Founded in 2000 to commemorate author Henrietta Branford and influential Walker Books editor Wendy Boase, the Branford Boase Award is awarded annually to the author of the year’s outstanding debut novel for children. Uniquely, it also honours the editor of the winning title and highlights the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent.
Each year the Branford Boase Award identifies the most talented and exciting new authors for the young, with past shortlists reading like a ‘Who’s Who’ of contemporary children’s literature. Winners and shortlisted authors include Meg Rosoff, Muhammad Khan, Philip Reeve, Frances Hardinge, Patrick Ness, M.G. Leonard, andMarcus Sedgwick. This year’s shortlist is equally as dazzling!
Imogen Russell Williams is a children’s literature critic, reviewing and writing on trends in children’s and Young Adult publishing for the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and The Metro amongst other publications. She also writes for children and books include Great Britons and The Big Book of the UK. Read her thoughts on this year’s brilliant Branford Boase nominees.
I am a huge fan of the Branford Boase award – I love that it recognises the contribution of editors, as well as authors at the beginnings of their careers – and I was very excited to be asked to be a judge this year. Whittling down the impressive longlist was not an easy task, but I think the 2022 shortlist is especially gorgeous, inspiring and wide-ranging. From Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen, a young adult mermaid fantasy rooted in West African mythology that the judges called “epic” and “ambitious”, to the “anarchic”, “irreverent” Grimwood, a highly-illustrated and hilarious story of fleeing foxes and rambunctious wildlife from Nadia Shireen, there is just so much here to relish.
Each of the shortlisted books is a delight in its own way. Some are emotionally demanding, like Luke Palmer’s Grow, which forces the reader to contemplate the processes by which a grieving teenager might be drawn towards far right radicalisation; Ros Roberts’ Digger and Me, though a gentler, younger story, still immerses us in the perspective of an angry, sad, confused and anxious child. I emerged from these feeling stretched and changed – a wonderful post-book feeling. Helen Rutter’s The Boy who Made Everyone Laugh also made me feel deeply for Billy and his frustrations, even while I ached with the hilarity of his jokes and his superbly wonky way of seeing the world.
Reading The Upper World by Femi Fadugba was stretching in a different way – the complexities of physics and time-travel forced me to pay serious attention, while the intertwining of these dazzling concepts with the down-to-earth realities of a South London setting was just so ambitious and exciting. Meanwhile, the elegant assurance with which Lesley Parr evokes her Welsh landscape – with its slightly claustrophobic, secret-keeping sense of a small communitydealing with outsiders – marks out The Valley of Lost Secrets as special even amid many excellent WW2-themed stories.
And Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Mathsmanages so much with such lightness of touch. It challenges racist stereotypes head-on and conveys the unexpected joy of intergenerational love in a book which is properly funny – funny in a child-friendly, deliciously silly way – throughout.
To me, the range of subjects, voices, and approaches to storytelling on the shortlist says something exhilarating about the state of children’s publishing in the UK. There isn’t a lot of pure escapism here – although there’s no shortage of imaginative richness – but so much sense of the challenges, sorrows and visceral delights of ‘real’, very specific lives and contexts and history. Even the funniest books – and I love that so many of the books on this shortlist are funny – are rooted in real contexts and deep feeling, just as even the most challenging and painful stories are woven through with transcendent hope and joy. This list is an abundantly inclusive one, with diverse authors, stories and protagonists – but most importantly, it’s full of moments, situations and relationships that prompt and inspire empathy (apart from the regrettable incident in Grimwood when Pamela the eagle snaps the head off Binky Snuffhausen, putting an end to his ratty dreams of winning a lot of money.) I think it’s a truly rich list,representative of the best of British children’s publishing, and it speaks to a wealth of new talent just waiting to be tapped, nurtured and enjoyed by a new generation of readers.
I’ve read several of the nominated titles and they’ll all excellent but very different. I don’t envy the judges who have to select an overall winner!