The Guardian view on book prizes: don’t forget the children | Editorial

The announcement of the Booker prize longlist this week marks the start of the new cycle of literary prizes in the UK. The so-called “Booker dozen” of 13 novels not only offers a handy summer reading list, but represents the moment when readers start to find a shape in the deluge of titles that are published each year. At nearly 190,000 books, the UK’s annual output is the third biggest in the world, behind only China and the US. So, love them or hate them, prizes play an important part in helping readers to chart a way through.

The landscape will be different in the year ahead, after last month’s sudden and unexplained announcement that the coffee retailer Costa was scrapping the Booker’s main rival for literary prestige with immediate effect. Previously known as the Whitbread book awards, the Costas offered awards in five categories – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children’s and first novels – with an overall book of the year picked from the section winners.

Unlike many other countries, the UK has no state-subsidised book awards, making them dependent on commercial sponsorship. This has the disadvantage of leaving them vulnerable to the whims of businesses, but it has also generated a Darwinian energy: this week’s other news was that the Rathbones Folio prize, previously a one-section generalist award with winners including the novelist Colm Tóibín, the poet Raymond Antrobus and the journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, will trifurcate to replicate three of the Costa’s sections: poetry, fiction and nonfiction, with an overall winner at the end.

Sadly, this new list omits children’s fiction, alongside first novels. While debut fiction is well provided for – a new prize was launched this year by the booksellers Waterstones – there will be tears before bedtime in the world of children’s literature, especially as it follows hot on the heels of the axing of the 22-year-old Blue Peter awards. Organisers of the Rathbones Folio prize give two reasons for the omission: first, that nominations for the prize are made by an “academy” of writers that is lacking in expertise on children’s books, and second, that the gap left by the Blue Peters had been filled by the expansion of the existing Laugh Out Loud prize.

Neither reason will satisfy champions of children’s publishing, and with good reason. There are more than 300 members of the Rathbones Folio academy, so to add some more children’s authors to the mix would be no great problem. In terms of the intellectual landscape of publishing, there is a bigger frustration: for all its importance – and the past decades have been a golden age – children’s fiction is too often the Cinderella of publishing.

Philip Pullman, who won the Costa book of the year for The Subtle Knife, the third instalment of his His Dark Materials trilogy, said the prize was a personal gamechanger because nobody cared about the dedicated children’s awards that he had previously won. Drawing an equals sign between children’s fiction and the other four category winners was a statement about the value of children’s literature, he said. It’s not too late for that value to continue to be honoured, so that a children’s novel could once again be feted as the book of the year.

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