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.