Only a decade ago, first novels would be published to very little, if any, fanfare. It was assumed that writers needed to get several titles under their belt before they could be taken seriously. That all this has changed may be in large part due to the influence of the Branford Boase Award. Julia Eccleshare explains.
Kevin Brooks, Mal Peet, Meg Rosoff, authors who are now familiar after winning major awards, cut their prize-winning teeth on the Branford Boase Award. They, and the winners in other years, make an impressive roll call of twenty-first century children’s writers; they also confirm the status and success of a prize that has only been running for the inside of a decade.
Strange as it now seems, given the never-ending stream of highly vaunted first novels, only a decade ago there were almost none. The market was largely filled with established writers and, although that had great merits (and we miss it now that it has almost disappeared), there was a dearth of new talent. The general feeling was that it was a brave publisher who took a chance on an unknown author. Bookshops and libraries were working on the principle that authors needed to get embedded before they justified widespread promotion, a chicken and egg situation that offered few openings to newcomers. J K Rowling’s unprecedented success with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – and even that wasn’t as widely known then as it is now, of course, although she did win a Smarties Gold with it – showed that it was possible to make a mark with a first book. But for some time that was seen as a one-off; a gamble taken by a new children’s publishing company who had got away with taking a risk with a newcomer. It was not a philosophy embedded in the children’s book publishing culture.
And so, when the moment came to create a suitable memorial to commemorate the exceptional qualities of an outstanding author and editor, the idea of a prize to celebrate the author of a first novel and the editor who shaped it, was born.
When Henrietta Branford won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for her exceptional novel, Fire, Bed and Bone, she had already been diagnosed with cancer. A late starter to writing, she knew she had only just begun what promised to be the rest of a lifetime making a significant contribution to the field. Tragically, that wasn’t to be. Although Henrietta kept writing to the end she never had enough time to do what she wanted. She knew her worth and was rightly furious at having been cheated of the opportunity to fulfil it. But Henrietta was never someone to give up lightly; she was determined that if she couldn’t write the books that would have been her true legacy, she would ensure a memorial of another kind; the setting up of a prize which would support authors and the children who enjoyed their books.
One of the rashest promises I have ever made in my life was the promise I gave Henrietta just a few days before she died that there would be a prize for just such in her name. She’d insisted in an earlier conversation when we’d discussed the idea of a prize in general terms that it shouldn’t be for ‘unreadable books that adults think children should read’ but for books that children really would enjoy. As always, her instructions were precise and it would have been frightening not to have obeyed them.
Almost coincidentally with Henrietta’s death, her inspirational and exceptional editor Wendy Boase, one of the original founders of Walker Books and its editorial director, also died of cancer. Wendy was passionate about the editorial process; she had a brilliant eye for the promising author and she nurtured their writing sternly but lovingly. She and Henrietta had worked closely together for many years.
My rash promise to Henrietta was suddenly given a clear shape by this second tragedy: to further the cause of new writers, which could only be properly achieved if the role of their ‘discovering’ editor was also acknowledged, a prize for both should be established in the joint names of these two remarkable women.
The drive behind getting this off the ground came from Anne Marley, then Senior Librarian for Children’s Services in Hampshire, who knew Henrietta well and had worked with her at a number of events where she’d seen her enthusiastic and successful interactions with children. Like many others, Anne felt the need to do something to make up for the loss of Henrietta as a writer; something that would both inspire other writers to take her bold and uncompromising path and keep her name alive for a new generation of readers.
Together, we approached David Lloyd, Chairman of Walker Books, who offered the prize his wholehearted support and Walker’s financial backing. There were others, too, who were instrumental in getting the prize going: Henrietta’s husband Paul set up a website and became the Award’s official photographer, the Friends provided additional funding, Peters’ Library Service funded the handmade boxes which were specially designed so that every winner could have something lasting and beautiful with which to remember their success. And, above all, Lois Beeson became the Branford Boase Administrator. Efficient, knowledgeable and unflappable, Lois had recently set the newly conceived Children’s Laureate campaign off to a flying start. She knew when to cajole, when to hustle, when to promote. And, above all, she was able to organise and fundraise. She joined people to the cause and made it all happen.
