As the reach of a more international publishing culture extends beyond Europe and the US and now that time has allowed the emergence of more British born ethnic minority writers, who are today’s stars coming into their own? Books for Keeps presents 12 rising talents from the new generation of writers and illustrators.
For the last 15 years each issue of Books for Keeps has highlighted the work of a new author or illustrator with a review slot called ‘New Talent’. Debut authors and illustrators whose first book was featured in Books for Keeps’ ‘New Talent’ slot in the past include a roll call of excellence: J K Rowling (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone); Jane Simmons (Come On, Daisy!); David Almond (Skellig); Cressida Cowell (Little Bo Peep’s Library Book); William Nicholson (The Wind Singer); Marcus Sedgwick (Floodland); Bali Rai (Unarranged Marriage); Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions); Oliver Jeffers (How to Catch a Star); Philip Reeve (Mortal Engines); Stuart Hill (The Cry of the Icemark); Emily Gravett (Wolves). These are some of the writers and illustrators who went on to become the most important children’s book writers and illustrators of their generation.
Looking back at this eclectic list of debut talent, it is perhaps not surprising that it does not suggest the emergence of a style or a movement, an ‘-ism’. There was an emphasis on fantasy and science fiction but contemporary realism also got a look in and amongst picture books the emergence of Lauren Child and Oliver Jeffers heralded the acceptance of an increasingly sophisticated visual approach from which British publishers no longer shied away, children’s capacity to appreciate demanding illustration no longer underestimated.
A proliferation of ‘must-read’ debut children’s books
BfK’s ‘New Talent’ slot was launched all that time ago in the hope of encouraging the publication of new voices at a rather fallow period when children’s publishers appeared reluctant to invest time in developing new writers or money in publishing one-off literary novels.
This modest encouragement, together with other larger scale innovations such as the Branford Boase Award (set up to reward the most promising new writers and their editors), the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize (for new and emerging talent) and Cambridge University’s Best New Talent Award (for illustrators on their MA course), has certainly borne fruit. Irony of ironies, there are now far more ‘must-read’ debut children’s books than can be accommodated solely in a ‘New Talent’ slot.
This embarras de richesses is a wonderful cause for celebration and the raison d’être for this selection of 12 writers and illustrators at the beginning of their career. Here we showcase these ‘rising talents’ of the new generation, those with the potential to consolidate the promise demonstrated in their first published work and continue to make an impact. The work of our 12 rising talents also presents a revealing snapshot of the literary landscape (not a vampire in sight…) as well as an insight into a new generation of writing for children which shows, beside its talent, what bothers and inspires the imagination of contemporary youth.
Of the 12, four are illustrators whose debut picture books present confident and accomplished visual narratives that will engage young readers. Nicola Killen, Alison Murray and John Fardell’s work has the confidence to eschew the showy, rejecting the clashingly gaudy palette favoured by too many new children’s book illustrators. Their work is child centred and subtly clever while also very accessible. Grahame Baker-Smith is a picture book artist whose challenging, complex and emotionally powerful work has great appeal to older readers and will help to enlarge the audience for illustrated books. More excellent illustrated books can be confidently anticipated from these artists.
Nicola Killen was the winner of The Best New Talent Award 2009, a prize given to the most promising prospect on Cambridge University’s MA course in Children’s Illustration. Her debut picture book, Not Me!, is aimed at the very young. From its spot laminated cover to its gently rhyming text with the repeated refrain ‘not me!’, this well thought out narrative fits its landscape format beautifully as each small person denies being the one to eat all the cake, leave handprints, make the carpet dirty etc. Young readers will delight in identifying with such naughtiness! Killen’s stylish minimalism – round faces, dots for eyes – works well with her patterned and textured use of colour with its muted palette. An intrinsic part of the design, her hand lettered text emphasises the humour and drama of each incident, until the friends relent and help tidy up. Perfect!
