Tag Archive for Johnson Mitch

The First Novel: Branford Boase Award

BBA 2018 winners

Branford Boase Award 2018 winning author Mitch Johnson with his winning editors Rebecca Hill (left) and Becky Walker (right).

The Branford Boase Award is given annually to the author of an 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.

The novel that won the Branford Boase Award 2018 was Kick by Mitch Johnson, and this year he is serving on the 2019 Award Panel. Below, he introduces the 2019 shortlist and explains what makes each of the books so special:

I think for many authors, the publication of their first novel can be an ambivalent experience. On the one hand, all the hard work has paid off, your dream has come true, and finally (FINALLY) your book is out in the world. But on the other hand, what if no one reads it? Or what if people read it and hate it? Or what if there’s been some mistake, and it actually belongs under the bed with all the other unpublished novels you’ve written, rather than on a shelf with proper books written by real writers?

kickNeedless to say, publishing your first novel can be a jittery time. Luckily, the Branford Boase Award is here to help.

It’s difficult to express just how important an award celebrating debut authors – and the editors who bring their books into print – can be. For me, being recognised by the Branford Boase Award gave me renewed confidence in my writing, and encouraged me to pursue projects that I might otherwise have considered too ambitious to attempt. Even now, the trophy reminds me, on the bad days, why I sit at my desk and risk another bad day. And that is to say nothing of the prize money and the financial lifeline that it offers.

Participating as a judge on this year’s panel has been great fun, and to think that Kick survived the process is really quite humbling. (I’ve just about stopped wondering exactly what last year’s panel said about my book.) This year’s shortlist showcases the quality and diversity of publishing for younger readers, and it’s fantastic to see publishers investing in new talent. From imaginative adventures to stories of war-torn Europe to novels tackling contemporary issues, there really is something for everyone on the shortlist. Each deserves a wide readership, and together they form a worthy list to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the award.

And so, in alphabetical order by author, to the books we shortlisted:

house with chicken legs
The House with Chicken Legs
by Sophie Anderson is a wonderful retelling of a Slavic folktale about – you guessed it – a house with chicken legs. The writing is dreamy and magical, the characters feel like old friends, and the book is beautifully packaged. But my favourite thing about The House with Chicken Legs has to be the way it handles death. Death is so often portrayed as a thing to be feared and avoided in storytelling (and for good reason), but The House with Chicken Legs repaints it as the destination that makes life’s journey so special.

train to impossible places
The Train to Impossible Places
by PG Bell is a wildly imaginative adventure that hurtles along at breakneck speed. As I read it, I found myself desperate to know where the next stop would be (my favourite was the Topaz Narrows), and Bell’s wonderful way with words brings each impossible place to life. It also contains one of the best chapter titles I’ve ever seen. The only downside to The Train to Impossible Places is that it will make any future Interrail trips across Europe seem a bit tame by comparison.

rosie loves jack
Rosie Loves Jack
by Mel Darbon was a surprise package for me. I was completely disarmed and wrong-footed by the unique voice, and what I expected to be a fairly predictable love story quickly evolved into something much darker and more complex. The protagonist, Rosie, has Down’s syndrome, and you really feel her frustration as she is repeatedly underestimated and misunderstood by the people she meets. More than anything else, this novel reminds you of how underrepresented some voices still are in fiction, and how desperately we need writers like Darbon to create some balance.

the goose road
The Goose Road
by Rowena House is a real treat to read; the writing is wonderfully evocative, and right from the first chapter – when you learn of the protagonist’s relief that her father has died in battle – you just know that you’re in safe hands. I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about the premise of herding geese through war-torn France, but the writing absolutely blew me away. It was refreshing to read a story from a French civilian’s perspective, and for a time defined by bombs and bullets, the danger in this novel is chillingly subtle.

i am thunder
I Am Thunder
by Muhammad Khan tackles a highly emotive, heavily politicised subject: the radicalisation of a young Muslim girl. Khan does a brilliant job of exploring the tensions that can arise when cultures clash and allegiances are tested, and the sensitivity with which he handles such a volatile subject is astounding. I think it would be easy to underestimate just how difficult this book must have been to write, but Khan’s prose is as subtle and seductive as the grooming it depicts.

orphan monster spy
It’s hard to think of anything more terrifying than being a Jewish spy in Nazi territory, but that is the prospect faced by Sarah, the protagonist of Orphan Monster Spy (by Matt Killeen). Killeen’s novel grabs you by the throat on page one and doesn’t let go: it’s an irresistibly compulsive read. The Second World War may be well-trodden terrain, but this novel brings something fresh and dynamic. The stakes are high, the characters are delightfully flawed, and the result is just as tense and twisty as an espionage thriller should be.

boy at back of class
The Boy at the Back of the Class
by Onjali Q Rauf has already received heaps of recognition, and I was similarly impressed by Raúf’s tale of a young Syrian refugee trying to find peace in the UK. It’s so heartening to see a novel for younger readers tackling the refugee crisis, and books like this one make you hopeful that the next generation will be a more tolerant and understanding one. It’s the kind of book that everyone, young and old, should read.

So there we go. Seven brilliant titles, and I have no idea who is going to triumph when the judging panel reconvenes to discuss the shortlist. It could be any one of them.

With huge thanks to Mitch Johnson. The winner will be announced on Thursday 27th June. 

