Let me start with a statement of arrogance:
At my shows I am the centre of attention.
There! I know it, I like it, that is why I do it. I love the feeling of being on a stage in front of an audience and knowing that everyone is there to see me. Hopefully, if things go well, they will applaud and cheer and go home talking. Talking about me.
But last week I attended an event at which I was a very minor cog in an impressive, stimulating and positive wheel.
Through a series of connections, the main one being that my next door neighbour is on the organising committee, I had been asked to attend the Carnegie Forum event in my home town of Abingdon.
Each year the Carnegie Medal is awarded to the best Children’s Book of the year. There is a panel of important, worthy and seemingly anonymous judges, who ponder the merits of eight shortlisted novels before choosing the award winner.
At the same time as the ‘real’ judges are making their decision, so across the country a series of shadow judging is taking place and this is by the books’ target audience, the youth of Great Britain.
In Abingdon the Carnegie Forum is a celebration of educational unity, bringing together six schools from the town to work together for a day of literature. The wonderful thing about the project is that the schools involved are all totally different: there are comprehensive state funded schools and single sex independent fee paying schools, yet by the end of the day all differences will be forgotten as the students work towards a common goal.
The event takes place in the Abingdon Guildhall and at 10.00 the students begin to arrive. Each block is guided in by their teacher, or school librarian and at this time of the day the economic and educational distances are still very clear. If you were to look at the hall from above you would see 6 distinct blocks of colour, depending on the various school uniforms.
At 10.30 the event is ready to begin. The schools represented are: The John Mason School, Larkmead School, St Helen’s and St Katharine’s School, Abingdon School, Fitzharry’s School and Our Lady of Abingdon School.
The event organiser, Rob Baron gets up and welcomes the group and like any good teacher addresses the students (all in the 14-15 age bracket) confidently, efficiently but with no hint of condescension. Like cabin crew on an aeroplane he goes through the evacuation procedures for the building and introduces the judges for the day. Lastly he introduces me.
I have a miniscule part to play in the day, as I intimated at the start this is an occasion that really has nothing to do with me, but each year a speaker is invited to give a short talk to inspire the students.
I don’t know if I do that or not, but I talk about performing Dickens and how a great author gives all the clues a performer may need to discover a character and bring him to life on a stage.
When my 15 minutes are up the main action begins to assess the merits of the shortlisted books
The eight titles on this years’ list are:
All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry
Blood Family by Anne Fine
The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks
The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Roof Toppers by Katherine Rundell
The Wall by William Sutcliffe
The day’s events are in two concurrent parts. Firstly students from all of the schools have studied the novels and written reviews about each of them. A panel of judges will sit and discuss all of these reviews during the day before choosing the best and a highly commended runner up for each title.
While the judges are tucked away in The Bear Room at the Guildhall, so the students are getting down to work on the second part of the proceedings.
In the run up to the event each student has selected one of the novels to work on. Once all of the selections had been collated ten groups were formed (two books getting enough support to merit two groups). The groups are by necessity mixed, using students from all of the schools, who have never worked together before and probably have never even met.
The idea is to create a 4 minute scene about the book and to convince the rest of the attendees to vote for their particular novel.
I have been involved with workshops before during which students improvise and act scenes: they usually end up a horrendous free for all, often a brawl, all of the actors turned inwards, audience forgotten, words inaudible, point lost. To avoid this mayhem each group has a ‘facilitator’(oh, please!), to ensure that the scene is controlled and clear. However all of the creativity, all of the ideas, all of the direction comes from the students themselves.
While the ten groups start their first fumbling discussions, the judges are getting down to work and it is with them that I spend the day. Actually I could quite easily have gone home after my bit but the latent energy of this event, the sense of creativity and commitment makes me want to stay and watch. Actually I just want to be a part of it all.
The judge’s debate is fascinating, the more so because I have read none of the novels, so the only information I have is from the student’s reviews. The panel is made up from 6 people all involved in the book industry: authors, booksellers, publishers, librarians and teachers: people who know their subject.
The chairman of the judging panel, voted by a quick show of hands, is Mark Thornton, who runs a superb independent book shop in Abingdon. Mostly Books is everything that a local bookshop should be, with a good stock and a superb ordering service, allied to great knowledge of his product, things that an online bookseller can never achieve.
The deliberations begin with All the Truth that’s In Me and moves on through each title. Some of the reviews are simply a regurgitation of the plot and some are very personal:
WOW! This is a fantastic read…..The short chapters drew me in, so that I was forever saying to myself ‘just one more chapter! Just one more!’ It meant that I finished this in record time
Each judge had made notes about the reviews and as the process went on it became clear what each was looking for. They pulled out memorable phrases, decried ‘listy’ reviews, liked the personal touches:
‘Rooftoppers’ is so good that I went over my bedtime by three hours just so I could finish it.
Some reviews give good advice:
I think this book should be for 11+ as it includes more adult themes like abuse and addiction which can be quite scary.
Some, harsh criticism:
I didn’t enjoy reading this book. It was tedious and the plot was dragging itself along……I felt that I had to force myself to carry on reading as it soon became boring and uninteresting.
And some reviewers got carried away in their own enthusiasm:
Who ever reads this [the review], I hope HAS read the story, for I have spoiled it now! But if you have, I hope you think my review very accurate to the story, and enjoyed reading Ghost Hawk! I believe that Susan Cooper made fantastic twists, and wrote the book brilliantly. Thank you for reading my review!
As the discussions carry on clear frontrunners appear and Mark makes notes on an incredibly complicated looking cross reference system, comprising of tables, letters and numbers.
After half the books have been discussed we break for a while to take a look at the groups working on their presentations which are in various stages of preparation. Some are still in the discussion stage whilst some are already in rehearsal.
What is clear is that each group has become a fully homogenised unit, with lots of input from each member, although inevitably some natural leaders are appearing.
The event carries on until lunchtime, during which the judges work on the second set of reviews, while the students have a picnic lunch in the nearby Abbey Grounds.
After the break it is time for the performances themselves. We all take seats in the main hall as each group gets up to perform in front of their peers.
The scenes vary in their success but all are carefully thought through and ‘sell’ their books well. Some are a bit confusing, some are very simple, some send chills down the spine.
In many of the groups natural performers shine through, whilst others are so shy and nervous that they are scarcely audible and it is these who get my huge respect for the sheer nerve they have to stand and perform and not to let their colleagues down.
After the ten performances are done, the judges retire to consider the result and everyone else eats cake.
Finally it is the prize giving and Mark, having checked and rechecked his tables, gets up to announce the decisions. There are winners and highly commended awards from students representing every one of the schools at the event and, amazingly, those were the genuine results. No tweaking had to be done to make sure that each establishment was rewarded.
Of the scenes two stood out: one performing Bunker Diaries and one for The Wall. It is the latter that gets the nod.
The day has run absolutely to schedule and the unified group begins to break up into its component parts which in turn return to their own schools.
Maybe new friendships have been forged or maybe the status quo will be maintained but whatever happens one thing is very clear to me: the future of reading, the future of books is in very very good hands indeed.