Liz Hyder and her editor Sarah Odedina have just been announced as the winners of the 2020 Branford Boase Award, which honours the author and editor of the outstanding debut novel for children. They won for Sarah’s novel Bearmouth, a powerful dystopia, based on real-life stories of nineteenth century child miners and told in a distinctive dialect. The book is described by the Branford Boase Award judges as “original and unforgettable”.
Liz and Sarah told us what winning the award means, and about their author-editor relationship.
What makes the Branford Boase Award so special and how do you feel to have won?
Liz Hyder: I love the Branford Boase Award! I can’t quite believe we’ve won! I remember MG Leonard winning the award for Beetle Boy and being over the moon for both her and her editor. I think it’s a really special award, I don’t know of any other that celebrates the key working relationship between writer and editor. Within the publishing world, editors are rightly respected and worshipped but in the wider world, I’m not sure most people, even keen readers, necessarily realise the importance of their work. I’m over the moon that Sarah and I have won, I still have to pinch myself!
Sarah Odedina: Winning the Branford Boase Award is such a fabulous accolade for an editor’s work and their part in the process of helping get wonderful books into the hands of readers. I feel really grateful for the job I do – and have done now for over 20 years – as I get to work with brilliant and creative people and my input on their work can help add polish and shine to what they do. Winning this award recognises my contribution, along with that of many legendary editors, whose contribution to the world of children’s literature seems so great to me.
How and when did you first meet? Can you tell us a bit about the way you worked together on the book?
Sarah Odedina: I met Liz after her agent submitted Bearmouth to us at Pushkin. We sat and talked about the world and her very clear purpose in creating this powerful piece of literature. I remember feeling really happy that Bearmouth was a clearly realised world that existed in Liz’s mind and which she so brilliantly brought to life for other people through the story of Newt and Devlin. I think that my contribution was to question parts of the story that felt less realised and real than others and to ask Liz to look at ways in which emotional scenes were expressed. Liz’s writing is so powerful because of the huge restraint she displays in telling some pretty gruelling and difficult things. I remember being quite picky about scenes and places where I felt that she had let go of that restraint a little.
Liz Hyder: Working with Sarah on Bearmouth was absolutely a dream come true. Pushkin are one of the best publishers in the business and Sarah’s reputation is amazing. I’m not easily intimidated but I was a bit nervous about working with someone who is such a legend. I really needn’t have been! She’s funny and supportive and extremely generous but she’s also honest too. I feel extremely lucky that I got to work with her on my debut novel. She helped me tighten it up and tease out certain elements. Her feedback was crucial in shaping and polishing it but it was always empowering too. Sarah pointed out things that maybe didn’t work quite as well as they should, but always encouraged me as the writer to find the solution. I found that really positive.
Sarah, Bearmouth won its category in the Waterstones Children’s Prize too and has been widely acclaimed. Did you expect it to be so successful, and if so, when did you know?
Sarah: I knew from the first page of reading Bearmouth that it was exceptional and original. That silly old cliche about ‘a special feeling’. But it is that feeling that editors go to work for, and we don’t get it very often. This is a book that stands pretty high in the canon of children’s literature and one I am also sure that will have a long life as it continues to enthral generations of readers. Prizes are absolutely wonderful for an author and a book and I hoped that it would be recognised as it has been.
And Sarah, what makes a debut novel really stand out for you?
A debut that stands out for me is one in which a story is told in a voice and style that only that author can bring to the reader. There really are only so many themes and stories in literature but the books that stand out are those in which the author brings true originality to the telling.
Liz, what do you think you have you learned from working on the book with Sarah?
I also now have a saying that came about from working with Sarah – ‘un-Dickensing’! We both feel that Dickens can sometimes over-egg a scene with too much emotion and stripping that back in one of the key scenes in the book became known as ‘un-Dickensing’. It makes me laugh whenever I think of it but it also reminds me that less is sometimes more… a crucial lesson!
For both of you – what’s the best advice you would give to debut authors?
Sarah: Advice abounds for emerging writers and the things that I think are worth sharing are absolutely keep faith in your work and your ability to tell stories. You may change ideas and discard things you have been working on for a long time but at the core have faith that you do have a story to tell that others will want to hear. And then work HARD. It is a difficult job often done for years without any recognition and many rejections. Stick with it!
Liz: In terms of advice, I wholeheartedly agree with Sarah that you should always have a story to tell. What do you want to say? Why? But above all, don’t give up! Keep going! Bearmouth was the seventh book I wrote but the first to get published. Overnight successes are often the result of years of work, but don’t be disheartened by that. The more you write, the better you’ll get. I’d also say, look up and out at the world, question your tastes, learn to analyse the stories that you read, the TV and film that you watch. Why did you like a certain character? What made the story satisfying or what did you find frustrating? The more you evaluate and analyse the stories you like, the more you’ll finesse both your own writing and your ability to justify your decisions. Finally, share your work with people whose opinions you value and trust, listen to feedback and take it on the chin. Criticism of your work is not personal, it’s about making the book as good as it can be.
Liz and Sarah were announced as winners on the evening of 9th September. Katya Balen and her editor Lucy Mackay-Sim were awarded Highly Commended for The Space We’re In.
Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG.