Muhammad Khan and editor Lucy Pearce of Macmillan Children's Books have won the 2019 Branford Boase Award for I Am Thunder.
Winning author Muhammad Khan and his editor Lucy Pearce.
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 featuring 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.
Mitch Johnson, a judge for the 2019 award said: “I Am Thunder is a bold, brave, and brilliant debut. There were many things that enthralled me but what really struck me was the voice of the main character – and the voices of those surrounding her. These are genuine, carefully referenced and portrayed characters with life, soul and authenticity and Muzna herself is sympathetic, frustrating, honest and fierce. I believed in her and her story from the first page and through her Muhammad Khan weaves a scarily believable and exciting 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, Annabel Pitcher, 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.
MORE ABOUT THE 2019 WINNERS
BBA winning author Muhammad Khan and his editor Lucy Pearse with last year's winning author Mitch Johnson.
Born in Balham, Muhammad Khan studied engineering, but then trained as a teacher. ·After publication of I Am Thunder in 2018, he studied for an MA in Creative Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He is now teaching maths at a secondary school in Sutton. His second novel, Kick the Moon, was published in January 2019.
Lucy Pearse began her career assisting children's agents and quickly moved over to the publishing side as a PA and then an editorial assistant.She has been working as an editor at Macmillan Children's Books for nearly four years, was selected as a Bookseller Rising Star in 2018 and promoted to Senior Commissioning Editor for the 6+ team in 2019, working on illustrated young fiction, middle-grade and YA.
This year the judges were 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.
Now in its 20th year, the annual Branford Boase Award celebrates the most promising book for seven year-olds and upwards written by a first-time novelist. It also highlights the importance of the editor in the development of new authors. The shortlisted authors may have published other books in another genre – e.g. poetry or a picture book – but eligibility for the prize requires that this is their first children’s novel.
As well as encouraging publishers to find and promote new writers, the Award sets out to alert readers of all ages to the work of interesting newcomers.
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.