I am a lover of books.

Jenny Jones is the CKG Judge for YLG South West

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I am a lover of books. A book lover. When I hear myself talking about books I say things like “I adore this book”,“this book made my heart sing”,“I never wanted this book to end”, “I was up all night with this book”, “This book made me cry/laugh/write/dance around the room/want to run away to sea/join a circus” (delete as appropriate). I am a lover of books and this is the language of passion. As a book lover I love the whole of a book, I am entranced with the essential nature of it, its charm, the cut of its jib, its swagger and sway. I pass over its imperfections (if I even notice them at all while I’m busy in its company). Often the imperfections themselves make a book special to me.

But to take the role as a CKG Judge seriously I had to become a surgeon, not just a lover of books. I had to cut into each book’s surface and look at its spine, its muscles, its sinews, its lifeblood. I had to study the imperfections, to weigh them up, to put my feelings towards certain types of books, for particular authors and illustrators aside. It was difficult. It was even upsetting at times but it had to be done. I had to become a different kind of reader.

Jake Hope, previous Chair of Judges, offered us a useful metaphor during our training sessions. He said to imagine each book as a snowglobe, a world complete in itself with its own rules, logic and aesthetic. How well does this enclosed world work within its own boundaries? If there are imperfections are they scratches on the surface of the glass or are they cracks that you can’t pass over because they threaten the integrity of the whole? You can’t compare one completely different style of book with another directly but you can ask yourself  ‘Is this book outstanding at being what it has set out to be?’

I turned to writers for guidance with the Carnegie Medal judging process. Writers dedicate their lives and livelihoods to their art, so who better to go to for guidance?

I read Stephen King’s illuminating and inspiring manual-come-autobiography On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and noted his dislike for adverbs and the overuse of adjectives. “Show don’t tell,” is his repeated advice. Yet simplicity is often deceptively difficult. Anton Chekhov is often credited as writing, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Learning to see this art clearly was vital to my new skill set.

The sad news of Ursula Le Guin’s death came at the beginning of my time as a judge, and I took many pieces of advice from her. She has written wise, acerbic works on the art of writing. It was this point about exposition (setting the story out, background, context) that I copied into the front of my judging notebook and referred to constantly:

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Well-crafted exposition is difficult to spot; poorly crafted exposition isn’t, once you start to look carefully. If a passage is dragging (especially near the beginning of a book) then a lot of the time it will be because the background information, the exposition, hasn’t been ground up finely enough.

Le Guin also writes in Steering The Craft: “A story is made out of language, and language can and does express delight in itself just as music does.” When language expresses this delight in itself you can’t help but notice it. It takes outstanding writers to achieve this but it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard to access.

I also turned to my friend and picture book expert Melanie McGilloway aka @LibraryMice for guidance in developing Greenaway Medal judging skills. She lent me a large collection of books and this was a huge help. They expanded my visual literacy skills, ensured I could really ‘see’ skillful illustration clearly and helped me to be confident in using the language with which to discuss it.

The extraordinary book Picture This by Molly Bang uses illustration to teach visual literacy, composition and the psychology of visual storytelling in a playful way. It made me look at every illustration and think about the many choices involved in its creation. It showed me how absolutely every part of an outstanding illustrated book has been thought through and is as it is for a reason. This might sound obvious but until you really start looking at illustrations and thinking about them carefully it is all too easy to look at but not ‘see’ the artistry.

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From Picture This by Molly Bang

Reading Picture Books With Children by Megan Dowd Lambert teaches adult readers how to start conversations and discussions about visual literacy. I imagined reading the 117 nominated Greenaway titles aloud to my readers at school and talked myself through her ‘whole book approach’ as I studied each page. Greenaway Shadowing groups might find her Whole Book Approach Tweets from November 2016 really helpful when they are looking at the judging criteria as she included lots of examples.

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The ‘Whole Book Approach’ Tweets are collected and linked to here:- http://megandowdlambert.com/november-picture-book-month/

I am at the midpoint in my time as a CKG Judge now. The Shortlists for 2019 are out and I am re-reading these extraordinary books and studying them even closer than before. I am also busy reading books that are eligible for 2020 because any day could see the publication of a CKG 2020 winner and I want to have given all of the nominations the best consideration that I can.

Has becoming a CKG Judge dampened this book lover’s passion for books? Absolutely not.

Does the surgeon love the sinews? Absolutely.

This last year and a half has taught me to see the beauty in the bones beneath the skin, to really appreciate the skill in the hand of the maker. It has deepened my love of children’s literature immeasurably because I have a deeper understanding of it and of the vast variety of voices and visions out there.


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