NSW Premier's Literary Awards 1995

Judges' Report, the Ethel Turner Prize for Children's Books


In 1995, I was the Chair of the judging committee for the Ethel Turner Prize of the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award. At that time, this was the only one award for children's books in NSW; since then, the NSW Premier's Literary Awards has created a new award, the Patricia Wrightson prize for Children's Books, and the Ethel Turner prize was renamed as being for Books for Young Adults. I'm fascinated to note that we didn't shortlist Garth Nix's Sabriel!

My fellow judges were Alan Horsfield, then President of the NSW Branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia, and author Maureen Pople.



Mr Enigmatic by Jenny Pausacker (Reed for Kids)

Jenny Pausacker

Mr Enigmatic is both a highly literate and an entirely accessible novel for teenagers, and is a book that offers many rewards over subsequent readings. A novel which explores the experiences of a teenager who is in charge of his intellectual but not his emotional life, Mr Enigmatic is the tale of a significant year in the life of Victorian VCE student Rhett Foley. The story is largely told through the writing folio Rhett is preparing for his English course. Rhett’s autobiographical pieces gradually reveal a great deal to the reader; about Rhett himself, about the art of writing and about the art of reading. Pausacker is in complete control of the various writing styles she — and Rhett — employs, just as she is in complete control of her characters and ideas. It is an exceptional example of how innovative and exciting fiction for teenagers is at this genre’s best.


Judy and the Volcano Wayne Harris (Scholastic Australia)

Judy is a fiercely independent, fiercely imaginative primary-aged child who cannot write the "right" kind of story to keep her teacher happy. Kept in at lunchtime, Judy becomes the hero of her kind of story, saving her nemesis Madeleine Corsy from a bubbling volcano and a rampaging iguana who reminds Judy of a certain classroom teacher...

A tribute to the child’s imagination, Judy and the Volcano is bold both in text and illustration. Harris’s illustrations make brave use of colour and design, ranging from striking use of white space to densely coloured double-page illustrations, and reflect Judy’s courageous outlook on life. Judy triumphs in the end, her independence valued and rewarded, and her humanity intact.

The Burnt Stick Anthony Hill, Mark Sofilas (illustrator), (Penguin Books)

Anthony Hill

The Burnt Stick is perhaps the most deeply moving book entered for the Ethel Turner prize this year. It is the story of the lost generation — Aboriginal children removed forcibly from their people by an ignorant and uncaring white beaurocracy. This shameful fact of Australia’s recent history is expressed through the story of John Jagamarra and his mother Liyan. In simple and eloquent prose, Hill recounts Liyan’s efforts to protect her son from the Big Man from the government who intends to take John away because his father was white, and John is therefore not "as black" as his people. Liyan initially succeeds, deceiving the Big Man by rubbing the charcoal from a burnt stick into John’s skin. Ultimately the trick is discovered, and the child is taken away, leaving his mother fallen in the tracks of the truck as she fails to keep up with her disappearing child. Ultimately, John returns with his own son to his home, empty now of his people, and teaches his child the little he can remember of the songs and stories he learnt by his mother’s side.

Sofilas’ soft pencil illustrations capture the mood of the story perfectly, and the book is beautifully packaged in the way of several of Penguin Books’ new hard-cover illustrated books for independent readers. The Burnt Stick should be compulsory reading for every Australian.

Ten Little Known Facts about Hippopotamuses Douglas Little, David Francis and Donna Rawlins (illustrators) (Scholastic Australia)

Donna Rawlins

A unique example of the growing range of Australian non-fiction titles for children, Ten Little Known Facts... crosses the boundaries between picture book and factual text. Information about an eclectic range of animal life and behaviour is delivered with a delicious dose of frequently dead-pan (and often simply silly!) humour. The "fibs" that the creators admit to are clearly identifiable as such, and add significantly to the fun. Francis and Rawlins’ collaboration on the finely coloured pen and ink illustrations enrich an already lively text. Ten Little Known Facts... is a true collaboration between text and illustration. A book to dip in and out of and to go back to as you learn facts about animals that you never dreamt you’d need to know. You’ll never have an excuse not to have your garden populated with a healthy flock of flamingos again!

