Children vote for their favourite book of 2001

Since 1967 April 2nd has been the International Day of Children's Books. On that day in 1805, the world-famous Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen was born. In the Czech Republic, the Komensky Pedagogical Library in Prague organizes a poll, where children send their votes for the best book they have read that particular year.

Last week I went to a ceremony at which the results of the poll were announced, which took place at the Museum of Czech Literature near Prague Castle. I was sitting amidst some 150 children who came to Prague from all around the Czech Republic as representatives of their classes - young readers, who had sent their ballots to the poll. This is the tenth year the event has been held. I spoke with Ivana Hutarova from the Komensky Pedagogical Library, who told me more about the venture:

"We started organizing it in 1992, with the aim of finding out how children perceive the huge influx of new books that are published each month, whether they are able to tell real quality from simple surface appeal. Our poll is called "Suk - All of Us Read" and is named after professor Frantisek Vaclav Suk, the founder of the biggest library of children's literature in Czechoslovakia. Professor Suk was also a theoretician and historian of children's literature. "

The Komensky Library started by sending out ballots to only a few schools, so the first year just a few hundred children took part, but is became so popular that now several thousand children from around the Czech Republic participate in the poll - this year it was about 4000 kids. Mrs. Hutarova told me that the commonly-held view that children are no longer interested in reading books was entirely incorrect. She says most children do read and are able to recognize high-quality books.

After 1989, books that had been banned in the Communist era started to be published, books our parents used to read but also Western books such as Walter Disney cartoons. In those days children were very hungry for anything new, says Mrs Hutarova, but now they have become a bit more discerning.

It came as no surprise to me that last year's most popular children's books were J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban". The third most popular book was "Spider Paja" by the Czech author Pavel Srut.

Mrs. Hutarova told me children of all ages took part in the poll:

"This year the youngest participant was a three-year-old girl. The upper limit is usually between 15 or 16 years of age. The ballots from the youngest readers are naturally sent to us by their parents or grandparents. It seems that reading books in the Czech Republic will remain a significant pastime even for the young generation, which is something I'm glad to be able to confirm."

With the help of the Club of Children's Libraries, the Komensky Pedagogical Library initiated another venture. Called A Night with Andersen, this year it was the second time that it was held and again it proved immensely popular, especially among smaller kids. Hundreds of children spent the night at 70 libraries around the country, as did the librarians who all created individual programmes at their libraries. As well as drawing and making candles, there were readings from books and children talked about their favourite characters; children also voted for their favourite books as part of the Night with Andersen.

Mrs. Hutarova said that Prague children were different from those who live in smaller towns and villages, where there are less things to do and the public library retains a much more important position in the town's culture. That's why local children respect it much more than their peers in the capital.