Also for the very young, Alison Murray’s debut picture book Apple Pie ABC and subsequent One Two, That’s My Shoe! are clever retellings of well known nursery rhymes beautifully paced within the format. Apple Pie ABC follows the fortunes of an apple pie as is the tradition with ‘A was an apple-pie’ rhymes. In her version, the (A) apple pie has been made by a little girl and, while (B) baking in the oven and then (C) cooling, it attracts the attention of a small dog which devises a clever way to sneak in and tip it off the kitchen table so that he can gobble it up. One Two, That’s My Shoe! features the same characters. This time the small dog runs off with the girl’s shoe, the rhythm of the rhyme emphasising each episode in the chase until the two are ‘friends again’. Murray approaches her narratives with a lively wit so that the reader identifies, via action sequences and dynamic juxtapositions, with the dog and its stratagems. There is clear typography with elegantly pared down illustrations distinguished by tones made with patterns and textures. The books are printed on satisfyingly thick stock with a matt finish.
Known for his comic strips and cartoons for Viz and for his children’s fiction, John Fardell’s debut picture book Manfred the Baddie was shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize and won the Royal Mail Award. It was quickly followed by Jeremiah Jellyfish Flies High! which was shortlisted for the Booktrust Early Years Award. Fardell’s strong, clear design, vibrant line and cross hatching and consummate handling of the page appear effortless and belie the technical skill with which he handles perspective and creates a visual tension that draws the reader both inwards and onwards. There is a complex interweaving of words and pictures, the whole infused with anarchic comedy and contradiction. It transpires that all Manfred the Baddie really wants is to be loved. And who but Fardell could make a jellyfish (identical in appearance to all the other jellyfish) both an interesting and individual character and a powerfully successful Chief Executive of a Rocket Plane Factory.
Grahame Baker-Smith’s debut picture book, Leon and the Place Between (text by Angela McAllister), made the shortlist for CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. It is about a boy who goes to a magic show and is literally drawn into the show, the place ‘between’. The engrossingly detailed artwork is filled with rabbits, doves, playing cards and magician’s assistants while diecut holes into and out of the place ‘between’, take the reader on a journey right through the pages of the book.
Baker-Smith’s second, powerfully imagined picture book, Farther, which he wrote himself, has as much to say to adults as to children. It focuses on the relationship between a father and son and the impact of the father’s unrealized aspirations on his child. Tinged with despair, it is an emotionally charged story with lyrical language and surreal images drawing the reader into a mystical world of impossible dreams. While Baker-Smith paints and draws figures, faces and backgrounds in the traditional way, he uses Photoshop to blend different elements including photographs and textures to produce his disturbing, edgily sophisticated illustrations.
Fiction for younger readers
Of the writers from our dozen rising talents, both Christopher William Hill and Elen Caldecott produce funny, accessible novels for younger readers, albeit with very different approaches. This is one of the hardest age groups to write well for and both these ‘rising talents’ demonstrate the ability to engage with the preoccupations of their younger audience with a humour and imagination that will inspire further entertaining work.
Christopher William Hill’s debut book, Osbert Brinkhoff, is an idiosyncratic comic fantasy set in the city of Schwartzgarten about a small boy whose nanny has an unexpected influence on him. Her mantra: ‘Do unto others, before they can do unto you’, is one that Osbert is to take to heart and in a very literal way. When he wins a coveted place at The Institute (the school which inexplicably and brutally turned down his father when he was a boy), he encounters teachers who see it as their job to crush any spirit or originality out of their charges. The gruesome revenge meted out by Osbert to these sadists who have made his life, and that of his friend, the beautiful Isabella, a living hell is gleefully told in the Dahlesque manner with no grotesque detail (one teacher is sliced up in a strudel maker) spared. As with Dahl’s work, some adults may find this story objectionable but again, as with Dahl, it is likely that children will be most enthusiastic.
