Author Elle McNicoll is setting up a new prize, the Adrien Prize, for novels with a positive portrayal of a character with a disability. She talks to Rebecca Butler about her aims and why she felt the need to establish a new prize.
Can you tell us more about why you set up the Adrien Prize?
In quick succession, the Blue Peter Book Awards and the Costa Children’s Book Award both closed, which I found incredibly sad. With my first novel, A Kind of Spark which has an autistic protagonist, I had won a US prize sponsored by a Dr. Schneider. The Schneider Family Book Award is awarded to a writer who is disabled or neuro divergent for a book which depicts these conditions in a positive way. I realised there wasn’t a similar prize in the UK. I began talking to some of the Librarians with whom I work and an idea formed. Could I sponsor a similar prize to the Schneider?
So, can you tell us more specifically about the Adrien Prize?
Yes, I came up with specific criteria. The first Adrien Prize must be for a novel published in either 2020 or 2021 which has a positive portrayal of a character with a disability who is a protagonist, not a subordinate character, who does not die and does not get cured of the disabling condition. I also decided it should be for middle grade or YA novels, not picture books as I know less about them as a genre. An important difference between the Schneider and the Adrien Prize is that the Adrien is open to all authors not just the neuro divergent. I don’t want to be exclusionist. We agreed non-disabled authors can write good portrayals of disability.
What is the inspiration for the prize’s name?
One of my characters is called Adrien. He deals with his disability. He has agency and autonomy and is not cured. I named the prize for him.
BfK readers will know that you are autistic. Would you mind telling us how receiving that diagnosis made you feel?
No, I don’t mind. I was diagnosed first with dyspraxia and then with autism or, as it was then called, Asperger’s syndrome. I felt some relief but also pain in dealing with my new label as Addie does in A Kind of Spark. I had many struggles educationally and a lot of Addie’s experiences are based on my own experience. Many other portrayals I had seen were largely negative and also mostly male. I tried to balance that with my work.
What would you really like the prize to achieve?
More equality for disabled and neuro divergent authors and for characters with a disability to be included in other genres of books such as fantasy or comedy. There are almost none at present. One of my least favourite questions is ‘if magic exists in a fantasy world, why doesn’t it cure a disability’? This is based on the idea that a disability is always negative so I dislike the assumption behind the question. I would also like publishers to begin to think about books with multiple disabled characters in them. At the moment, one disabled character per book is often seen as enough.
Is there anything you want to avoid happening with this prize?
I do not want publishers to submit tragic narratives about disability because I think that is what the wider public is most familiar with. I want any author to be able to enter whether or not they are disabled. Those who are disabled need not feel exposed and do not have to disclose their disability in order to enter. This prize is about the quality of the writing and the characters, not how the author identifies. No writer will be excluded.
What is the judging process for this prize?
We have already created a long list from nominations from publishers. I will soon be asking for a panel of adult judges. These will be expected to whittle down the longlist to form a shortlist which will then be sent to groups of children and their librarians to judge the overall winner. The aim is that the winner will be announced around March next year.
How do you feel about the explosion of online working and what it has done for disabled people?
Personally, I find online working difficult, however, I feel the pandemic and the proliferation of online working has opened many opportunities for disabled people and has given them access that they have never had before particularly to live events and live streaming. I think it would be sad if publishers removed online events totally.
Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
I am working on two things, the sequel to my last book Like a Charm and the TV script for A Kind of Spark which has been commissioned. As a final comment, I will say that everyone in publishing I have approached about the prize has been really helpful and willing to do anything they can to help.
Keep up with the Adrien Prize on Twitter @AdrienPrize.
Dr Rebecca Butler writes and lectures on children’s literature.