Emma Brewster, Children’s Book Buyer at Sainsbury’s; Camilla Reid; and Axel Scheffler, award judge
This Thursday and last have been tense times in our household: with children born two school years apart, we were waiting for both A Level and GCSE results. Everything turned out fine, thank you for asking, but there’s nothing like these rites of passage to make you feel nostalgic for the babies that you once had, and so the timing of yesterday’s news was particularly poignant for me.
Yesterday, Camilla, Frances and I went to the Sainsbury’s Children’s Book Awards, now in their fourth year. (And in another bout of nostalgia I was recalling that, in 2013, when Nosy Crow was smaller, and frankly less well organised than it is now, I cycled up to Sainsbury’s head office in a lather of sweat to drop off our entries and the relevant forms, arriving at the very end of the day, and finding it almost impossible to find anyone to take them from me.)
The awards are divided into various categories – Baby and Toddler, Learning and Development, Picture Book, Fiction, and Licensed Book – and we’ve been shortlisted in the past but, sadly, never won.
This year, we were shortlisted in the Baby and Toddler category for Where’s Mr Lion, illustrated by Ingela P Arrhenius, against The Crayons’ Book of Colours by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers (that would be THE Oliver Jeffers), and Bathtime for Little Rabbit by Jörg Mühle – both really strong books. Remembering our past experiences of the award, we had our good losers’ faces on when Jill Coleman, Director of Publisher Relations and Book Purchasing at BookTrust, which was involved with the awards for the first time this year, took to the stage to announce the winner.
And we won the Baby and Toddler award. Yes, we were surprised! But also, in a sort of a way, we weren’t. Where’s Mr Lion is a perfect book, I think: it’s got bright, sometimes neon-bright, felt flaps on each spread, each revealing a stylishly-drawn character, and a mirror behind a final felt flap on the last page. The pared-to-the-bone text is repetitive – the only variation on each page is the name of the animal that the baby is looking for. I remember being shown a mock-up of the pages before we commissioned the illustrations from the brilliant Ingela P Arrhenius, and just knowing that this was a book – and a series, because this is the first in a series – that we HAD to publish. The only problem was that the financial numbers looked absolutely terrible. It is a nice example of the advantages of being a small publishing company that we were able to take the risk on this excellent book, which could easily have bitten the dust at the point at which it was costed and found wanting: if we were more formal or bureaucratic in our acquisitions process, this is a book that would never have gone any further. The truth is that this book was, and remains, an expensive book to make. It has to be printed and hand-assembled in China and each colour of felt has to be individually safety tested. The art has to be beautiful, and beautiful art is not cheap art. But we took the risk, and have six-figure international sales of this first title in the series alone since it was published in January. So sometimes it pays to back the creative vision of an editor and a designer combined with a bit of a sales hunch.
We basked in the glory of our category win while the other category winners were announced – Adrian Edmonson’s Tilly and the Time Machine won the Fiction Award; The Pokemon Encyclopedia won the Licensed Book award; Usborne’s 100 Things to Know About the Human Body won the Learning and Development Award; and Rachel Bright and Jim Field’s The Koala Who Could won the Picture Book Award. These were pretty heavy hitters, so we assembled our good losers’ faces again, as the overall Sainsbury’s Children’s Book of the Year award winner was announced.
The winner was… Where’s Mr Lion! I cannot tell you how happy we are to have won this award. This is a book with five spreads of minimal illustrations, and a total of 31 words, 5 of which are “where”. It looks… simple. And there aren’t many prizes that acknowledge how difficult it is to make books that look simple, but that really, really work well for their audience, let alone prizes that acknowledge that to the point that such a book wins over fiction, and picture books and non-fiction books. It’s such an accolade, and also an important acknowledgement of the importance of books for the youngest children. Reading becomes a habit the younger you are when you start doing it, and sharing books with babies is one of the best things that parents can do to contribute to the emotional well-being, language development and later life success of children, according to multiple pieces of research.
I said that I was feeling nostalgic for my babies, and I feel nostalgic, too, about the books I read to my babies. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Dear Zoo, Where’s Spot and Peepo! are all simple-looking books with novelty elements – holes or flaps – that invite the uncoordinated scrabble of the tiniest of fingers. They have simple texts that I could recite even now based on how often I read them nearly two decades ago. I hope that mums nearly twenty years from now will recall Where’s Mr Lion with the same teary fondness.
Where’s Mr Lion and our Sainsbury’s Children’s Book Award