Yasou Nikki Wendy Orr, Kim Gamble (illustrator) (HarperCollins)

Orr’s talent for expressing the basic needs of children — and adults — with warmth and compassion is once again evidenced in Yasou Nikki. A book for younger, newly independent readers, Yasou Nikki is the story of Nikkoletta, a young Greek child new to Australia. Nikki is resistant to learning English; she doesn’t want to be like the tourists from her island home in Greece who say "squid" when they mean "hello". But the imperatives of friendship and loyalty arise, and Nikki discovers that accepting her new life can bring with it the joys and security she has left behind.

Gamble’s pencil illustrations demonstrate his usual talent for characterisation and his ability to express the emotional centre of the text. Orr’s prose is entirely accessible for her young readership, and offers some beautiful imagery to express Nikki’s dilemma.

Foxspell Gillian Rubinstein (Hyland House)

12 year-old Tod is a displaced person. His parent’s separation has meant that he and his mother and sisters have moved to the Adelaide hills to live with his grandmother. He has trouble with schoolwork, although he can draw brilliantly and effortlessly, and hidden beneath his unhappiness is a rich imaginative life. Tod develops a fascination with the foxes that live in the nearby quarries, which leads him into a extraordinary situation when Dan Russell, the fox-man, fox spirit transforms Tod into a young fox. Ultimately, Tod must choose between humanity with all its pain, and the exhilarating and dangerous life of the fox.

Foxspell is an exceptional fantasy. Rubinstein has achieved Tod’s changes back and forth between fox and human child with complete credibility and emotional power. Family relationships are intelligently drawn, and the characterisation of Tod, his friends and family is carefully developed. The tale is engrossing and challenging both intellectually and emotionally. The final paragraph of this novel leaves the reader with a body blow like few other books for any readership.


The judges were impressed with the quality of the books entered for the Ethel Turner prize, an indication of the strength of writing, illustration and publishing for children in Australia. Production values of the books were generally high, particularly in illustrated and picture books, where design is becoming increasingly imaginative and bold.

Special mention should be made of some titles which were reluctantly not included on the final shortlist of 6 titles. They are:

Ursula Dubosarsky’s The First Book of Samuel, a beautifully controlled piece of writing about family heritage and a young boy’s sense of self;

Dear Fred, by Susanna Rodell and illustrated by Kim Gamble. This sweetly sad book about siblings separated by divorce and geography is given a strong centre by Kim Gamble’s glowing, unsentimental watercolours;

Sabriel, by Garth Nix, is a fine example of fantasy for teenagers, with a remarkable young woman as its hero, and an imaginatively and credibly realised fantasy world.

Fantasy and historical fiction were both strongly represented in novels for older readers. Aboriginal history is at last being written in accessible and entertaining ways for children; Allan Baillie’s Songman and Alan Tucker’s Too Many Captain Cooks offer little-known information about European and Asian contact with Aboriginal people prior to 1770. Aboriginal authors and illustrators are also making excellent contributions to Australian children’s literature, with Ian Abdulla’s Tucker being this year’s outstanding example. Several short-story collections indicated that consistent quality can be maintained in an anthology; Nadia Wheatley’s The Night Tolkien Died is an excellent example. A delightful feature of many books for all ages was a strongly imaginative child at its centre; picture books (such as Just Another Ordinary Day, by Rod Clement) in particular took this as their theme. Finally, this year’s entries were notable for the predominance of humour in books for all ages.

The judges wish to strongly recommend that the Ethel Turner prize be equivalent in value to its sister prize, the Christina Stead prize. The lower level of prize money continues to state that children’s book creators and the books themselves are of less value than books for adults. It is simple wisdom to note that without child readers, we would have no adult readers, and that the skills required to write and illustrate a children’s book are no less than those of a writer for adults. It should also be pointed out that should a picture book win the Ethel Turner prize, the money may be split in the case of the book having a different writer and illustrator, a situation which further disadvantages the creators of children’s books. We can see no justification for this disparity and regret the message the lower prize money sends about the value of children’s writers and illustrators.


Footnote: The Ethel Turner and Patricia Wrightson prizes are currently valued at $15,000 each. The Christina Stead Prize for (adult) fiction is valued at $20,000. Given there are two prizes for children's/YA books, this seems to be a fairly equitable arrangement.