The winner of the 2019 Branford Boase Award for outstanding debut novel for children is Muhammad Khan for his YA novel I Am Thunder.
I Am Thunder chronicles the radicalisation of a young Muslim girl growing up in London, the choices she is presented with, and how she develops the confidence to make her own decisions. Muhammad Khan was prompted to write the book by the news that three Bethnal Green schoolgirls had flown to Syria to join the Islamic State group.
Mitch Johnson, last year’s Branford Boase Award winner says of the book: “The sensitivity with which Khan handles such a volatile and emotive subject is astounding, and his ability to create a story that is both gripping and tender is hugely impressive.”
Like his character Muzna, Muhammad Khan grew up in South London, and his parents are first generation immigrants from Pakistan. Like her, he always knew he wanted to be a writer, though his family were determined he should be an engineer. But he says that Muzna is primarily based on his young students. In fact: “virtually every character in the book has a real-life counterpart”.
With only 4% of all the children’s books published in the UK last year featured a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) character*, Muhammad was determined to give his students a voice through his character. Muzna’s life as a young Muslim woman is vividly described, while her teenage experience is something that everyone will relate to, whatever their background.
Judge Sanchita Basu de Sarkar of the Children’s Bookshop Muswell Hill says: “Khan’s acute portrayal of Muzna captures both the joy and turbulence of being a teenage girl. His dialogue is fresh, and funny, and keeps the story zipping along, even when the characters are filled with uncertainty. The balance of culture, religion, and following one’s heart have rarely been depicted with such nuance.”
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Branford Boase Award was set up in memory of outstanding author Henrietta Branford and her editor Wendy Boase of Walker Books, who both died in 1999, and is unique in honouring editor as well as author. It is regarded as one of the most important children’s book awards, thanks to its impressive record in identifying authors with special talent at the start of their careers: previous winners include Frances Hardinge, Marcus Sedgwick, Meg Rosoff and Mal Peet.
On a shortlist that celebrates vibrant new voices and original stories, the Branford Boase Award judges were full of admiration for Muhammad Khan’s ability to create convincing characters, and for the way he combines politics, identity and a universal coming of age narrative. Indeed, they agreed that he doesn’t put a foot wrong in the telling of his story.
On winning the award Khan said: “I am absolutely thrilled and humbled by the news that I am Thunder has won the prestigious Branford Boase Award. It’s a real pinch-yourself moment! The competition was tremendous, each book magnificent in its own right. Lucy Pearse worked tirelessly and with passion to help me polish I am Thunder so it’s especially nice to share this incredible accolade with her. Thank you!”
Chair of the judges, Julia Eccleshare, children’s director Hay Festival, said, “2019 is the 20th anniversary of the Branford Boase Award. It has celebrated wonderful books and authors over the years, and we are very proud of all that it has achieved in highlighting new writers and the editors who help them develop their potential. We’re delighted that I Am Thunder has won this year. Muhammad Khan is giving voice to those we haven’t heard from enough and his story will ring true with readers of any background. As demonstrated so brilliantly in her book Fire, Bed and Bone, Henrietta Branford also gave voice to those whose stories need to be told and was happy to pose questions about politics and society in thrilling adventure stories. We look forward to reading more by Muhammad, and all the writers on this shortlist, and to twenty more years celebrating the exciting new talent in children’s books.”
Winning editor Lucy Pearse said: ‘It was a real honour to see I Am Thunder included on this incredible shortlist, and a complete pinch-yourself moment for it to be selected as the winner. Muhammad deserves this award so much – it is a brave and important book and he has worked enormously hard – and I feel privileged to have been part of its publishing story. Each book on this shortlist is a spectacular achievement and I feel very lucky to be working among such talented authors and editors.’
This year the judges are Sanchita Basu De Sarkar of the Children’s Bookshop, Muswell Hill; Ellen Krajewski, librarian at Hemel Hempstead School, Hertfordshire; Louise Johns-Shepherd, chief executive of CLPE; and Mitch Johnson, author of Kick, winner of the 2018 Branford Boase Award. The panel is chaired by Julia Eccleshare, children’s director of the Hay Festival.
The 2019 winners of the Award were announced on Thursday 27 June at a ceremony at Walker Books in London which was attended by previous winners including Kevin Brooks, Jenny Downham, Marcus Sedgwick, M.G. Leonard, Dave Shelton, and Lucy Christopher. Mitch Johnson presented Muhammad Khan with a cheque for £1,000 and Muhammad and Lucy Pearse both received a unique, hand-crafted silver-inlaid box.
Young winners of the Henrietta Branford Writing Competition, which runs alongside the Branford Boase Award, were also present at the award ceremony and presented with their certificates and prizes by Mitch Johnson.
For further information please contact Andrea Reece on 07807893369 or firstname.lastname@example.org
*Reflecting Realities Report – Ethnic Diversity in UK Children’s Books, CLPE
The complete list of titles on the 2019 shortlist are: The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, edited by Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker (Usborne) The Train to Impossible Places by P.G. Bell, edited by Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker (Usborne) Rosie Loves Jack by Mel Darbon, edited by Sarah Stewart (Usborne) The Goose Road by Rowena House, edited by Mara Bergman (Walker Books) I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan, edited by Lucy Pearse (Macmillan) Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen, edited by Sarah Stewart and Kendra Levin (Usborne) The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Raúf, edited by Lena McCauley (Orion Children’s Books)
The Branford Boase Award was set up in memory of the prize-winning author Henrietta Branford and Wendy Boase, editorial director and one of the founders of Walker Books. They worked together on a number of Henrietta’s novels, a partnership they greatly enjoyed. Both Henrietta and Wendy died of cancer in 1999.
Running alongside the Branford Boase Award, the Henrietta Branford Writing Competition encourages writing talent in under 18s. Prizes were presented at the ceremony to six children, winners of the competition.
The Award is the joint idea of Julia Eccleshare MBE and Anne Marley MBE. Julia is the director of the Hay Festival children’s programme. Anne was Head of Children’s, Youth & Schools Services for Hampshire Library & Information Service for many years and helped to found Authors Aloud UK, an author booking agency. She has served on many children’s book award panels, including the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Awards.