Alex Wheatle wins 2016 Guardian children's fiction prize

Author who says his time in jail inspired his love of literature triumphs with Crongton Knights, set on a fictitious inner-city estate

A writer who traces his interest in books back to a spell in jail after the 1981 Brixton riots has won the Guardian children’s fiction prize with a hard-hitting novel set on a fictitious inner-city estate plagued by knife crime and overrun by phone-jacking “hood rats”.

Alex Wheatle is the 50th writer to have won the award, joining a roster that includes Ted Hughes, Philip Pullman, Mark Haddon and Jacqueline Wilson.

His winning novel, Crongton Knights, is the second in a planned trilogy set on the South Crongton estate, where schoolboy McKay’s rash attempt to help out a girl in danger of exposure for sexting after her phone is stolen takes him on a mission even more dangerous than his more usual challenge of dodging early-morning visits by the bailiffs to his tower block home.

Crongton Knights by Alex Wheatle cover

It is the first major literary award for the 53-year-old author, who published six adult novels before turning to young adult (YA) fiction, and was chosen at a ceremony in London on Thursday from an international shortlist including historical novelist Tanya Landman, American author-illustrator Brian Selznick and Australian Zana Fraillon.

Wheatle spent much of his childhood in the council-run Shirley Oaks children’s home village in Croydon, subject of an ongoing inquiry over child sexual abuse, and is a member of the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association. He reflected the anger that experience left him with in his well-received debut novel Brixton Rock, which was published in 1999 and established his trademark style of dialogue-driven fiction with a sharp ear to the street slang of his local south London.

He followed it up with five further novels for adults, including one set in the Brixton riots, before turning to YA fiction with Liccle Bit, the first part of the Crongton trilogy, which was nominated for a Carnegie medal in 2015.

Wheatle, who was awarded an MBE for services for literature in 2008, has credited a Rastafarian cellmate with inspiring his love of literature by encouraging him to read CLR James’s The Black Jacobins while he was serving a four-month sentence resulting from his involvement in the Brixton riots.

He told the Guardian that he initially turned to YA fiction out of disillusionment with the world of adult publishing. “Even though I had a good reputation, I always felt a resistance. I didn’t feel like I was making inroads. I felt like I was this token black writer who writes about ghetto stuff.”

Writing for teenagers had given him an entree to a more diverse publishing sector but had posed new challenges, explained the father of three grown-up sons: “No longer could I rely on my old enclaves like the Cowley estate, Angel Town, Tulse Hill, Stockwell Park, or eavesdrop on the banter that the so-cool young people uttered there (forgive me – I am hardly down with the youth anymore).”

His new, invented slang delighted the judges of the Guardian prize. David Almond said that the novel “hums with the beat of real life and the language sings from the page”.

“I love this book. It’s elegant, authentic and humane. This is mature, powerful writing by an author with great talent and great heart,” said Almond, who won the prize last year with A Song for Ella Grey, and who was joined by former shortlistees SF Said and Kate Saunders on a panel chaired by Guardian children’s books editor Julia Eccleshare.

Said said: “Wheatle’s writing is poetic, rhythmic and unique, remaking the English language with tremendous verve. Though Crongton is his invention, it resonates with many urban situations, not only in Britain but around the world. Crongton Knights is a major novel from a major voice in British children’s literature.”

Contributor

Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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