Feature Articles


(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2003)

The Bisto Awards, awarded for excellence in text and illustration, have now been in existence for over a decade. Teachers, librarians and academics read, discuss and judge all the children’s books published in a calendar year by authors and illustrators born or currently living in Ireland.  We do not yet have in this country a children’s book award that is awarded by children, though any teachers who have ‘shadowed the shortlist’ will testify to their pupils’ enthusiasm and excitement as they decide which book they believe should win the overall Book of the Year, Merit and Eilís Dillon Awards [see Inis, No 2, p8]. But perhaps we should be setting our sights higher and trying to shadow not just the shortlist but the entire Bisto Awards? What follows is based on an inner-city school’s first attempt to shadow Bisto, an experiment adopted by the children involved with wholehearted and somewhat unexpected enthusiasm, and all suggestions on how we might improve the experience will be gratefully accepted and put into practice for next year’s attempt.

Full of post-holiday energy, we introduced some books on 1st September, which meant that the class was already familiar with a number of the easier reads by the end of the first week. By the time they actually heard about Bisto in mid-October they had read several picture books, many of the books for younger children, one or two of the Irish language submissions [in Irish class], some of the poems [in drama/movement class] and one or two of the more lengthy novels [in place of the textbook or ‘reader’]. Explaining the idea and detailing the work involved became very much easier when the children were just about to meet some authors/attend some library events as a direct reward for being ‘Bisto judges’... And we made sure that our judges attended more events, met more authors, got more bookmarks, collected more autographs than any other children in the school – anything that would make the whole judging business more fun, more pleasurable, was encouraged.

We formally introduced the idea of shadowing the Bisto awards at an assembly dedicated to book-related activities during Book Festival. Our judges stood in front of the school while the principal spoke about the importance of what they were about to do, held up the books they’d already read and generally made a fuss of them. As a result several books were read over half-term, by children with no great tradition of reading at home! Having each judge choose a book to review at subsequent assemblies meant that the whole school was involved in praising and recognising the work they were doing, and younger children became very aware of newly-published books, books that were clearly enjoyable.

These monthly assemblies certainly helped to keep the children motivated in the second term when interest might otherwise have flagged, but much more important was the visits to the class of an author under Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools scheme. Gillian Perdue, who had the previous year won the Eilís Dillon Award, listened to their opinions on her own and other books, and by talking to them about the importance to authors of awards in general and of Bisto in particular, she validated all the work they were doing in a way that the staff in school could never have done on their own.

Constant encouragement, and sporadic rewards (we presented each judge with a book voucher on World Book Day, a brief review counted as homework) meant that they had read nearly all the age-appropriate books and any of the Irish language books they were able to read by the end of March. By now they were losing interest so, following lengthy discussions and (very!) heated debate, they drew up their own shortlist of ten books, which was posted throughout the school. Interestingly, six of the books chosen by our judges also appeared on the final shortlist, although the two lists agreed on only one award. The fact they were invited to attend the Bisto Awards ceremony, where they met authors, publishers and other ‘famous’ people and were interviewed by TV3 was only the icing on the cake, they were so pleased with themselves and so proud to have read all those books.

None of the staff in our school jumps for joy at the thought of starting it all again this September, but we will, because the children have ask us to, and for our kids to ask us to facilitate them in the reading of fifty or sixty books... well, how could we refuse! With maybe only one copy of each book to go round, it does get very tiresome trying to remember which of the class has read which book, as does checking the bottom of schoolbags for missing books. Our local librarians may have mixed feelings about it too, because nearly all the books we used came from school block-loans; they also ordered for us submissions published abroad, invited us to events and readings in the locality, and we used the libraries when we wanted to ignite interest in the more challenging novels – kids love being outside the classroom, and loved witting surrounded by posters, cushions and books. The librarians in the Children’s and Schools’ section of Dublin City Libraries worked very closely with us and deserve awards themselves for supporting us with advice and encouragement and enthusiasm and for helping us to use our allocation with Bisto books in mind.

I believe that there is a real need for a children’s book award to be judged by children themselves, if only to see how their opinions might differ from those of the elders and ‘betters’ on the actual Bisto judging panel. In the meantime, ‘shadowing the Bisto’ can be a superb way – if one that needs considerable teacher input – of encouraging and fostering enthusiasm for reading and for books.

For a complete list of Irish-published books, see BookFest, CBI’s recommended readings list, pp 60-61

Liz Morris is Class teacher in St Mary’s Place Boys NS, Dorset St. Co-editor with Sarah Webb of CBI BookFest. Worked for O’Brien Press on their reading programme using real books.

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