In the mid 1990s children’s fiction was in the doldrums. Publishers endlessly repackaged their best selling authors and series but investment in new talent was rare. How has change come about? Julia Eccleshare discusses a prize that commemorates the creative partnership between one prize winning author and her editor and its contribution to changing the face of children’s fiction publishing.
Seven years on since the publication of the first Harry Potter, and with the hype about new novels and new novelists piling up everywhere, it’s hard to remember just how different the children’s book market looked in the pre-Rowling days. In the mid 1990s confidence in the novel – and in children’s reading capabilities and commitment – was at rock bottom. 40,000 words were thought of as long for a book and new novelists were officially pronounced impossible to launch as the major bookshops wouldn’t stock them. How were publishers and the authors themselves to move forward?
Reading first novels is instructive. It shows how hard it is to write. Just as watching Wimbledon makes tennis look easy so does reading anything written by an established author. But, just as tennis at a lesser level can look very hard so, too, can a first novel. The difficulties of establishing characters and developing them and their interactions credibly, the intelligent or sometime rash use of plot devices (this year we read a number of books in which a child is killed? How often does that happen?), the control of fantasy – all of these can fall apart in the hands of a new author, especially if they are not given creative help.
Giving new authors a chance
But, despite these potential downfalls, new authors must be given a chance and the opening of the doors to newcomers has produced a flood of interesting fiction written in distinctive voices. New writers, mostly by definition younger writers, have learnt their trade from different as well as the same cultural sources. Among other things, they are less hidebound by the ‘literary’ traditions and more likely to draw on spoken language; their contemporary teenagers are closer to reality and they are influenced by most recent and increasingly hyped successes. While some of what they do is derivative (the look-alike Rowlings and Wilsons abound though no one quite has the temerity to suggest that they’ve written a Pullman) of course, there is also a quantity of new storytelling. In different ways, each of the winners – Katherine Roberts, Marcus Sedgwick, Sally Prue, Kevin Brooks and now Mal Peet – has given us a new voice, sometimes in genres we are familiar with such as fantasy and sometimes marking out different territory as Brooks did with his black comedy in Martyn Pig and Peet does with the magical realism of Keeper.
The role of the editor
The people who make this possible are the editors. The editor’s role is vital. Anyone who has had the pleasure – or sometimes misfortune – to read unedited mss will know that on their own, authors can be at best slack and at worst self-indulgent. An editor’s stilling hand can be vital in all number of ways. It is usually he or she who bridges the gap between the author’s intention in how they want to tell their story or which story they want to tell and their readers. The books that have won the Branford Boase Award have stood out from their competitors just because as a reader you don’t find yourself asking ‘why?’ all the time. Someone has been there before you and asked all the why questions that are necessary to make the book work.
Reading the most recent submissions for the 2004 Branford Boase Award and delighting in this year’s winner, the hugely original Keeper by Mal Peet, highlighted all of the above and served as a reminder of the inspirations behind the Award. Though the seeds of its inception lie in sadness, every year with each new winner we celebrate the lives of two remarkable women who told us all we need to know about strong new voices and that all-important editorial hand.
Background to the Award: How and why did it all happen?
In April 1998 I rang Walker Books to tell them that Henrietta Branford had won the Guardian Children’s Book Prize for Fire, Bed and Bone. They were delighted for her but especially so because she had been fighting breast cancer and this was just the cheering up news she needed. The first time I met Henrietta was to interview her about winning the prize. She had been ill but was, she was sure, on the mend. We sat in her garden in weak spring sunshine and discussed everything including where her writing was taking her. She’d been writing for a long time but it was meeting up with Wendy Boase, the editorial director at Walker Books, that had changed the course of her work. Wendy had encouraged Henrietta to write a book from the perspective of a dog – an unusual perspective to say the least and one which most publishers would have shied away from. Now she’d done it, Henrietta was determined to get her strongly held views about freedom, the importance of our natural environment and respect for animals and much more to as wide an audience as possible.
Later that year, Henrietta was well enough to receive the Guardian Children’s Book Prize but she already knew that the cancer was back. With her characteristic toughness Henrietta fought it every inch of the way. By early in the following year she was too ill to take her place as a Guardian award judge as even reading had become a real struggle. We had several sharp phone conversations in which she made it clear that what the children liked was all that really mattered. ‘Bugger the adults,’ she said once. ‘You know I only mind about the children. Books can make all the difference to their lives. It may be the only chance they have to be free.’
