Reading around the 2020 Branford Boase Award

I love it when friends urge me to read a book they love. Following recommendations is like following a treasure trail, and I really enjoy the way one title leads to the next. 

Award shortlists aren’t as personal, but they're just as good at taking you somewhere unexpected and rewarding. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Klaus Flugge Prize since it launched (blog links HERE and HERE ) and really like the way it celebrates new talent in picturebook illustration, so thought I’d take a look at another award specifically for debut books. I’ve always been interested in how a book is created, from first ideas right through to finished product, so it made sense for me to start with this year’s Branford Boase Award. Unusually, this award is presented jointly to the author and editor, based on the quality of the writing and the editor's contribution to the creative partnership, and is presented to a Middle Grade or YA fiction title in memory of two highly skilled and much loved children’s book editors, Henrietta Branford and Wendy Boase. 

This year, fifty-nine books were submitted for the award by more than two dozen publishers, and twenty titles were longlisted. Seven books from four different publishers were shortlisted, three of which are illustrated throughout with black and white line drawings and all of which I’ve reviewed below.

My reviews are followed by some thoughts about the overall shortlist. And if you haven’t already heard which book won this year’s award, take a look at the Branford Boase Award website HERE 

Or see if you can guess from my reviews? My sealed-bid choice would have been spot-on!

Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties

by Humza Arshad and Henry White, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff
Edited by Sharan Matharu and Holly Harris
Published by Puffin

"You've probably heard of me, right? Little Badman. No? Oh. Well. . . Doesn't matter. You will do one day. I'm gonna be big."

Little Badman – aka 12-year-old Humza - is a self-styled ninja-rapper-gangster whose final year of primary school gives him plenty to rap about.

When the first couple of teachers disappear, it isn’t a problem. Humza and his friend Umer are impressed by the curries and gulab jamun pressed on them by the Asian aunties standing in. As more and more Aunties replace the teachers, Humza and Umer begin to suspect that something shady might be going on, but it takes Wendy Wang’s brainpower and determination before they get to the bottom of a deeply sinister alien plot.

Wildly exuberant, over-the-top humour sits alongside moments of real tenderness and insight in this irreverent romp. Humza and Umer’s friendship is beautifully observed, for example, and there is good advice on how to be yourself and find your place in a complicated world. Familiar tropes like killer bees and not fitting into your trousers make an appearance, along with outlandish asides that forge their own path (microwaving your underpants?) But on the whole, the humour is more subtle and deftly woven that you might expect, and Humza’s perspective on life – steering a cheerfully anarchic course between his Year 6 friends and the values of his Pakistani parents – is refreshing and touching, as well as very funny. 

Although Little Badman himself might not appreciate the comparison, there’s something of Just William about him – an endearing character beset by relatives who want him to behave properly, tenaciously pursuing his own eccentric (and unconsciously hilarious) path, with a much bigger heart than he’s willing to let on.

Humza Arshad is a comedian and writer who created the YouTube hit How to Be a Bad Man. He co-wrote this book with screenwriter Henry White, and it is illustrated throughout with black and white line drawings by Aleksei Bitskoff. 

Recommended for 9-12 years


The Space We’re In

by Katya Balen, illustrated by Laura Carlin
Edited by Lucy Mackay-Sim
Published by Bloomsbury

"We are her world and her universe and her space and her stars and her sky and her galaxy and her cosmos, too..."

Ten-year-old Frank loves football, codes and thinking about the universe. He also loves his little brother, Max, despite the challenges of dealing with Max’s autism. But everything seems to be changing now Frank is in Year 6. He’s becoming aware of a need to find a space where he can be himself, away from Max, and sometimes that makes Frank say things he doesn’t mean, or not stand up to bullying. But these turn out to be minor challenges compared to what happens next. 

Told in Frank’s own words, this engaging and searingly honest account of the year his mother dies is heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure. Written with insight, compassion and respect in a voice that doesn’t falter, The Space We’re In enables us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and really share in their experiences. 

I don’t have lived experience of Frank’s issues, but reading his account gave me a compelling insight. It’s also a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding novel, which I very much enjoyed.

Black and white line drawings by Laura Carlin appear throughout the text, suggesting ideas and emotions and deepening the impact of the text. 

Katya Balen is the co-director of Mainspring Arts, a charity that provides creative opportunities for neurodivergent people.

Recommended for 10+ 



by Liz Hyder
Edited by Sara Odedina
Published by Pushkin Press

"It only taykes one person to start a revolushun…"

This extraordinary account takes us deep into a mine where children work six days a week alongside adults and are subject to the same horrific dangers. Told in the first person by Newt using non-standard spelling, the story is utterly compelling and we quickly forget that we are doing anything more complex than listening to Newt’s voice.

Life in Bearmouth is one of darkness, danger and obedience, and is dominated by religious observance and abuse. Reward is not expected in the here-and-now - workers have to pay for their own candles from the pittance they earn - but “Mayker sayve us”, it is eagerly awaited in the world-to-come.

The intelligent and dutiful Newt accepts everything at face value, until a new boy joins their team. He asks questions, and soon Newt is asking questions, too. What children can imagine, they can hope for. And so, one idea at a time, everything is put at risk…. 

It’s hard to describe how powerfully this story weaves its spell. Liz Hyder’s world-building is claustrophobically convincing: we experience and learn alongside Newt, whose physical journey to the light is mirrored by an intellectual and emotional journey that carries a huge impact. 

I loved this book and have been recommending it to adult friends as well as teens. But I would say it works for readers of 11+


A Pocketful of Stars

by Aisha Bushby
Edited by Liz Bankes and Sarah Levison
Published by Egmont

This place is magic . . . but it's not the sort of magic that comes from wands and spells . . .”

