Telegraph Book Club: Reading matter

editorial image

A love of reading is one of the most important gifts you can give a child, and this fortnight I take a look at the Sheffield Children’s Book Awards that aim to inspire school children to pick up a book. Now in their thirtieth year, the awards are going from strength to strength.

I also have an extraordinary read of the fortnight for you, a book that leaves you crying and questioning everything, but also manages to be entertaining and funny.

And I look forward to my first visit to a particularly corpse-littered literary festival.

Read of the fortnight - The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy’s debut novel was the spectacularly successful Small Island.

And all eyes were on this, her 2010 follow-up, to see if it could live up to its predecessor.

Levy has said that she didn’t intend for The Long Song to be a book about slavery, but rather a story about people that has slavery and its abolition as the backdrop.

People living through huge historical events are still people, with their own interpretations, misunderstandings and even disregard for the importance of what they are witnessing.

The Long Song is the life story of Miss July, born in the last decades of slavery in Jamaica and, now an elderly lady, writing her autobiography at the request of her son.

At several points she interrupts her own story to tell us about his interference, and there are questions raised over her reliability as a narrator.

But the whole book has an emotional authenticity that carries us over any cracks.

Miss July is stuck squarely in the middle of many of the apparently binary set-ups of the time.

Her mother is black and her father is white; she starts life as a slave working in the fields and then is taken in to work in the house; she has a relationship with a free black man and then a white plantation owner.

The beauty of it all is that while she acts as a vehicle for telling all these different stories, she never feels less than 100 per cent real.

This is a desperately moving book, and all the more so for never being sentimental. 
The questions it explores about race, class and how people can dehumanise others when it suits them, are profound. 
This book takes us to a place where many of the truths we take for granted are thrown open. 
What is freedom? And while the abolition of slavery was clearly a good thing, was what followed really much better for many people?

The tone of the book is never as heavy as these themes would suggest though. 
Such is Levy’s skill that all of this is accomplished in a book that, despite leaving you crying and questioning everything, is entertaining and often funny. 
In the end, The Long Song doesn’t just live up to Small Island, I would go as far as to say it is even more impressive.

Reader Reviews

Bristol is a city with more than a little in common with Sheffield: the music is cool; people smile at each other in the street; it often feels more like a collection of villages than a big city.

And both cities are home to superb literary festivals that attract people from far and wide.

Bristol’s contribution to the book festival calendar is CrimeFest, which starts in just a week on 17 May.

Imagine Off The Shelf, but with a lot more gruesome death.

2018 sees the tenth anniversary of CrimeFest, and there is an impressive star-studded line up on the programme to celebrate this milestone. Martina Cole, Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, Peter James, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Gunnar Staalesen are just some of the writers heading to the home of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Banksy and Massive Attack.

This is a convention that prides itself on its inclusivity and friendly, informal atmosphere: people who like to read an occasional crime novel are welcome, as well as die-hard crime fiction fanatics.

This will be my first visit to CrimeFest, and I am steeling myself for four days of bloodthirsty fun.

With over forty panels with more than a hundred participating authors on all sorts of brilliantly niche subjects from crime during war time, to detecting duos, to murder in families, to an Ian Fleming vs John le Carré debate, this should be the perfect place to meet like-minded murder aficionados and fully indulge our dark sides.

The CrimeFest programme can be found at www.crimefest.com

Literary City: The Sheffield Connection

We all know how important it is to encourage our children to read for pleasure.

Proven to improve concentration, creativity and imagination, help with the development of language skills, boost self-esteem and encourage a love of learning and knowledge, the joy of a good book is one of the best gifts we can give young people.

And did you know that Sheffield Libraries have their very own annual book awards which aim to excite children and ignite in them a love of reading, books and libraries?

The Sheffield

Children’s Book Awards are unusual because the winners are chosen by the school children themselves, putting the power right in the hands of the people who matter most.

They have been running since 1988, and the very first winner was the now classic book Can’t You Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell.

Thirty years later, and the award has recognised the writing and illustration of hundreds of amazing children’s books for all ages.

Famous for being one of the first book awards to recognise a certain, relatively little-known children’s writer called JK Rowling for her first book Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone in 1998, the awards have grown in popularity and are now recognised throughout the UK as an important indicator of quality in writing for children.

The process begins every year in January, when a group of Sheffield library staff and teachers come together. Fuelled by tea and biscuits, they look through a long list of the previous year’s book releases, selecting only the very best to make the shortlist. These books are then sent out to schools and libraries throughout Sheffield, where children read and vote for their favourite books.

There are seven categories of award, from baby books to young adult fiction, and the selection of the final award-winning books is completely in the hands of Sheffield children.

It is all topped off with a ceremony at the Crucible theatre in November, and at the special thirtieth anniversary celebration event this year all the previous winners will be invited to

attend.

If you’d like to find out more about which books are in the running for the 2018 awards, the Sheffield Libraries blog will feature each of the different categories over the coming weeks. Whether your taste runs to Bedtime with Ted, Milo’s Mix & Match, My Incredible Knitting Nana, My Brother’s Famous Bottom Makes a Splash, or The Island at the End of Everything, there is sure to be something for you and the young people in your life on this year’s impressive shortlist. For more information go to Sheffield Libraries