In a recent blog for the Bookseller, Julia Eccleshare reviewed twenty years of the Branford Boase Award for a debut novel and noted that the books that have lasted have ‘forged new paths’ and ‘caused children’s books to be noticed and valued’. She also quoted Philip Pullman:
“There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book”.Philip Pullman
This sums up perfectly this year’s fantastic shortlisted books. Though varying in subject matter and tone, they all deal with themes of such importance to us all, and in particular to young people picking their way through the maze of growing up, learning what matters to them, and who they are.
Every book on our shortlist deals with the common, but no less important, theme of relationships: with family – learning to become independent and find your own way; with friends – learning to be true to yourself and not follow the crowd; and in some, with both.
In the hilarious Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties Humza’s friendship with Umer is beautifully drawn as is his gradual realisation that the nerdish Wendy is actually quite cool and a great friend to have in a crisis. The insight into the family relationships in The Space We’re In is excellent. The voice of Frank is superb, enabling you to understand the feelings, thoughts and actions of a 10-year-old boy. The book is written with little punctuation which gives an excellent impression of the fast tumbling of Frank’s thoughts. It is a powerful ‘growing up’ book and Frank learns much about himself and his ability to help others. Safiya in A Pocketful of Stars, is a well-rounded and developed character and this book paints an excellent picture of teenage relationships: the often explosive and tense relationship between teens and parents and the ups and downs of friendship and the struggle to know what is the right thing to do. Bearmouth is a very unusual book, with an unusual and exciting voice, and again the relationships are excellently drawn. The reader cares desperately about Newt, Tobe, Thomas and Devlin and the various relationships are incredibly powerful, even tear-jerking at times. The theme is less obvious in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, a well-plotted thriller, but the protagonist’s determination to find the truth about someone who was something of a hero for her, and her desire to protect her best friend, both show a strength of character and maturity in relationships. A complete contrast to this is Frostheart, a rollicking, world-building fantasy, yet with the developing self-awareness and inner strength of Ash coming through very strongly. This book has big questions about right and wrong characterized in Tobu and Shard and therefore very accessible to children.
The last book on our shortlist, The Million Pieces of Neena Gill combines the struggles of a family dealing with grief with another very powerful theme many of these books have in common: that of difference. This is a powerful depiction of a mental health crisis and an important book for young people. Neena feels she is spiralling out of control but, in the end, finds true strength and learns to cope: “sometimes you need to remind yourself who you are …” is a common theme among our shortlisted books. Our fantasy, Frostheart, gives Ash the gift of song-weaving but for him, it is a curse, and he is rejected by those he thinks of as family. Max in The Shape We’re In is autistic and this is an unusual depiction from the point of view of a young boy but also gives an insight into the effect on the various other characters in the book. Its strength lies in Frank’s acceptance of the difference and the positive view of Max. Discrimination is touched on in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder as it seems the police were only too ready to accept Sal’s guilt, with no real evidence, perhaps because of his Asian background. And there are big themes at play in Bearmouth, not least the difference of Newt, a brilliant twist. Bearmouth asks big questions about friendship, religion, right and wrong, and makes the reader think very hard about many things.
Every one of these books deserves its place on the shortlist and will undoubtedly be noticed and valued for years to come.