On Friday July 31st, live on BBC Radio, Sophie Anderson was announced winner of the Children and Young People’s category for Wales Book of the Year 2020. Her book, The Girl Who Speaks Bear (Usborne) is a wildly imaginative and lyrical folk tale about finding yourself. Full of magic and hope, it is a skilfully written and rather brilliant adventure.
The Children & Young People category was added for 2020, designed to enthuse a new generation of readers, raise the profile of Wales’ talented authors, and establish that literature for children is on a par with that which is intended for adults. Readers of this blog will not need convincing that children’s books are full of hope, bravery, wit, empathy and love. Recognition of this is growing and quality examples from Wales are becoming far more widespread as demonstrated by the shortlist.
Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams, says that the introduction of this category confirms children’s literature as an important artistic form. “I am so delighted to see Literature Wales recognising and celebrating children’s literature like this; we’ve got a wealth of children’s writers who are producing superb books – the quality is so high, engaging readers of all ages.”
In addition to the category win, The Girl Who Speaks Bear also won the People’s Choice Award decided by a public vote. Sophie sees this as a validation of the new category, “I am over the moon,” she told BBC Radio Wales, “Children’s books are books for everyone; they wrap up the big things we all feel, helping children to navigate the world.” Echoing the rather brilliant essay by Katherine Rundell, ‘Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise’, Sophie recently said, “I honestly believe some of the most important, most philosophical, and most enjoyable books are labelled for children.”
It’s important to note that the other two children’s books on the shortlist are worthwhile additions to any home. Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies (Barrington Stoke) is about Ben’s attempt to engage and comfort his grieving grandfather. The story moved WBOTY judge Ken Wilson Max to proclaim it “a powerful, deeply sensitive story, beautifully told.” On Susie Day’s Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, which was also nominated for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award for children’s books set in Wales, Eloise Williams said, “This is a humorous, touching, beautiful story about the metaphoric mountains that some young people have to climb.” Both books come highly recommended by Family Bookworms.
We’re really grateful to Sophie Anderson for agreeing to answer a few questions following her award, and we’re really pleased that Sophie has recommended some high-quality children’s books towards the bottom of the page.
What was your reaction on learning that you had won the Wales Book of the Year category?
Complete and utter disbelief! The news came via an e-mail from my publisher, Usborne, and I e-mailed back with the response: ‘Am I reading this right? Has BEAR won in the Children’s category?!’
Once the news was confirmed and had sunk in a little, I was over the moon of course, and ran outside to tell my husband and children, who are always so happy to celebrate with whoops of joy and plenty of hugs!
Is being Welsh important to you?
Absolutely. All the Welsh people I know, myself included, are proud of their Welshness and consider it an important part of their identity.
Since I moved away from Wales (when I was eighteen) my Welshness has only become more important to me. I still think of Wales as my home, and I believe I always will. It is where my family live, and some of my oldest and dearest friends. But it is much more than that too …
I feel Welshness as something in my soul. It’s difficult to define, but it relates to the landscapes, the cultures, and the people of Wales. I’d describe it almost as a lyricalness, a deep emotional connection, and I think if you’re Welsh (or have spent some of your life in Wales) then you understand this!
Does being Welsh have any influence on your writing?
Definitely. With my Welshness being part of my soul and identity, it is bound to come out in my writing. I think many Welsh creatives are deeply inspired by beautiful landscapes, ancient heritage, and poetic language, because these things are so important in Wales.
When I look at my own work, and the work of other Welsh authors, I often feel these strong connections to the land and to the tales of old, and also sense a deep passion and almost symphonious way of expressing thoughts, experiences and emotions.
You also won the public vote. How does that
make you feel?
I desperately wanted one of the children’s books to win the public vote, so I was absolutely thrilled with this news. It feels like the most wonderful of celebrations for the new Children and Young People’s category of the award.
Knowing that so many adult readers took a children’s book into their hearts and took the time to vote for it really is such a wonderful thing, a brilliant reminder that children’s books are not just for children – they are exceptionally well-crafted stories that can deeply move readers of all ages.
