The winner of the 2016 Little Rebels Children’s Book Award for Radical Fiction was announced earlier this month. Now in its fourth year, the award recognises children’s fiction which promotes or celebrates social justice or equality. Judge Catherine Johnson reports on the award and explains why it is such an important one.
I’m thrilled to share this year’s winner of the Little Rebels Award. No! Don’t stop reading and flip through to the end of this article! I know awards sometimes seem as plentiful as pebbles on a very wide, very pebbly beach, but honestly Little Rebels is unique. I’m the newest judge – and massively honoured to be included – alongside Wendy Cooling, Elizabeth Laird and Professor Kim Reynolds of Newcastle University, three women who know more about children’s books than most.
Awards are important. For authors, and more importantly I believe, for readers. Bookselling is a terribly crowded market, but this award can, I hope, flag up special books that might otherwise get lost.
And Little Rebels is special. It’s an award set up by the ARB, that’s the Association of Radical Booksellers, but it’s run –completely unfunded – by the rather wonderful Letterbox Library. If you don’t know them look them up, they sell a fantastic list of inspirational and inclusive books for children.
Little Rebels is an award for all books for 0-12 year olds that are in one way or another radical. And by that we don’t mean has a gratuitously non-white or disabled protagonist. I mean really radical. I mean a book that opens doors for young readers to talk and think about ideas that maybe haven’t been seen before in children’s books. Books as radical as Black Beauty was in its time, which led to animal welfare being taken seriously, or Where the Wild Things Are, a truly revolutionary book about parents and children and love.
Radical means new ideas, and fresh thinking. Inclusivity? Of course, but I would say that is a given for any children’s book. How can any good children’s book in the twenty first century be anything other than inclusive? And really, one of the best and most wonderful things a good children’s book can be is accessible. It can make the biggest of big ideas, love, death, fear, available to all readers, of whatever age in a way that doesn’t shut anyone out.
Another way Little Rebels is unique is that picture books, first readers, and deep literary fiction for readers up to twelve, are all judged together. The only criteria for winning this award are that there should be ideas above and beyond the norm. We’re not simply talking politics here; it might be philosophy, gender, education, migration or self-determination.
Past winners include Gillian Cross’s After Tomorrow, Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis, and Sarah Garland’s marvellous Azzi in Between. All these books, deal with characters and situations often ignored in children’s books. And don’t for one minute imagine they’re all dull worthy turgid reads. These are transporting and transfixing narratives, filled with danger and excitement.
So what was on our shortlist this year?
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne tells us the story of Pierrot, and how he gradually absorbs the attitudes of the Nazi leader. A study of how an ordinary boy moves towards extremism.
The Littlest Bookshop and the Origami Army by Michael Foreman. Elizabeth Laird said ‘The beautiful artwork in this book will draw in adults and children to a thought-provoking narrative about the power of stories to change the world.’
I thought I’m a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail was a book with fantastically fresh illustrations and a heroine who refuses to be constrained by expectations.
Professor Kim Reynolds said about Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed by Michael Rosen and Neal Layton: ‘(The book) combines Rosen’s ability to wrap up pithy observations in screwball humour with illustrator Layton’s energetic, comics inspired drawings. Beneath the jokes and digressions are pointed remarks about the education system, those who delight in power for its own sake, and the importance of thinking originally.’
There were two more books on the shortlist, and it’s the first time we had an almost winner, an unofficial highly commended title.
We all thought that Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis is a book that deserves to be massively and widely read. It’s a novel that interweaves the story of two children, Imara, a girl abducted by a militia group and Boboto the son of a ranger, with the fate of a baby gorilla. There’s so much in this book: the desecration of the forest for international mining; the effect of lawless militias and the recruitment of child soldiers. It’s brilliantly written and expertly researched.
But our winner for the 2016 Little Rebels Award is….
I am Henry Finch by Viviane Schwarz and Alexis Deacon. Wendy Cooling said that this is ‘an exceptional picture book, deceptively simple yet doing a big thing: introducing the power of ideas and thought to the youngest of children. This is philosophy for beginners. Extraordinarily creative artwork.’
This is a book that deals with massive ideas and makes them accessible to picture book readers. It’s about thought and thinking and is an exciting adventure too. It’s a book that invites conversation about thinking and ideas and does so beautifully. It’s a massively deserving winner. Congratulations to Schwarz and Deacon for a very wonderful future classic.
Catherine Johnson’s latest novel is The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo. It is shortlisted for the YA Book Prize.