John Agard has been named recipient of the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contribution to children’s literature.
The judges highlighted John’s persistence and creativity in championing and challenging the language norms that too often dominate literature and the curriculum as well as his ability to connect with children today and inspire them to reach for their goals and aspirations, whatever they may be.
Agard has published more than 50 books, including poetry for all ages, stories, and non-fiction. In 2012, he was presented with the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry and has seen his poems Half Caste and Checking Out Me History studied by thousands of students as part of their GCSE curriculum.
On being recognised for the Lifetime Achievement Award, John said, ‘It means a lot to be given this award by BookTrust – an organisation which treasures books and tries to make them part of a life-enhancing experience for a child. It excites me that I’m the first poet to win. I feel happy that I’ve stuck with this craft since I was 16-year-old boy writing in a classroom in a Caribbean ex-colony. It’s not just me receiving this award, but all the people that inspired me. People like my teacher Father Maxwell, the people who published my books, those who contributed to my journey way back in the Caribbean, and John Arlott, the legendary cricket commentator who inspired me with his words.
This thing called poetry has power and I still get excitement from language. I find joy in standing in front of people and reading a poem. I know this thing connects. This thing could touch a soul. This thing doesn’t have to be didactic; I don’t have to preach to people. My whole brain is on a tidal wave of delight.’
Nicolette Jones, chair of the judging panel, said, ‘John Agard has helped to change the scope of children’s literature. He revels in a range of language from the everyday to the specialist, embracing the possibilities of English, and bringing sources we might think of as rarefied – Dante, the Greek myths, scientific terminology – into the experience of all youngsters. As a performer and as a writer, he has spread his enthusiasm and his joyous delight in words and stories to his audiences for decades and opened doors for them all as readers and writers. His work is full of fun, but it also tells young people that nothing is too ambitious for them to engage with.’
Darren Chetty, also a judge, said, ‘John Agard is a wonderful writer and performer with that rare ability to write for a wide age range and to connect with his audience both on page and in person. His work explores language and culture with curiosity, criticality and humour, resisting neat categorisation for something richer and altogether more interesting. For many people in the UK, in the 1970s and 1980s, John was one of the only writers from the Caribbean that they encountered at school. His linguistic dexterity is in sharp contrast to the language codes enforced on many children. Many of today’s young poets grew up reading John at school and following in his footsteps – sometimes literally, as they tour schools in the way that he has done for decades.’
The judges for the 2021 BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award were journalist Nicolette Jones (chairing), CEO of BookTrust Diana Gerald, children’s author Piers Torday, screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Teaching Fellow at UCL Institute of Education Darren Chetty and Candy Gourlay, award winning author of Tall Story and Shine.
The prize is managed by BookTrust and comes with an Honorarium of £5,000 provided by Arts Council England.