On Friday 21st May the announcement of the winner of a rather special children’s book award will be made.
The Tir na n-Og Awards were established by the Books Council Of Wales in 1976, and are given annually to honour original works of fiction or non-fiction by authors and illustrators of children’s books in Welsh and English published during the previous year. They aim to recognise, celebrate and promote high quality books for children and young people. The awards are named for Tír na nÓg, the “Land of the Young”, an otherworldly realm in Irish mythology.
Sponsored by CILIP Cymru Wales, the English-language shortlist celebrates books with an authentic Welsh background for children and young people. There are also two other prizes for Welsh language books for primary and secondary ages.
Over the last few weeks I have read the three books on this year’s English language shortlist and have enjoyed them immensely. Running through each of them is the concept of ‘home’ and ‘family’ and their importance to each of us. What does home mean and why does it matter so much? I think perhaps home features in children’s literature as it offers a place of safety and security within the story; a sense of the familiar at the heart of a make believe world. One would hope that children associate it with love and happiness too. Home is not necessarily a building, it may be a particular place, town, area or country. Perhaps home is not even a geographical location but simply the place where your family are. Or even those you choose as family. Each of these ideas is explored in these excellent books.
The Quilt by Valeriane Leblond
The Quilt is a beautiful picturebook that I have returned to often over recent days and it has caused me to ponder further on the meaning of home. Valeriane Leblond uses both text and illustration to examine the emotion described as hiraeth, for which there is no direct translation in English, but which can be described as an intense longing or desire for home.
The story is of a family who are struggling to survive in rural north Wales at the turn of the 20th century and decide to emigrate to the USA in search of a better life. It is told from the child’s point of view and the reader watches as the family are forced to sell all of their possessions except for a black and red quilt lovingly hand-made by her mother. The little girl feels homesick and sad at times, but the memories and love contained in the quilt help her overcome this and adapt to her new life. The quilt in many ways comes to symbolise home to the child. There is a great deal of hope in this poignant story and it is apparent that in taking the customs and traditions with them the family are able to recreate the security and familiarity of the land they have left behind. This story could equally apply to all those today who are forced to leave their homes to travel to another land in search of safety and a future.
Mat Tobin, lecturer in children’s literature at Oxford Brookes University, has written a beautiful blog expanding on the themes covered in this special book and also providing a thoughtful exploration of the illustrations and their role in the telling of the story.
The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott
This book for teens exceeded all my expectations and it had come highly recommended by people whose opinion I value. It is a compelling read and historical fiction that truly does transport the reader to another time. The story is set in the year 454AD when the Romans have withdrawn from Britain, throwing it into the chaos of the Dark Ages. Mai has been kept safe by her father and her sister, Haf. But when Saxon warriors arrive at their farm, the family is forced to flee to the hills where British warlords lie in wait.
The beautiful language used and created by Elen Caldecott ensures that this truly feels like a story written in another time. The imagery, the landscape, the homes and villages all combine in a setting that comes vividly to life for the reader. I loved Mai whose courageous and determined struggle for survival I found moving and impressive. The bond of family and in particular of sisters is central to the story and the search for home and security dominates the book but the question of who one views as family is addressed with thoughtful care. The role of women in society at that time and how they fought for some control over their own lives was an aspect I found fascinating. This is an extraordinary book I am still thinking about weeks after I finished reading it.
There is an excellent interview with Elen Caldecott on Family Bookworms that provides interesting background information and a fascinating discussion about language. Nikki Gamble also interviewed the author last year about the book and the podcast is definitely worth a listen. I learned a great deal from this interview regarding the research process, the structure of the story and the character development, so much so that I’m tempted to go back and re-read sections.
Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth
It is sometimes hard for me to remember that I am no longer a school librarian and when I am engrossed in an enjoyable children’s book I am pairing it with particular readers in my mind as I read. This exciting adventure would appeal to a great many young readers. Cara and her siblings and their Irish wolfhound, Willow, live on a riverboat in the countryside with their mother. An unexpected discovery of a locked safe, an accident and a need to escape combine in a plot that finds the children embarking on a journey through the Welsh landscape and a Celtic rainforest lost and in danger.
Jess Butterworth combines contemporary adventure and folklore with skill and the descriptions of the natural world and Cara’s appreciation of it add to the enjoyment of this lovely story of bravery, family and friendship. The various threads are brought together in an ending that feels believable and satisfying. There are several important themes incorporated within the book that will both reassure and inspire young readers. Bullying, family separation, deafness, persistence, sibling loyalty, and environmental awareness are all part of the story but are portrayed in a hopeful and positive manner that I think children will find encouraging. A thrilling and exciting read but also a kind and thoughtful one.
Simon at Family Bookworms has also interviewed Jess Butterworth about Where the Wilderness Lives and I enjoyed learning about the Ogham alphabet which plays a part in the story and more about the area in which the book is set.
All three of these books has made an impact on me and I am so glad that I have read them and I think that the judges have an immensely difficult task in choosing just one of these as the ultimate winner of the award. The announcement will be made on Friday 21st May at 6.30pm on BBCRadio Wales Arts Show.