We are delighted to welcome Fen Coles and Catherine Barter, organisers of the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award. The Little Rebels was inaugurated in 2012 and on 15 July the 2020 shortlist will be announced. The National Shelf Service will be releasing videos with the shortlisted authors and illustrators from 11am on an hourly basis.
Can you tell us a little about the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award and how it came to be founded?
It grew out of the movement to revitalise a body for radical booksellers – this became The Alliance of Radical Booksellers. Housmans and Five Leaves wanted to launch an award for political non-fiction for adults Bread and Roses this was inaugurated in 2012. The booksellers decided they wanted a parallel children’s award. They were unsure on format and so decided to approach a radical children’s bookseller. Letterbox Library was the only dedicated one. Letterbox set-up the parameters to start the award and ran this on behalf of The Alliance of Radical Booksellers. The work got bigger and bigger and it began to feel unmanageable. Housman’s took over for a year with Catherine Barter taking the lead on this and since then Housmans and Letterbox Library have joined forces to run it.
Which books have won in the past and what made them winners?
Azzi in between – Sarah Garland.
It felt innovative, we weren’t aware of many graphic novel picture books which looked at refugees. There was a lot of information coming out at the time about refugees and particularly those in Syria. There was an avalanche of news that was difficult to digest and process. Judges felt Azzi in Between relayed this in a way that was understandable but that also managed to be quite optimistic, without being idealistic.
After Tomorrow – Gillian Cross
It’s a novel on the theme of refugees but it takes a different approach - the book starts with the five banks crashing in the UK. This forces people to seek refuge and causes mass starvation. It’s a Dystopian, designed to get children to empathise with refugee experiences, imagining themselves in a position they might otherwise never be in. Everything is flipped on its head with the subversion of ideas around who runs the camps and who inhabits them.
Scarlett Ibis – Gill Lewis
Gill Lewis has been on the shortlist many times ,an indication of how great she is at tackling politic issues but also perhaps signposting how little political writing there is for children. It looks at the care system in the UK and manages to critique it without ever demonising social workers. It explores ideas of mental health as well which had tended to be covered more in Young Adult fiction than in Middle Grade.
I am Henry Finch – Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz
This is the youngest book to win the Little Rebels award. It’s really original and questions ideas of identity and individuality in both a philosophical and a literal way. It makes big existential ideas tangible even for four-year-olds and so feels remarkable.
Ada Twist, Scientist – Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
It is beautifully created, warm and funny. There were conversations around whether or not it is radical, however, there are not enough books published like this and part of the role for the awards is to amplify. It depicts a young black girl in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and felt relatively pioneering and a way to raise aspirations. It’s more subtle than some of the other books showing girls in STEM as it is more detailed, fun and nuanced and it doesn’t feel tokenistic.
The Muslims – Zanib Mian
Sweet Apple published it as The Muslims and it later became part of a series, Planet Omar. For us it won for lots of different reasons, judges were attracted to the idea that it was a small publisher and that the author was little known. Part of the remit for the award is to amplify the voice of those who are not being amplified – creators and publishers. Its theme was also important as it counters Islamophobia. What is clever about it is it has a fun adventure narrative, but also offers a guide to Muslim Life and Culture in Modern Britain. It’s very clear in its mission, but manages to counter ever becoming didactic through its adept use of humour.
Freedom – Catherine Johnson
It won because there are so few books being written in this country which look at the United Kingdom’s culpability in enslavement. The country’s riches are built on enslavement and the persecution of other people. It’s a history that isn’t talked about or taught enough. In the hands of Catherine Johnson the subject is well-researched by a writer who handles historical fiction for middle grade at its absolute best.
Did you read any radical books as a child and what impression did these make upon you?
Catherine: I wish the answer was yes, but I don’t think I did. Most of my reading was very white and I used to read Bunty comics which often held a somewhat sanctimonious moral position which was put across in quite a condescending way. There were books that I read which were socially engaged, worthy children’s books centring around divorce and the family. Most of the radical ideas I came across were through children’s television with programmes like Grange Hill and Byker Grove.
Fen: It wasn’t good. The few books I read which might be considered radical included Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. This felt very different to me, it wasn’t making a comment about a feisty girl, but was an astute assertive character who wasn’t ‘girl-ified’, but was just a really interesting female lead.
The other book which made a real impression on me was The Story of Ferdinand – it was an old title about pacifism and a bull that doesn’t want to join in with the other bulls in the bullfighting ring, he just wants to sniff flowers. There was a deliberate anti-war message. It is probably quite sexist now, but really challenged ideas around masculinity and about war.
What qualities do you look for in judges and how does judging work?
Fen: Firstly they have to have a good knowledge of children’s literature – we have judges from a range of perspectives, they might be a bookseller, they could be a creator, they could be a consultant or educator. What is important is that joined with that, there has to be a political drive! That might be through charities they have been aligned with, through activism, but it might be quieter through an understanding and lobbying that children should have access to a wider range of titles. This in itself can be quite a radical form of politics.
Catherine: One of the interesting things with the awards is that we don’t always have a full understanding of what radical means until people are in the judging meetings discussing the books. It’s a good way for people’s positions to become clear.
Fen Coles: We tend to have four to five judges (the smallest we have had was two - Liz Laird and Wendy Cooling in the inaugural year). The judges get sent the shortlisted books and have a month to look at them. There is a judging meeting which Catherine and I attend but don’t input into. It’s not a chaired meeting, decisions always get made in the meeting and it usually lasts around half a day. Last year we had a bit of a shadowing initiative with school children and their feedback was read to the judges as part of the meeting.
How would you like to see the award develop?
Fen: We’ve had funding this year, which helped us to do some development work. We want to build on that. The award has a role to play in inspiring other creators to create radical children’s fiction. There’s a dearth of this in the UK and we would like to see more of it and hope the award might influence its creating, giving a license to create! It would help the award to be able to have a part-time, paid worker, but these positions are always difficult to fund raise for. We would like to see the school shadowing built upon and it was brilliant being able to read back the children’s views and comments on the Award Night. The audience really liked that and the children had valid and often different perspectives so we’d love to develop this and increase their input.
Catherine: There’s also the idea of having more associated prizes. Perhaps a sister Young Adult prize, a children’s non-fiction prize to help encourage the world of radical publishing for children.
It’s been a challenging year for awards and books when will the winners be announced?
We are hoping to announce in late September. We’ve pushed this back as far as we can without impacting on next year’s awards. The further away we can get the announcement, the closer we are to having some sort of event. Now that we have funding, we want to use that to celebrate and further amplify the winners.
Are there any ways in which libraries can get involved?
The award chimes well with libraries as they have a history of bringing a wide selection of books to the communities they serve. Little Rebels really lifts out the smaller publishers and lesser known voices. If libraries can be showcasing the shortlist and if we can do things to enable and empower them to do that it would be great. Having a librarian on the judging panel would be really useful.
We’re delighted by the partnership with the National Shelf Service as we are keen for as many children as possible to learn about these books. Perhaps there are ways libraries might be able to look at Little Rebels events, hosting authors who are shortlisted, using some of the books in children’s book groups or during storytimes.
A big thank you to Catherine and Fen for taking the time to talk to us at a busy point in the Little Rebels award calendar and for all of the energy and time that is invested in a deeply important award.