This book has its roots in a world that many readers of 10+ will recognise – a realistic home and school environment for a quiet girl who loves video games, worries that her best friend is growing away from her, and quarrels with her extroverted mum. But there’s another side to Safiya’s life: a heritage that, until now, she has ignored. 

Hospitalised following a stroke, Safiya’s Mum is in a coma. Wearing Mum’s perfume, Safiya holds Mum’s hand – and begins to experience a series of what feel like waking dreams, re-living episodes from her Mum’s childhood in Kuwait. In the process Safiya comes to know and understand her family in a whole new way, and is strengthened for the challenges that lie ahead. 

The possibility of Mum’s recovery is strongly present throughout, but the magic in this story does not extend to miracles. This is a book about memory, connection, loss and legacy. There is hope, too, but it comes slowly and gently, as Safiya processes what she’s learned and deals with loss.

This atmospheric story invited me to reconsider my relationship with family and memory, and I found it very moving. I think it does a great job at encouraging empathy and insight, and it’s a really enjoyable read.

Recommended for 10-13+



Written and illustrated by Jamie Littler
Edited by Naomi Colthurst
Published by Puffin

In a frozen village cut off from the rest of human-kin by terrifying Leviathans that roam the snowy wastes, a boy called Ash is waiting for his missing parents and trying to remember not to sing. 

Song Weavers can understand (and sometimes direct) the Leviathans, but their skill makes them vulnerable, and singers are not welcome in Ash’s village, which is why Ash’s grumpy Yeti guardian comes down hard on any musical activity. But when a Pathfinder sleigh appears on the horizon, pursued by Leviathans, Ash finds himself singing them to safety behind the village walls, and is cast out of his village for his actions.

Ash joins the Pathfinder crew aboard the Frostheart and sets out to find his parents. Along the way lie many adventures, a dash of magic, lots of humour and some really exciting world-building.

This is the first book Jamie Littler has written and illustrated himself, and there are black and white line drawings throughout. It’s a really enjoyable read, and I would recommend it for readers aged 8-11 or so.

A Good Girl's Guide to Murder


A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

by Holly Jackson
Edited by Lindsey Heaven
Published by Electric Monkey at Egmont

Straight-A student Pippa Fitz-Amobi has taken on a massive challenge. Five years ago, schoolgirl Andie Bell was murdered by Sal Singh, who took his own life afterwards. The case is closed, and nobody is interested in re-opening it – until Pippa decides to re-examine the evidence as part of her extended A-Level project, and discovers a talent for sniffing out the truth. But if Sal is innocent, that means the real killer is still out there, and Pippa’s life could be in danger.

Told via emails, phone texts, diaries and official police documents as well as traditional third-person narrative, this story delivers plenty of knife-edge twists and turns, and has some appealing characters. 

There are moments here and there that don’t deliver – one or two of the plot points feel a little shaky, and some of the dialogue in the third-person narrative sections can be unconvincing. Overall, though, the story carried me along and I enjoyed it – not least for the pleasure of being in Pippa’s sensible, studious and well-organised company. 

Adults who regularly read crime fiction may be disappointed, but they’re not the target market and legions of YA readers are loving it.

Recommended for 14+


The Million Pieces of Neena Gill

by Emma Smith-Barton
Edited by Naoim Colthurst
Published by Penguin YA

"How can I hold myself together, when everything around me is falling apart?"

Neena’s always been a good student, and obedient at home. But since her older brother Akash disappeared, she’s been on medication to help with her depression and anxiety. When she stops taking her tablets and starts to feel the pressure mounting, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. As Neena starts drinking secretly and sneaaking out to parties, things spiral out of control. Can her new boyfriend help? Or will Neena have to confront what really happened to Akash before she can move on?

There are some hard-hitting themes here, including suicide and drug use, but plenty of hope, too. Saying that I enjoyed seeing the world from Neena’s perspective isn’t quite the right way to put it, but it certainly rang true and I appreciated the insights I gained. And YA books that deal honestly, directly and constructively with mental health and wellbeing are always welcome.

Recommended for readers 14+

Finally, here are some reflections on this year's shortlist. I'd love to hear your views, too - you can leave a comment on this blog or get in touch via the contact page.
For seven books, these titles cover a huge age range and include a really diverse array of subjects and styles.

There are some very hard-hitting themes - and loss/death is explored in different ways in four of them.

Because of this, you might want to take special care in recommending some of these books. For the right reader at the right time, they could be extraordinary, but readers need to have a choice about whether they engage with them. If you’re struggling with a family bereavement, you might run a mile from a searing account of a similar experience. Or you might welcome it with open arms.

Several of these books reminded me of why reading aloud to older kids (for pleasure) can be so powerful – not least because it helps them make a relationship with books they wouldn’t choose for themselves. But note Point 3! And make sure you’ve read it first.

Given the aim of the Branford Boase Award, I would have liked to hear more about the editors and their role in nurturing these titles to publication. As educators, we’re often looking for imaginative and effective ways to help children and young people improve their writing. ‘Redrafting your work’ doesn’t just sound uninspiring, it offers no real guidance on how to do that effectively. But finding out about the role of an editor in bringing a book to publication has the potential to change that: writer-editor partnerships in the classroom could be interesting, for example. Maybe next time we’ll hear more?

To find out more about the Branford Boase Award, click HERE 

Artwork copyright Laura Carlin for Bloombsury: The Space We're in
Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2024 All rights reserved.
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Thu 04 Mar 2021



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