Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Guardian Children's Prize for Fiction 2008

Patrick Ness's first novel for teenagers has won this year's Guardian children's fiction prize. Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, in a world of information overload, beat Jenny Downham's Before I Die, Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic and Siobhan Dowd's Bog Child to take the £1,500 prize.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, published by Walker Books, is the first book of a trilogy, Chaos Walking, and ends on something of a cliffhanger. Ness has already written the second, out next May, and is working on the third; his adult writing is taking a sideline for now. "I'm kind of helpless about it. I have to write whatever's next in the queue," he said in The Guardian.

"The thing a teenage audience will do for you is that if you don't insult their intelligence, they will often follow you to strange places, so you can really really go for it. This story felt like something that's got to be really gone for, really shouted out from the rafters, and teenage fiction is where you can do that and still not be shoved into genre," Ness said. "In its most basic form it's about information overload, the sense that the world is so very very loud. Then I took the next logical step of what if you couldn't get away."

Young critics, including Sophia Christmann, a winner in the Guardian's annual Young Critic prize, seem to have found all four potentially worthy winners. She said 'Before I Die', is "a book I will definitely never forget," adding, "the combination of the content, the structure and the way Tessa's final moments are laid out make the story heartbreakingly sad".

Downham, a 43-year-old former London-based actress, finished writing Before I Die on the last day of February 2007. Seven days later it was snapped up by publisher David Fickling, and two weeks later it had been sold in ten languages. When it was published last July, the story of a teenage girl who does everything possible to achieve her dreams, no matter how unlikely, before she dies of leukemia, was met with universally enthusiastic reviews.

Another young critic, Aashik Chhibber reviewed Anthony McGowan's The Knife That Killed Me, "I think that knife crime is a good topic, as he is able to make people think about the consequences," he wrote. He praised McGowan for being "really insightful into what it is like to be a teenager and the struggle many teens face, as well as some of the reasons they may carry knives". Rajesh Jethwa thought it "a brilliant book".

The Guardian Children's Fiction Prize or Guardian Award is a prominent award for children's literature by British or Commonwealth authors, published in the UK during the preceding year. The award has been given annually since 1967, and is decided by a panel of authors and the review editor for The Guardian's children's books section. It may be compared with the American Newbery Medal.

Ness said he was "genuinely astonished" to win. "I think it was a super-strong shortlist. Before I Die is a huge hit, Frank is a great writer, and I'm reading Siobhan Dowd now, it's really great and I kind of thought she would win."

An interview with Jenny Downham will appear in The View From Here next week.

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