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Behind the Scenes at the Spark! School Book Awards

I’ve always fancied the idea of being a judge in a literary competition and I’m always prepared to give a book recommendation or opinion in any situation. While I’m still waiting for the Women’s Prize to call, I did have the privilege of being invited to chair one of the shortlisting panels for the 2022 Spark! School Book Awards, based in my local borough of Kingston upon Thames. While the inner workings of the Women’s Prize remain a mystery to me, I am pleased to offer a sneak peak into the fabulous experience of selecting a shortlist for a children’s book award.

The Spark! School Book Awards were optimistically founded by a small independent team during the first Covid lockdown of 2020, to promote reading for pleasure in local schools. The idea received enthusiastic support from Achieving for Children, Kingston and Richmond Councils, as well as teachers, librarians, and booksellers. 80 schools participated in the first year, but the Spark team had a vision to expand the reach of the awards even further.

18 October 2021

Our first meeting takes place at Coombe Hill Junior School on a Monday afternoon. We are joined, via zoom, by Jenny Pearson who was shortlisted in the 2021 awards, and by ‘reading for pleasure’ expert Professor Teresa Cremin who are both passionate and encouraging about the value of the Spark! School Book Awards. We discuss the criteria we will be using to select the books and I meet the other members of my shortlisting panel—a lovely enthusiastic group of primary school teachers. The highlight of the meeting, however, is the delightful cornucopia of books in each of the four categories, awaiting our perusal and our eager shopping bags. I lug a box full of picture books to my car—excited to start reading.

I realise of course that the picture book panel have an easy task compared to those who are expected to read their way through a pile of middle-grade fiction. But I intend to take my job seriously and I read the picture books in batches of four, rating them according to various criteria and making notes of my impressions in an Excel spreadsheet.

3 November 2021 – First Meeting of the Ages 3-5 Picture Fiction Panel

I ruin all attempts at a professional first impression by pushing the wrong button on Zoom and starting a new meeting by myself instead of attending the prearranged one I had invited the rest of the team to. But eventually we manage to get everyone together in the same virtual room. My team is comprised of five primary school teachers Niamh, Gemma, Nicole, Millie, and Jessica. Everyone is enthusiastic and passionate. This is just a seeing how it’s going meeting—we don’t need to make any actual decisions. No pressure. There are some books that immediately appeal to all of us, and some enthusiastic recommendations that I am surprised by.

22 November 2021 – Second Meeting of the Ages 3-5 Picture Fiction Panel

We actually have to make some decisions in this meeting. It opens with spreadsheets and mathematical calculations, but it ends with emotional appeals: My class loved that book—we can’t leave that one out! We finish the meeting, convinced we have a longlist, only for some last-minute recalculations and renegotiations via email before sending our final final longlist in to the organising team.

1 December 2021

The first longlisted book in each category is announced on Twitter and Facebook to start off the Spark ‘12 Books of Christmas’ posts. This is the exciting moment when we connect with the authors and illustrators for the first time. This is also when we spare a thought for those books that we loved but didn’t quite make the list.

Over December I read the longlisted books again and ask each panel member to rank them in preparation for our final decision.

6 January 2022 - Third Meeting of the Ages 3-5 Picture Fiction Panel

The trickiest part of the whole process is finding a meeting time that all six of us can attend. We manage five for the final meeting, but I do speak to the other team member before the meeting to get her input in advance.

I decide, for the sake of process accountability, that we need to be able to ‘show our working’ for this final decision and everything is recorded on a tastefully colour-coded Excel spreadsheet. We have each rated the 12 longlisted books from our favourite to least favourite, and each book is assigned a numerical score based on its position. (It is interesting to note that every single one of us has a different favourite book.) The scores are tallied, and a clear top 7 books emerge. The bottom five books are eliminated, and the scores reassigned based on this reduced list. There is now a clear top three with a three-way tie for the final spot. There is some more discussion, some emotional appeals, and a final vote. It is decided—we have our shortlist.

17 January 2022

The four category shortlists are announced on Twitter and Facebook. I have a few more tasks left to complete, but from this point the judging responsibility moves to the children. I have a favourite in my category, of course, but I shall wait and see if the children agree. The school will cast their votes and the winners of each category will be announced on 30 June.

Being a member of a shortlisting panel has been an illuminating experience but has also reinforced my view that there is a plethora of brilliant children’s books being published now. I feel very privileged that it is my job to read them and share them with children. Reading for pleasure is so important for academic achievement, mental health, and the development of empathy and, in my experience, children are eager to be excited and inspired by books—all it takes is a spark.

Rebecca Rouillard


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