The winner of the 2015 Little Rebels Children’s Book Award was announced at the London Radical Book Fair on 9 May. Judge Kimberley Reynolds explains the background to this important award
Despite its name, the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award, now in its third year, is not concerned with rebellious characters in children’s literature; it celebrates books that inspire readers to question the status quo and to become socially and politically engaged. In other words, books that may turn young readers into rebels. At a time when many young people feel peripheral to public debates and uncertain about what kind of future lies in store for them, the challenge of inspiring them to believe that change is possible and that they can help bring it about has never been greater. This prize identifies well-informed and high-quality books that can help children understand that the way the world is currently organised is not inevitable and that even the youngest members of society can help to change it.
Britain has a long but unsung tradition of publishing politically, socially and environmentally engaged books for young readers. Thomas Day’s Sandford and Merton (1783, 1786, 1789), for instance, questions, among other things, the foundations of class, privilege and slavery, while Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies exposes the abuses arising from inadequate controls on child labour. The end of the nineteenth century saw a whole subgenre of ‘street Arab’ stories that dramatized the plight of the poor children that filled London’s slums. In the twentieth century Geoffrey Trease’s Bows Against the Barons (1934) retold the Robin Hood story from the point of view of the serfs and outlaws. At a time when Britain was witnessing hunger marches and high levels of unemployment in some parts of the country and unprecedented affluence in others, his radical novel both debunked the fantasy of ‘merrie England’ that had grown up around the ballads and stories about those who were forced to flee to the forest to escape the brutal arm of the law, and commented on the inequities of the 1930s.
Trease and his set were among the first to recognise that children’s books were involved in perpetuating and normalising socially divisive attitudes and policies including racism, sexism, classism, jingoism, nationalism and imperialism. From the 1930s to the present there has been a small but significant strand of socially committed publishing for the young. The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award casts a spotlight on the impressive range and creativity of such books for children from 0-12. The award is the brainchild of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers. It is administered by Letterbox Library, the independent, not-for-profit bookseller. To be eligible books must encourage children to question the status quo. They may do this by raising concerns about injustice, inequality or discrimination, by promoting equality and peace, discrediting stereotypes, or encouraging children to become aware of the many challenges facing the wellbeing of peoples in all parts of the world and the health of the planet. All the shortlisted books show children that problems can be rectified and that they can make a difference if they become informed and learn how to take action.
The first Little Rebels Award (2013) went to Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between (Frances Lincoln); last year’s winner was Gillian Cross’s After Tomorrow (Oxford University Press). The 2015 shortlist consisted of four picture books and four works of fiction by both established writers and illustrators, and newcomers.
This year Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis (Oxford University Press) received the award. It tells the gripping story of Scarlet, who looks after her mentally ill mother and a younger brother who loves birds but struggles with people. Eventually Scarlet is placed with a foster family that understands she is still the lynchpin of her family. Birds weave the book’s multiple storylines together and provide a moving backdrop for a story that focuses attention on the courage, loyalty and competence of children. As Scarlet Ibis shows, some children are already changing their worlds.
The other shortlisted books:
Girl with a White Dog (Catnip) by Anne Booth uses animals and fairy tales to tell a story about the Holocaust. Booth makes the story relevant to young readers by setting it in present-day England and placing a pet dog at its centre. One aspect of the story involves the failing faculties of a much-loved grandmother, while a subplot deals with hostility to migrant workers that has obvious but unstated links to the rise of fascism under the Nazis.
Grandma, written and illustrated by Jessica Shepherd (Child’s Play) is a picture book that does important work in helping children understand dementia and the unfamiliar world of care homes. The illustrations are reminiscent of John Burningham’s Grandpa (1984) but the issues here are confronted more overtly and didactically, perhaps reflecting both changing social attitudes and Britain’s aging population.
Made by Raffi (Frances Lincoln) by Craig Pomranz with illustrations by Margaret Chamberlain is a delightful picture book about a boy who likes to knit and design clothes – and whose family and classmates think that’s great.
Nadine Dreams of Home (Barrington Stoke) by Bernard Asheley features a refugee girl who has recently arrived in Britain. Ashley’s text is well supported by Ollie Cuthbertson’s illustrations. Together they enable this short book to convey some of the sense of strangeness, fear and unhappiness children like Nadine experience.
Pearl Power (I Love Mel), a feminist picture book written and illustrated by Mel Elliott follows a girl and her single-parent mother as they make their way in a new job and a new school.
Shhh! We have a Plan (Walker) is author-illustrator Chris Haughton’s handsome picture book about peace. Told with both humour and drama, the story avoids being obvious or sanctimonious.
Trouble on Cable Street (Catnip) by Joan Lingard provides a portrait of London during the Spanish Civil War. Tellingly, many of the conflicts, tensions and divided loyalties at the centre of this story set in the multicultural world of London’s East End in the 1930s continue to be felt today.
Kimberley Reynolds is Professor of Children’s Literature, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University and Little Rebels Children’s Book Award judge 2014, 2015