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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 00:19 GMT
Whitbread win for children's author
The Amber Spyglass
The Amber Spyglass: Last of a Pullman trilogy
Author Philip Pullman has become the first children's writer to win the UK's prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year prize.

His novel, The Amber Spyglass, was judged the "overwhelming" choice among four other books shortlisted for the title and a total prize of 30,000.

It's a remarkable moment when a children's book has swept the board

Judging panel chairman Jon Snow

Collecting the award Mr Pullman said he was "speechless", because he was convinced another author would win.

He said: "I'm absolutely thrilled to win this award because it shows what I have always believed - that children's books belong with the rest in the general field, in the general market place for books and in the general conversation about books."

The judges choose the overall Whitbread winner each year from a shortlist made up of best novel, best first novel, best poetry collection, best biography and best children's book.

Harry Potter

Mr Pullman's success eclipses that of Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who won the children's category in January 2000 but was beaten to the main prize by poet Seamus Heaney.

Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman: Lives and works in Oxford

Chairman of the judging panel Jon Snow said Mr Pullman's book was "in a league of its own" and "head and shoulders" above its rivals.

He said: "It's a remarkable moment when a children's book has swept the board.

"We judged the children's book and I think within two minutes I said 'Do I detect that Pullman has won the overall prize?'

"There was only one person who argued for an alternative book but was very clearly persuaded by Pullman."

Bets off

Before The Amber Spyglass was even picked as best in the children's category many people had already decided the winner of the section would take the overall prize.

Bookmakers William Hill had even stopped taking bets on the outcome.


I don't see myself as a rival to JK Rowling and she doesn't see me as a rival

Philip Pullman
In the category Pullman beat former Monty Python star Terry Jones' story The Lady and the Squire, Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl and Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea.

The Amber Spyglass is the last book in a dark and complex fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, and is preceded by Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass) and The Subtle Knife.

The trilogy opens with 11-year-old orphan Lyra, growing up in Oxford, whose life changes when she foils an assassination attempt on her uncle, the powerful Lord Asriel.

At the same time, children begin to disappear, and Lyra's subsequent adventures fill the three novels.

'Stark realism'

Pullman, 55, who lives in Oxford, was born in Norwich in 1946, and spent the early part of his life travelling all over the world as his father, and then his stepfather, were both in the Royal Air Force.

When he was 11, his family settled in north Wales, where he stayed until leaving to read English at Exeter College, Oxford.

Previously a part-time lecturer at Westminster College, Oxford, Pullman said: "The book has been described as fantasy, but not by me - I like to think of it as stark realism.

"The fantasy elements are there to help me say more about being a human being."

He said he was considering expanding his themes in a new book, which would also be aimed at children and adults alike.

Dismissing comparisons with the Harry Potter series Mr Pullman added: "I don't see myself as a rival to JK Rowling and she doesn't see me as a rival.

"I like her and I enjoy her books. I think we have a slightly different audience."

The category winners, announced earlier this year, include poetry winner, Selima Hill, and her collection of 80 poems, Bunny.

Patrick Neate is second favourite for top prize
Patrick Neate had been second favourite for the top prize
Winner of the novel category, Patrick Neate was second favourite for the overall prize, with his novel about Dixieland jazz, Twelve Bar Blues.

Sid Smith won the first novel prize for Something Like A House, while Diana Souhami won the biography category with Selkirk's Island, the story behind the real Robinson Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk.

The Whitbread awards have been going since 1971, and have been in its current format since 1985.

Last year's Whitbread winner was Matthew Kneale's novel English Passengers.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Philip Pullman, winning author
"I was very surprised and happy"
The BBC's Razia Iqbal
"He is a real champion for children's literature"


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