Children’s Book Award History

by Julia Miller (Lincolnshire CBG and Exec)

Special beyond words” – so one of the Overall Winners described the Children’s Book Award, one of the Federation’s significant national initiatives that was developed in the early days. In 1980, Pat Thomson, creator of the Children’s Book Award (CBA), said: ‘The Federation only exists to bring children and books together, so any award would need to involve them. Not just involve them in fact. Anyone can run a few books past the kids. They would have to be at the heart of it.’

She continues: ‘In 1980 everywhere we heard of cuts in spending on books in libraries and schools and rumours of crises…It seemed that children’s fiction was an easy target. It was an act of faith, an act of solidarity with all the authors, illustrators and children’s publishers’.     

This ‘act of faith’ has thrived for nearly 40 years, still generously supported by publishers, authors and illustrators, highly valued by the winners and sponsored by many organisations since its early days. The Overall Winners have reflected the wisdom and discernment of the children: authors whose books have since become classics including Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Korky Paul… Children are still the only voters for this award from start to finish, reading nearly 1,000 books a year to create the Top 50 longlist and Top Ten shortlist, making the Children’s Book Award unique. 

Bringing children and books together has always been the mission of the Federation: the Children’s Book Award brings children (and adults) who might not have access to books – and certainly not to NEW books! – together with books by new authors as well as old favourites. The Federation’s charitable mission remains firmly at its heart, as tester groups take books into schools, libraries and hospitals, working with young carers and foster children, and then donating thousands of books a year to women’s refuges, Sure Start centres, traveller communities and children in deprived areas without libraries or bookshops.       

There are now twelve Tester Groups around the UK but in the early days there were just ten and Federation members (and their husbands!) used their initiative to swap books around, meeting at service stations up and down the motorways and in town squares, with piles of books and votes. Testers still drive around the country – Dundee covers large parts of Scotland, and Lincolnshire ranges from the Fens to the Humber. Some of the groups today have been involved since the early days: Birmingham, Plymouth, Ipswich…every year supporting the award, cajoling schools to take part and bringing children to the ceremony.  

The Award Ceremony has always been a special event, organised for the children who have voted, so they can meet the Top Ten authors and illustrators and then present all the shortlisted authors with portfolios of children’s work about the books. Patrick Ness, Overall Winner in 2012, called it: ‘the most fun award ceremony ever’ as children blew party blowers and stamped their feet.    

The portfolios have always been highly valued: Pat Thomson describes how Quentin Blake (the first  winner in 1980) was moved to tears when he received his.  

CBA 2012 winner Patrick Ness with members of Reading CBG.

Venues ranged widely from a ‘tent’ in the early days to becoming part of major festivals, including Hay and Imagine at the South Bank Centre in London. Early Winner Bob Swindells said: ‘Winning the Children’s Book Award in 1985 felt terrific. The ceremony itself in those early unsponsored days was conducted in a tent, in a park in Nottingham. It was raining but I couldn’t have felt more euphoric if we had been doing it in the Royal Albert Hall…. I won again in 1990 and this time there was a swanky venue (Birmingham Metropole) and the trophy but all of that couldn’t equal the joy I felt in that damp little tent in Nottingham. Nothing ever will’. Venues since included The Royal York Hotel, the Roof Gardens in Kensington, the Botanical Gardens in Birmingham and the Union Jack Club in central London.

Early prizes for the winner were designed to fit their winning book, with Allan and Janet Ahlberg being presented with a large red post-box for ‘The Jolly Postman’  in 1987, after which the decision was taken with the sponsor at the time, Save and Prosper, to design a special silver oak tree trophy by Royal Silversmith Graham Stewart, which could be presented each year to the winner, plus an engraved silver acorn for the winner to keep. This trophy is still presented every year.         

The creation of the ‘Pick of the Year’ or Top 50 was an early idea that has also continued throughout the years, starting with 40 books and then expanding to 50 in 1987. The Top 50 books chosen by the children, spread across the age ranges and three categories, has travelled the country as a Travelling Exhibition, and they are then donated to a local community group or school.

Thanks to the generosity of the award sponsors and the publishers throughout the years, the Children’s Book Award continues to go from strength to strength. With nearly 150,000 votes cast every year, involving over 300 schools and many families around the UK, it is still the most participative and widespread children’s book award in the country. Run entirely by volunteers, it is their passion and commitment to the ethos of the award and of the Federation that makes this award continue to be very special indeed.   

Key dates for the Children’s Book Award

1980: Creation of the Children’s Book Award, as the only national award voted for entirely by children

1984: Arts Council financial assistance

1986 – 1997: Sponsorship by Save and Prosper

1987: Introduction of Top 50

1988: Creation of £6,000 silver trophy by Graham Stewart, silversmith to HM Queen, awarded in 1989

1992: Introduction of the three Category Winners

1998 – 2001: Sponsorship by Paul Hamlyn Foundation

2000: Added a fourth picture book to create the Top Ten

2002: Financial support from JP Morgan Fleming Charities

2003 – 2015: Sponsorship by The Book People and re-named the Red House Children’s Book Award

2006 – 2008: Award presented as part of the Hay Festival

2012 – 2015: Award presented as part of the Imagine Festival, Southbank Centre

                   Silver leaf bookmarks for Category Winners

2016 – 2017: Renamed the Children’s Book Award

2017: Part sponsorship by the Rail Delivery Group

2018: Headline sponsorship by BookLife Publishing


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