How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, Elen Caldecott’s debut novel, made the shortlist for several awards, including the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. When Kirsty’s grandad is dying, he asks her to look after his allotment and she promises she will. Kirsty then needs help to persuade the council’s Mr Thomas to allow her to take it over. Caldecott weaves two complex themes (relationships between half-siblings who only live together part of the week and the impact of bereavement) into a humorous, action packed plot with sensitivity and a light hand. Her second novel, How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini, came out of her wonderings as to whether it is possible to keep a zoo in a small terraced house. The resulting plot makes for an engaging comic caper that races fluently along, again with an emphasis on friendship and family life. Her latest book, Operation Eiffel Tower, about children trying to get their separated parents back together, is just as action packed while also dealing sensitively with this difficult and painful topic.
Shortlisted for The Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie set in India in 1947 at the time of Partition has its genesis in his family history, listening to his grandfather speak of ‘those times’. 13-year-old Moslem boy Bilal becomes increasingly aware of an atmosphere of tension and discord in the market and on the streets and he has heard Nehru on the wireless talking about the partition of India. But Bilal’s father, who is dying, cannot bear the idea that India might be divided. His son (rather omnipotently, in the way of children) resolves to protect him from the truth, fearing that it might kill him, even printing false pages of the local newspaper to hide the ravages of unrest from his father. This tragi-comic situation (rather reminiscent of Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Goodbye Lenin) means that Bilal has a complicated relationship with the truth and uneasily confesses at his mother’s grave to being a liar and deceiver. Of course there can be no happy ending but Bilal’s love and care for his father is touchingly told in a rich and accessible narrative. A beautifully pitched example of post-colonial writing, Irfan Master’s first person narrative (which recalls indigenous culture in the oral tradition of India) uses language flexibly incorporating Hindi terms. Whether this ‘rising talent’ stays with such personal historical themes or not, he is a writer with much to offer.
Gregory Hughes’s debut novel, Unhooking the Moon, made an instant impact, winning the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2010, and is particularly memorable for its engaging portrait of 12-year-old Canadian Bob’s little sister Marie-Claire, nicknamed ‘The Rat’. Bob lives with his father who drinks too much and the Rat who has occasional fits. The trio work well together and the opening chapters of the book are poignant in the vibrancy of the rich family life they create together despite Dad’s underlying emotional fragility and the Rat’s borderline behaviour. Then Dad dies and Bob fears that he will not be able to keep his sister safe in an institution. The newly orphaned pair leave Winnipeg for New York, in search of their only relative, an uncle they have never met. Most of their encounters on their epic journey and in the Big Apple turn out for the good although sure enough one of them is with someone who turns out to be a ‘godamn paedophile’ from whom Bob must rescue his sister. Both the narrator of this story and the Rat’s careful protector, Bob positions himself in relation to his intensely charismatic yet vulnerable sibling with tact, love and diplomacy, often setting aside his own needs. The bond between them in this beautifully adept story is memorable. Hughes’s capacity to write so insightfully and sensitively about this non-traditional family promises well for further novels that will venture boldly into little explored terrain.
The winner of the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2011, Sita Brahmachari’s unusual debut novel Artichoke Hearts is about the process of dying. 12-year-old Mira’s grandmother, Nana Josie, has a terminal illness and her family experience with her each stage of the trajectory to death. As a counterpoint to this intense and unflinching account of how a dying woman faces her end and says goodbye to the world, her friends and her family, we have Mira’s response to this inevitable loss, her growing strength and ability to occupy her own place on the earth more confidently. Along the way Mira is helped by a creative writing class in which exploration and discussions of all kinds are encouraged. Nana has lived an unconventional life and her quirkiness and humour permeate the narrative. Young readers who have experienced bereavement will find this novel touches them on many levels while for others, it may help them reflect on a subject many find it hard to think about, let alone discuss, and feel less afraid. Artichoke Hearts was inspired by the author’s ‘beautiful and bohemian’ mother-in-law, whose long battle with cancer was heartbreaking for her family. Brahmachari started writing the book as a way of dealing with her grief yet her multi-layered narrative with its sensitive portrait of a young teenager reveals a writing talent that will certainly find other compelling sources of inspiration.
Shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Prize and the Branford Boase Award, Anna Perera’s debut novel Guantanamo Boy was inspired by real events – the abduction and abuse of children held without charge in the name of justice in Guantanamo Bay. A keen supporter of Rochdale, his local soccer team, teenager Khalid Ahmed’s life is transformed when, on a family visit to Pakistan, he is imprisoned without explanation, first in Karachi, then Kandahar, and finally cast into a wire kennel in Guantanamo, ‘holed up in someone else’s nightmare’. Perera’s focus is unrelentingly on Khalid’s day-to-day experience as prisoner and suspected terrorist. We live through Khalid’s sufferings and his thoughts, and it is here where the power of the story resides. Narrated in the present tense, this novel is terrifyingly immediate. Despite the focus on Guantanamo, one of its achievements is the representation of ordinary Muslim lives, still so rarely written about in children’s fiction. Perera’s latest novel, The Glass Collector is similarly challenging and thought provoking. It focuses on the terrible drudgery and poverty experienced by the Cairo slum dwellers (Zabbaleen) who sort garbage for recycling. After collecting the rubbish, 15-year-old Aaron (the glass collector of the title) must sort it in readiness for the crooked dealers to buy – but Aaron loves glass and some pieces are hard to part with. As in Guantanamo Boy, the humanity of The Glass Collector is inspiring.
By working on this broad, social, contemporary canvas, Anna Perera takes forward with boldness and flair the radical tradition of writing about injustices established by such writers such as James Watson, Beverley Naidoo and Liz Laird. We can expect more challenging and engrossing work.
With her punchy first person narratives, rambunctious realism and gripping plots, Keren David is a ‘rising talent’ who will be unstoppable in her ambition. Nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Booktrust Teenage Prize, David’s crackling debut novel When I was Joe and its sequel Almost True have attracted attention for their lively, confident plotting full of drama and tension and their strong characters. When teenager Ty witnesses a murder he goes to the police and identifies the killers, little realising what the consequences will be. A petrol bomb is thrown through the front door even as the police are about to move him and his mother under a protection scheme. The rather diffident Ty has the opportunity to reinvent himself but this can be problematic. Then there are the difficulties he and his mum face in coping with a new life without roots or history and the continual fear of being discovered. When this comes about, Ty must move yet again and the nightmare continues. David offers an astute portrait of a teenager who has witnessed horrific events and who lives under unbelievable stress, no longer sure who to trust or who he is. David’s next novel, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, is published in August.
One of the most talked about novels in recent teen publishing, Blood Red Road is Moira Young’s stunning debut novel. Set in a dystopian future world, 18-year-old Saba, her twin brother Lugh and little sister Emily live by scavenging from landfills in a dried-up wasteland ravaged by sandstorms. Saba adores Lugh and is mean to Emily, blaming her for the loss of their mother in childbirth and their father’s subsequent depression. When Lugh is kidnapped by four mysterious horsemen, Saba embarks on an epic quest to get him back. Thrown back on her own resources, she discovers courage and strength she didn’t know she had – and eventually even love for the little sister who refuses to be left behind. Rescuing Lugh becomes a battle to destroy a corrupt society and along the way Saba teams up with a daredevil called Jack and a gang of girl revolutionaries. Young’s style is fluent, witty and irreverent and her inventiveness with future world technologies and customs recalls Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ quartet. Both thrilling and serious in scope and imagination, this unputdownable novel is very much of the zeitgeist and Moira Young’s future work can be confidently predicted not only to entertain but to challenge our view of the world and the direction in which society is moving.
At the beginning of this article we commented on the quantity of ‘must-read’ debut children’s books. While limiting ourselves to 12 rising talents, we have also allowed ourselves runners-up. They are Samantha Mackintosh, Sarwat Chadda and Cristy Burne.