Branford Boase Award Shortlist: A Guest Blog from Philip Womack

branford boaseToday the shortlist for the Branford Boase Award 2018 is announced. This award is given annually to the author of an outstanding debut novel for children, and uniquely honours both the author and the editor – highlighting the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent. I am happy to welcome Philip Womack, one of the judges of this year’s award, to explain his judging process and reveal the shortlist. Philip Womack is himself the author of six critically acclaimed novels for children. His latest, The Arrow of Apollo, is on Unbound. He is also a literary critic, and teaches Children’s and Young Adult Fiction at Royal Holloway.

I was delighted to be on the judging panel for this year’s 2018 Branford Boase award. It’s an unusual and interesting prize, in that it looks at not just the author of a debut novel, but also at the role of the editor. My fellow panellists were M G Leonard, author of the best selling Beetle Boy series; Urmi Merchant, from Pickled Pepper Books, and librarian Helen Swinyard.

We began with a huge pile of books: all showing promise, all with something exciting to say, all crafted with love and care, all with editors who had found  in this new author’s voice something that sparked them.

We read, diligently; I often had two books in my pocket when on the tube. I developed my own system of ranking, mentally moving books up and down the list as I went.  I began to tire of certain tropes that infect children’s and Young Adult fiction – I feel no compunction in saying that I think there is a time and place for the first person present tense narrative, and that most of the time, that place is not in the pages of a book.

I also felt that too often the main characters  were weighted down with serious problems that, rather than being the story, got in the way of the story itself. But these are debuts, and in a debut a writer will be exploring ideas, and the joy of the Branford Boase is that it recognises this: not all debuts are perfect, and many  will lead their authors on to great things. (Show me the first page of my debut novel now, and I will show you a man biting his nails with embarrassment.)

Then came the difficult bit. I’d made my list, weighed up the pros and cons, developed my own criteria. But then how on earth do you whittle down over 20 books to a shortlist of just 7, with a vocal panel of often conflicting opinions, and with such a wide range of subjects and age ranges? The discussion between the four panel members was always lively, aided by sandwiches and tea.

There were a lot of narratives that, read in conjunction with each other, seemed remarkably similar, usually involving a child or young adult with an illness in an enclosed environment. Whilst each had its own merits, it became clear that there was a formula; and (which is my own opinion, and not necessarily that of the other panellists) it does make for a rather depressing children’s literary landscape.

Other books caused surprising polarisations, with half the panel loving them, and the other half really not; these were placed on “maybe” piles. We drank more tea, ate – in my case, at least – more sandwiches.

branford boase shortlistSlowly, the shortlistees began to emerge.  Tony Mitton’s Potter’s Boy, elegant and surefooted, had the gravitas to be entirely sure of itself and the story it was telling. Yaba Badoe’s Jigsaw of Fire and Stars was characterised by a rich vividness. Sharon Cohen’s The Starman and Me was slick and involving. Chloe Daykin’s Fish Boy at first appeared to be of the common type of “enclosed child” narrative, but became something else. Mitch Johnson’s Kick was powerful and reached out into the world. Jacob Sager Weinstein’s The City of Secret Rivers showed remarkable comic control and imaginative flair; whilst Elys Dolan’s Knighthood for Beginners was appealing and funny.

Our shortlist is not perfect: how could it be? If there had been four other people in the room, no doubt it would have been different. However, I think our shortlist reflects the quality and range of debut children’s fiction at the moment; and I look forward to the exciting futures in store for these writers – and for those on the longlist too.

The Shortlist in Full

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe, edited by Fiona Kennedy (Head of Zeus: Zephyr)
The Starman and Me by Sharon Cohen, edited by Sarah Lambert (Quercus Children’s Books)
Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin, edited by Leah Thaxton (Faber)
Knighthood for Beginners by Elys Dolan, edited by Clare Whitston and Elv Moody (Oxford)
Kick by Mitch Johnson, edited by Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker (Usborne)
Potter’s Boy by Tony Mitton, edited by Anthony Hinton (David Fickling Books)
The City of Secret Rivers by Jacob Sager Weinstein, edited by Gill Evans (Walker Books)

The winner is announced on Wednesday 4th July. For more information about the award, click here