The Beautiful Game

Football has always been a part of my life. I’ve never played, but I’ve watched and been lucky enough to visit many stadiums in Europe. But the reason I call it ‘the beautiful game’ is because for many of my reluctant readers, football can be a great pull into reading. This latest crop of books appeals in many different ways – each book may be ‘football themed’, but each is distinct in its approach and subject.

striker boyStriker Boy by Jonny Zucker
Nat has spent most of his life travelling with his father, after his mother died, leaving them both heartbroken. Most particularly, he spent a year in Brazil, honing his incredible football talent. When Nat and his father move back to England when Nat is thirteen, he is appalled at the house his father has bought, and completely fed up. But then he plays a footy game in the park, and every boy’s dream comes true for him – he is spotted by a scout.

The scout is from Hatton Rovers, the team he supports. However, there is more than one problem. Hatton Rovers is facing relegation and the club needs saving. Nat is only 13, but tall enough to pass for 16. Will they break all the rules and sign him up for professional football?

When the unthinkable happens and he starts training with the first team, it turns out things are even more complex than he thought, and the club’s veteran striker takes an instant dislike to him. As Nat suspects all is not what it seems, a sports reporter suspects the same about Nat…

This is a fun, exciting and pacey book with a solid main character. What’s more, the plot goes beyond football and delves into thriller territory with plenty of action on and off the field.

Footballing readers will envy Nat for his rare talent and luck in being spotted, but there is also evidence of much camaraderie among certain team mates, and the volatility of training – the on/off days, injury and team selection. Overall, Zucker shows that players are rewarded for hard work and loyalty, but that even within the golden world of top-flight first team football, there are moral dilemmas to face.

The most striking quality about Striker Boy though, is the complete zest and enthusiasm Jonny Zucker shows for the game, his characters and the story. It makes the reader want to be a teen again, to be trying out for a team again, and retain the dream of playing for a top side.

Nat is so engaging as a main character, a fabulous yet flawed boy with an empathetic nature and a good heart, so that the reader can’t help but root for him, even when he makes wrong choices. Every manager would want this kid in their team, and every librarian will want this book in their library. An excellent novel for age 8+ years.

The book has been re-published to raise awareness of mental health, after the very sad passing of author Jonny Zucker. Profits from the book are being donated to the charity Mind. You can buy it here.

kickKick by Mitch Johnson
Twelve-year-old Budi works full time in a sweat shop factory in Jakarta stitching, or, if the foreman’s feeling mean, boxing football boots. He dreams of playing for Real Madrid like his hero Keiran Wakefield. But Budi’s life is a million miles away from his hero’s. Life in Jakarta is hard: he doesn’t live in the deepest slums, but there is no money for his education, and his family are struggling to get by.

One day, when he’s playing football with his friends, and they kick a ball through the window of local landlord and gang leader The Dragon, Budi will have to risk everything to pay his fine or end up dead.

This is a startlingly refreshing football novel in that it introduces a whole new way of looking at the beautiful game, and also gives an interesting perspective on a very different way of life, far removed from its Western world readers. Although some of it may be shocking to some young readers (it does contain a reference to prostitution and does climax with some violence), and the way of life itself may shock others, it also shows the similarities between football-mad children across the world. The things that Budi has in common will resonate here, such as an ongoing interest in food, football mania – both watching and playing – and most of all friendship.

In fact, above all, this is a beautifully perceptive tale of friendship between Budi and his older friend Rochy. Rochy is certainly more worldly wise, but he lives in even worse circumstances than Budi. In the end, though, the sacrifices he makes for Budi pay off, and the novel ends surprisingly, although without resorting to complete fairy tale transformation.

There is also the burgeoning relationship between Budi and his grandmother, as she relates stories to him that help him to make sense of his world, and his place within it, as well as steering him towards making the right choices in life.

The one weakness in the text is the reader’s difficulty in envisioning Budi’s entire situation. The streets and his home don’t feel described fully enough to visually create a sense of place in the reader’s mind, but Budi as a character is so well-rounded and his dreams so delineated, that it’s easy to fall under his spell.

This is a clever way into discussing other issues in the guise of a football story, and as the pundits say, ‘nice one’. You can buy this novel for 9+ years here.

iniesta Bale Gerrard

Ultimate Football Heroes: Iniesta, Bale and Gerrard by Matt and Tom Oldfield
I honestly can’t get enough of this series of books, and nor can my library kids. These three are the latest to pop through my letterbox. The books have now divided into two series: Ultimate Football Heroes, which features popular players of the moment such as Iniesta and Bale, and Classic Football Heroes (which everyone wants to be eventually), which focusses on retired all-time favourites such as Gerrard. Each book is a self-contained biography of the individual player, but written in a child-friendly accessible way.

With each there is much to admire. Particular highlights for me are the amount of dialogue within each text – there is lots of engaging conversation to move the story along – and also the underlying message in each text, that no matter the person’s talent, it still takes an incredible amount of hard work, determination and ambition. No one wins medals by taking their journey for granted. In the Iniesta book, the authors are keen to show his innermost thoughts and fears at the start – a young player being away from his family, but kept in check and reassured by teammates. The language may not be the most literary, but as a way into reading for the target age range, this is a great jumping off point.

These newer additions also have some extra data and YouTube web links at the back of the book for watching videos of key moments. I’m not a huge fan of web links – they are so easy to get wrong, but the few I tried worked, and it’s a neat way of enticing the reader. Pick your player here.

football academy

F2 Football Academy: How to Play Like a Pro by F2 Freestylers
If you’re a fan of YouTube and football, then this last book will probably appeal. Written by Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, known as the F2, these two men present football entertainment, tutorials on skills, and banter on their YouTube channel. The book is a spin-off; the text reads as they would speak it: “Our tekkers was bang on form.” It’s certainly not for everyone, but for fans, it treks through Brazil, tactics, skills, injuries, interviews, and is packed with full colour photographs and solid advice, such as to keep on trying. You can buy it here.