What the Judges Say
Zoey Dixon is one of the judges for the 2021 Branford Boase Award, alongside Scott Evans, Natasha Radford of Chicken and Frog bookshop, and author Liz Hyder.
Zoey provides a judge’s eye view on this year’s shortlist.
Awarded to the author and editor of the year’s outstanding novel for children and young people, the Branford Boase Award highlights some of the best and most exciting novels from debut writers.
Grief; the importance of family, including found and blended families; and friendship are common themes throughout each of the seven novels on this year’s shortlist. What is refreshing is the different way in which these themes are addressed.
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When Life Gives You Mangoes is a story of grief, showing a changing friendship, something which many of us have experienced, plus community and belonging, all wrapped up in a mystery. In Clara, Kereen Getten has created a glorious central character who people can relate to and she has captured village life in the Caribbean beautifully, with each character vividly and authentically realised.
In the very funny, but also emotional The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates, Freddie, along with his two best friends, sets out on a cross country journey after his nan passes away. What follows is a series of misadventures, scraps and a possible miracle that further cements the bond between friends and family, with each character realising what they mean to each other.
A dark subject matter doesn’t have to mean that books can’t be uplifting, And the Stars Were Burning Brightly, a heart-wrenching novel that covers tough contemporary issues such as cyber bullying, is a very good example of this. In trying to find the answers as to why his brother Al took his own life, Nate discovers himself and learns to appreciate those around him. The inclusion of Al’s thoughts at the beginning of each chapter ensures that Al is not just a tragic character in the story but someone who had much to give, even in death. A powerful read, ‘this book took my heart, smashed it, then put it back together’ were the words of a fellow BBA judge.
Another story ‘full of hope, despite the dark subject matter’, Run Rebel, a novel in verse, deals with the difficult subject of domestic abuse and violence in a nuanced way. Amber along with her mother, lives at home with an abusive father, yet still finds the courage to rebel, uplifting her mother at the same time. Each character is multifaceted, you understand why they behave the way they do, but in the case of the father, their behaviour is not excused. It offers an insight into lives which can become trapped through circumstance, told through wonderful storytelling.
A Kind of Spark ‘deals with ideas of difference without being heavy handed.’ Addie, our autistic lead, deals with a changing friendship and bullying (and not just from her peers) whilst trying to get through school. She learns about the persecution of a group of women killed as witches in her town an, identifying with them, campaigns to have a monument to remember them.
Witches feature again but in a more foreboding setting in Witch, a revenge thriller set in 17th Century England where real witchcraft exists. Evey has to deal with the loss of her mother, murdered by witch-hunters, rescue her sister and embrace who she is, all whilst evading capture. Finbar Hawkin’s writing style and beautiful language perfectly evokes the mood and sets the scene for a ‘rollicking good read.’
And finally, Orphans of the Tide offers a somewhat creepy start to a fantasy series. You are thrown into a distinctive world where Ellie, orphaned after the death of her mother, must prove the innocence of a boy who has mysteriously appeared in their world. You could be easily fooled into thinking this is a simple adventure story, but the theme of morality features strongly along with a cast of believable and flawed characters that you will absolutely fall in love with.
Selecting a shortlist for an award is never an easy task, particularly when faced with such a high calibre of writing. Each of the seven titles here demonstrate a range of stories and voices, with some of the most self-assured writing for a debut. You will laugh, you will cry, you will feel uplifted and be transported to another world.
Zoey has worked for Lambeth Libraries for more than twenty years and now manages four Lambeth community hub libraries, where she continues to deliver frontline services to children and teens and is also a development librarian, a strategic role that enables her to help shape the library service.Zoey has served on the book selection panels for The Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge, BookTrust’s Letterbox Club and the judging panel for CILIP’s Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Book Awards. She is one of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars in 2020 and is Chair of YLG (Youth Libraries Group) London. She was awarded YLG Librarian of the Year at the 2020 Youth Libraries Group Conference.