The Henrietta Branford Writing Competition
At last, we had everything in place to bring to light the memorial Henrietta had imagined. We’d got the idea, including fulfilling Henrietta’s intention of getting children involved as much as possible by creating the Henrietta Branford Writing Competition, a creative writing challenge for school children, run in association with Young Writer Magazine. We’d got the supporters from a wide range of sources. We’d got the judges and the prizes. We were ready to go. It felt utterly appropriate but, would it work? Would it have any impact? Would Henrietta and Wendy’s names live on through it?
Initially, just the administration and logistics had seemed to be the difficult task. Now, it had come to choosing the winners and passing judgement on an author and their potential and assessing the work that an editor had contributed to their work seemed rather overwhelmingly presumptuous. After all, when everyone else was regarding first novels as a kind of ‘trial run’, who were we to promote authors’ claims to future glories?
But close reading of those first titles changed all of that. Proving the need for the prize, in the first year we had only 20 submissions. Almost all were published ‘discretely’ in paperback; they were not ‘superlead’ or even ‘lead’ titles for their publishers. They were ‘out there’ but they were not destined to make waves. However, in all – well, almost all – we found something interesting, something original, something different and so could understand why an editor was backing each first novel in particular.
Our winner that first year was Katherine Roberts for Song Quest, the first in a fantasy series. Like first novels, fantasy wasn’t quite as all pervasive then as it is now. Beautifully written and with a strongly created alternative world, Song Quest stood out for all the judges. And its editor? None other than Barry Cunningham, best-known as the man who first published J K Rowling.
Follower or trendsetter?
From that, it might look as if the Branford Boase Award would be a follower rather than a trendsetter. Winners in subsequent years have proved the reverse to be true. Two BBA winners, Meg Rosoff and Mal Peet, have gone on to win the Carnegie Medal (Rosoff also won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize), Sally Prue and Frances Hardinge have been in contention for the Guardian Children’s fiction prize, Siobhan Dowd for the Carnegie Medal and Kevin Brooks and Marcus Sedgwick for both the Guardian Prize and the Carnegie Medal, with Sedgwick also winning the Booktrust Teenage Prize. Their editors picked these new writers with care; the talent was there and they developed it.
Every year, when the lengthy discussion amongst the judges has taken place, there has been no doubt about the winner and a deep sense of satisfaction in discovering something of such substantial value and worth. What has happened to the authors since has affirmed that sense of satisfaction.
It is because of these winners that the Branford Boase Award has taken shape and has become the right tribute to the memory of its instigators. Its stature has drawn support from other established authors too, with Terry Pratchett offering vital funding at a critical stage near the beginning and Jacqueline Wilson becoming the Award’s long-term patron, especially of the Writing Competition for children.
And each year, the number of submissions has risen; this year it was over 40 titles. That’s quantifiable but the overall quality of all the books submitted also shows a markedly increased sophistication as if newcoming authors have taken greater pains to think carefully about exactly what makes a good children’s book. Publishers’ commitment to first novels has also changed. Now, it sometimes feels as if first novels are almost the most highly prized part of any publisher’s list.
Was that caused in part by the Branford Boase Award or was it just a natural cyclical swing of the publishing pendulum? New names are flocking into writing for children, relishing the imaginative freedom it gives them and the opportunity to write powerful stories. These are the authors who, like Henrietta Branford and her editor Wendy Boase, relish the role a writer can play in changing the life of a child.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s books editor of the Guardian and co-director of CLPE.
Song Quest by Katherine Roberts, Chicken House, edited by Barry Cunningham
Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion, edited by Fiona Kennedy
Cold Tom by Sally Prue, Oxford, edited by Liz Cross
Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks, Chicken House, edited by Barry Cunningham
Keeper by Mal Peet, Walker, edited by Paul Harrison
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Puffin, edited by Rebecca McNally
Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge, Macmillan, edited by Ruth Alltimes
A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd, David Fickling, edited by David Fickling and Bella Pearson