Now in its 6th year, the Little Rebels Award recognises the rich tradition of radical publishing for children in the UK. Previous winners include: Andrea Beaty and David Roberts for Ada Twist, Scientist; Alexis Deacon and Vivian Schwarz for Henry Finch; Gill Lewis for Scarlet Ibis; Gillian Cross for After Tomorrow; Sarah Garland for Azzi in Between. Judge Darren Chetty reflects on the 2018 Award and winner, The Muslims by Zanib Mian.
What do you think makes the Little Rebels Award so important?
I think the Little Rebels Award is important because it celebrates children’s fiction and often includes books that perhaps haven’t had the big advertising budgets that a select few books receive. And I think it’s important to highlight potentially radical work because authors who write it are often taking all kinds of risks both commercially and artistically.
As a judge, what in particular were you looking for in the shortlisted books?
- I was looking for
- books that tell a good story and that do so in original ways
- books that ‘ring true’ in some way
- books that I think the children I’ve taught would want to talk about after they’d read them
- books that don’t rely on easy stereotypes
- books that offer some moral complexity
Do you feel that children’s authors are particularly rebellious at present? How successful are they at championing rights and tolerance?
Tough question! I think that this is an exciting time for children’s fiction and that many new authors in particular are trying to tell stories that begin to address the balance in terms of representation for example. At the same time many of the books on the bestseller lists are of a more conservative nature and I often sense a great deal of nostalgia in children’s publishing.
Do children’s authors have a particular responsibility in this area? More so than other artists?
I think that when adults write for children there are important moral questions that come up and whilst there aren’t easy answers, many of the best authors wrestle with these questions. I think good writing usually takes place in the space between the moral didacticism of some early children’s fiction and the ‘give ’em what they want’ of commercial thinking.
What is it about The Muslims that made it a winner for you?
All of the books this year were telling interesting stories and often about people who are under-represented in children’s fiction. The Muslims by Zanib Mian is fast-paced and hilarious story that manages to tells a story about racism and Islamaphobia whilst also depicting a warm, positive (and at times eccentric) Muslim family. I think The Muslims will be enjoyed by Muslim and non-Muslim children alike. I wish I’d had this book in my classroom library when I was teaching in primary school. Not only would it have been popular, it would have been a great book to discuss, and I think it would have been a great example of how you can draw on your own family background to tell great stories.
If all that isn’t enough (and it is!) Zanib also set up the publishing company for the book and has been marketing it herself. She’s an inspiration to would-be writers from marginalized communities.
What kind of books would you like to see being submitted for the Little Rebels Prize in years to come?
I would like to see more books that surprise me, as The Muslims did, in the stories they tell and the way they tell them. And I’m particularly keen on those books that plug the gap between the stories being marketed and the stories being lived in Britain today – which is not to say they have to do that in documentary-like fashion. I’m really keen to see books that credit children with the ability to deal with moral complexity also – as I suspect that is often where the best stories lie.
Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and published by Unbound, and tweets at @rapclassroom. Together with Karen Sands O’Connor he writes a regular column for Books for Keeps: Beyond the Secret Garden.
This year the other judges are: were authors Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson; Emily Drabble, Head of Children’s Book Promotions/Prizes at BookTrust; B.J. Epstein, Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia.
For more on the Little Rebels Prize and Britain’s tradition of publishing radical fiction for children, see Professor Kim Reynolds’ article Radicals and Readers.