Feature Articles

BISTO-ING THE PRIZES by Valerie Coghlan

(Poetry Ireland News, July/August 2003)

This year the judging panel for the Bisto Book of the Year made a decision which was sensible, innovative, and I’m sure not easily reached.  There was not just one Book of the Year but two. And why not – both titles are excellent books of their kind, and quiet different from each other. The Bisto Book(s) of the Year is an annual award. In addition, three books are presented with merit awards, and the Eilís Dillon Award for a first book is also presented on the same occasion. These are drawn from a short list of approximately nine or ten titles. The award is administered by Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) and supported by RHM Foods Ireland. The Chair and judges are teachers, academics or librarians. Most serve a two- to three-years stint on the Award panel and select the winning titles from approximately 90 to 120 books which are submitted each year. To be eligible an author or illustrator must be Irish or resident in Ireland.

The past few years have seen a decline in the number of Irish-published books submitted or winning Bisto. Depending on how you look at it, it might be a testament to the quality of Irish authors’ and illustrators’ work that they are finding a wider market in the competitive publishing climate overseas. More worryingly, it might be taken as a reflection on the decline in publishing for young people in Ireland. Either way, to win Bisto is undoubtedly a well-regarded distinction in Irish writing/publishing circles, and previous winners have included P.J. Lynch, Marita Conlon-McKenna, Siobhán Parkinson, Niamh Sharkey, Gerard Whelan and Marilyn Taylor. This year both of the joint winners are previous Bisto winners: Kate Thompson won in 2002 with The Beguilers, and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick was the winner in 2000 with Izzy and Skunk. It is also the first time that a previous winner has won again.

The sense of London in 1720 where Kate Thompson’s The Alchemist’s Apprentice (The Bodley Head) opens is brilliantly realised, drawing the reader into a world of poverty and desperation. Jack, aged 14 when we first meet him, is the apprentice and the story concerns his search for that which transforms the mundane into something marvellous and special. This parallels Jack’s work with alchemist Jonathan Barnstable who is searching for the philosopher’s stone which transposes base metal into gold, and his own inner and outer journeys to a realisation that hold in the spirit is worth more than gold in the hand.

Transformation is an ever present motif throughout the book. Jack’s adventures take him from his life as a weakling, apprenticed to a blacksmith, working with very base metal indeed, to the life of a fine gentleman, and subsequently to a richness of spirit which is more valuable than gold or any worldly goods. This is a very readable story which leaves the reader with much to ponder, and which will stay in the imagination for a long time.

The past is also the setting for Fitzpatrick’s highly entertaining picturebook: You, Me and the Big Blue Sea (Gullane). Through the eyes of a toddler we participate in the voyage of ‘The Colander’, while always hearing his mother’s words as she describes their voyage on a 19th century sailing-ship. But what he sees and what she sees are not always the same. Perhaps it’s just as well. Mother might not have appreciated watching their clothes falling out of a big trunk, nor seeing a crew member falling over board, nor even following the parallel story of the stow-away boy, with whose hiding baby is complicit.

Fitzpatrick’s medium is watercolour, and her text is gentle and rhythmic. Each opening brings fresh delights and enjoyment and it is a wonderful book for an adult and child to share.

Valerie Coghlan co-edits Inis, the Children’s Books Ireland magazine, and is the librarian at the Church of Ireland College of Education, 96 Upper Rathmines Road, Dublin 6.

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