You are no stranger to awards. Is this one any different?
This one feels like a celebration of both my Welshness and my writing, so it does feel very special – like a big warm hug from my motherland!
Different awards are judged in different ways; some recognise commercial success, others look at the technical quality of writing, and some look at popularity with readers (which you could argue is often a function of marketing and publicity!).
Wales Book of the Year is judged by a panel of talented and erudite judges. Knowing the quality and range of books they will have considered makes me feel honoured they chose BEAR. But it must be such an impossible decision – like picking one jewel in a treasure chest bursting with equally beautiful jewels!
Whilst it is wonderful to see BEAR with a crown of sorts, I think the really brilliant thing about awards like this is in the celebration of the longlists and the shortlists, because they present an opportunity to promote a wide selection of fantastic books to readers who might not have heard of them.
Seeing children’s books part of Wales Book of the Year for the first time has been a wonderful experience for this reason, and I truly hope it marks a jump forwards in celebrating and increasing the visibility of this beautiful sector of literature.
The quality of the shortlist was very high. Have you read the other nominees?
I read Max Kowalski when it was first published and adored it. I hadn’t heard of Butterflies for Grandpa Joe until the shortlisting, even though I am a huge fan of Nicola’s work, so this really highlights how important awards can be in terms of raising awareness of new titles. I’ve read Grandpa Joe now of course, and think it is a really beautiful, special book.
You will hopefully be contributing to The Mab – a collection of Britain’s oldest stories – with 10 other Welsh writers. Does it feel like you’re part of a Welsh writers’ club?
It really feels like I’m part of a family! Welsh children’s writers are so friendly and supportive of one another. I think because we all have some shared experiences, and also share this undefinable, lyrical Welshness, it does make us feel close to one another.
All of us work together to promote children’s literature in all its forms, celebrate each other’s books and recommend a wide range of titles. There is no competition between us, because we feel like we are on the same team – if we can create readers, then all of our books will be successful!
What other quality Welsh fiction can you recommend?
Now this is the hardest question because there is so much Welsh fiction that I adore, and so many Welsh authors who I deeply admire – Catherine Johnson, Zillah Bethell, Stephanie Burgis, Claire Fayers, P G Bell, and Jackie Morris just to name a few!
But onward to choosing a few titles …
The Quilt, written and illustrated by Valeriane Leblond is a breathtakingly beautiful picture book that stole my heart recently. It holds a moving story of migration, explores themes of home and hiraeth, has a gorgeous message of hope, and I loved the symbolism of the quilt.
Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson (around 9+) is a thrilling historical adventure with the most wonderful group of characters who I still miss long after reading! I would recommend any of Catherine’s books in a heartbeat, she is a huge talent and her books are massively important as they are some of the few books seeking to write lost and erased stories – such as the story of Matthew Henson, in her book Race to the Frozen North.
The Snow Spider trilogy by Jenny Nimmo is my third choice. Such beautiful stories, they really capture some of the Welshness I’ve talked about in this interview: the love of landscape, the nods to ancestry and heritage and the tales of old, and the stories have a dreamlike, magical quality that I always associate with Wales.
And one more shout-out! Even though you asked for fiction I’d like to highlight a non-fiction book: What is Masculinity? by Darren Chetty and Jeffrey Boakye is outstanding and deserves a place in every school and library (and if I had my way every home too!).
If you asked me about the future of Wales Book of the Year I would talk about my hopes for even more categories under a Children and Young People’s umbrella. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a children’s non-fiction award, and a children’s poetry award, like there is for the adult books? And also, an award that celebrates illustrators and illustrated books, as they are such a massively important part of children’s literature too!
Huge thanks to Sophie Anderson for indulging us with this blog post, and massive congratulations on your double win. If you haven’t yet read the prizewinning book, you can order it now from your local independent bookshop. Sophie’s next book, The Castle of Tangled Magic is due out in October, published by Usborne.