On 23 April 1999 Henrietta died. In the months that she’d been known to be ill many people rang me really just to register their grief about Henrietta’s illness and imminent death. Some I knew and some I didn’t but all desperately wanted to show how much they cared for Henrietta and how much they believed in her writing. Some, like Adèle Geras, had never met her but had communicated frequently with her by letter and admired the spirit of this distinctive fellow author. Closer to her were her agent Gina Pollinger and her editor Wendy Boase both of whom had encouraged Henrietta to pursue her writing recognising the potential from her early books such as Dimanche Diller which won a Smarties Prize. Everyone, everywhere was devastated by the cruel irony that an author who had just reached that crucial stage of recognition would never have the chance to move closer to the wide market of children with whom she so much wanted to communicate. Everyone, everywhere wanted to do something that would ensure that her name lived on.
The idea of a prize began to be formed. Before she died, I went to see Henrietta and though she was very ill indeed we talked about a prize, something new that would encourage writing for children and that would stand as a memorial to Henrietta.
Making such a promise in private was rash; publicly confirming that it would happen at the meeting to celebrate Henrietta’s life was rasher still. But I was only the mouthpiece. I knew that it was what many wanted. It felt completely right. More importantly, there were many who were willing to put all their energies in it, above all Anne Marley (who now administers the Award). As a Children’s Librarian in Hampshire, Anne had known Henrietta for some time and had long championed her. Anne took up the cause of the prize and was instrumental in bringing it into being.
By a cruel twist of fate, Wendy Boase, whose illness had been much shorter, had died on 15 March 1999. Her funeral drew together many of the greatest writers – and illustrators, too – who, like Henrietta, had worked with Wendy at Walker Books. For Wendy had been there alongside Amelia Edwards and Sebastian Walker himself at the very start of the company and in her direct fashion she had shaped the words side of the Walker business. Wendy was as fierce as Henrietta and just as committed to getting every book right. She worked with Jan Mark among others and launched Anthony Horowitz’s career. There are stories of arguments and stand offs but Wendy’s authors respected her decisions and trusted to her editorial wisdom implicitly.
To celebrate the lives and work of Henrietta and Wendy in one Award made obvious sense and the idea of putting together a prize for an author and their editor was the logical way of doing it. Anne brought in Lois Beeson as the administrator and it was she who was responsible for gathering together all the difficult details that, in the end, move an idea from being merely a pleasing possibility to becoming a reality. It was a role she was to play until her death in 2002, making sure that the vital sponsors were kept on board and that the prize was run in a wholly professional way, despite not being part of a major organisation. In those early days, it was Lois who drew up the plans and – with some temerity – approached David Lloyd at Walker Books. Her ability to think through all the possible problems before we even took it to David played a big part in ensuring his support. For support it he did. It was David who suggested that the prize be named after Henrietta and Wendy, ‘two brilliant and ferocious women’ as he described them, and from then on, with the help of money from Walker and many other publishers, the Arts’ Council, the Branford Boase Founding Friends and latterly Peters Bookselling Services and Terry Pratchett, the prize was up and running.
The first year
In the first year, there were 20 contenders. Publishers were still playing safe. The market for fiction was flattish and the success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had not yet had the trickle down effect with which we are all now so familiar. We were delighted by what we read and especially with the winner – Katherine Roberts whose Song Quest (Element) had been edited by Barry Cunningham. While Katherine was a newcomer, Barry most definitely was not. His own place in the Pantheon of editors had been secured when he took on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The fact that he was the first editor winner of the BBA seemed wholly fitting.
In the following five years the prize has grown significantly. This year there were 34 titles submitted, reflecting a level of enthusiasm for new novels which we had never dared hope for. Has it been caused by the BBA or would it have happened anyway? That we’ll never know but we certainly take great pride in the part the Award has played in cementing the editor/author bond and in encouraging all publishers to take risks with unknown names – despite the reservations of booksellers.
The winners of the Branford Boase Award have been:
2004 Mal Peet for Keeper (Walker) edited by Paul Harrison
2003 Kevin Brooks for Martyn Pig (Chicken House) edited by Barry Cunningham
2002 Sally Prue for Cold Tom (Oxford) edited by Liz Cross
2001 Marcus Sedgwick for Floodland (Orion) edited by Fiona Kennedy
2000 Katherine Roberts for Song Quest (Element) edited by Barry Cunningham