice of words, topics and openness of it all. They were ready, they loved it all. Maybe we should ask 'kids' more about what they like, what blows them away, then assuming we all know it for them.

PS. I'm not a writer, as you can tell. This book has me at a loss for words, and I'll keep my eyes open for any Cordelia or perhaps Will in the future, so that I can recommend it to them.

PS2. What's her name?

Zipporah said...

This comment is rather late, but I'm interested to see if you are still keeping this blog, and this entry was the most relevant to why I am reading it.

Do you remember the North East Book Award of 2000/01? Postcards was up, alongside some four or five others. It was a book which had a profound effect upon my year 10 reading group, and it was ranked first by nearly all of us (this award was judged entirely by students, I think). I read it in one sitting lying the wrong way round on the bed in my grandmother's spare room, and felt absent from dinner that night. My best friend and I forged as one more link in our friendship a permanent if mostly unfulfilled obsession with the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular. We still had our differences; she doesn't like Dance (it remains the only book I can open at any point and know exactly where I am, and the only book that provoked entirely opposite reactions the first and second times I read it through).

The award was given to a book about teenage pregnancy. It was predictable and unimaginative and chickened out of facing the parts we would actually have been interested in. I felt like we'd betrayed the readers of Tyneside, putting that book up there, although I recognised that they needed to find Postcards for themselves. It wasn't our fault if they had to wait a while.

As I said, this winning book was a book About teenage pregnancy. It was Accessible. It was Readable. This was a book which discussed Issues Relevant to Young People Today, in capital letters because it was just that obvious. I think the teachers were surprised it came out top; I think they'd thought better of us.

I felt like as young readers we'd let you down that night, and I wanted to say something to you but I was too shy to explain what I meant. It's the only award I've ever been directly involved in and truth be told, it's jaded my experience of them since. And I couldn't agree with you more on the age bands thing. I read Austen at 12 and still read the child and young adult sections at 22. I always avoided books with a guidance age on. I felt they'd been written only to conform to the average, and that was never something I had to worry about with you.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this book yet, but I read "Now I Know" when I was 12, and was profoundly affected by it. I re-read it a few years later, after reading Dance on my Grave, and it stood up very well. Your books and Robert Cormier's books were the only "teenage" market books I ever read that didn't feel deeply patronising and/or superficial. I guess this is only tangentially related, but I wanted to say thank you for that. I moved on to adult books fairly quickly after I was 11-12, but I'm glad I had a time with at least one or two books tailored to my inner and outer age back then...

Anonymous said...

I think the jury made a mistake, but I do clearly see why they did it this way. This is all is a marvelous book, but it is not suitable for everyone. You have to be an advanced reader before you try to read This is all. And, because a lot of children (maybe too little children) will read it when it received the Silver Kiss, the book might put that kids off of other books.

Still, I do not agree that the jury did it this way. This is all deserved that price.

And no, there is not a big difference between being 16 or being older than that. But there is a difference in being 12 or being 20. And some people will be able to read This is all when they are 12. Others will not be ready for the book when they are 50. It is different. But it does not mean This is all should not have received that prize.