Waterstones children's prize shortlists reflect readers' search for hope in anxious times

Book awards highlight titles providing optimistic perspectives on tough social problems that experts say are hitting youngsters’ mental health

Announcing the shortlists for its children’s book prizes, Waterstones has attributed high anxiety levels among young people for the notable increase in “optimistic stories that equip children with confidence to master a future that can feel very uncertain”.

A January survey by the Prince’s Trust found that 58% of 16- to 25-year-olds said political events had made them fear for their futures, with 41% more anxious than a year ago, while on Monday, research by children’s charity the NSPCC revealed its Childline support service was contacted every 11 minutes by children suffering from mental health problems last year.

Florentyna Martin, Waterstones’ children’s buyer, said: “Even in those books aimed at the youngest readers, you can see authors are tackling issues in the wider world.” More than ever, authors were meeting demand from readers perplexed by current political and economic uncertainties, particularly those raised by the Brexit vote, migration and political figures like Donald Trump, she said.

The shift in emphasis to optimistic stories was notable in the 18 books shortlisted across three categories – illustrated, younger fiction and older fiction, said Martin. While teenage readers were seeking reassurance, she said, younger children’s parents were “using the books to bring up tough subjects.”

Patrice Lawrence, whose debut novel Orangeboy features in the shortlist for older (young adult) fiction, said that though her primary aim had been to promote hope in her story of a teenager caught in gang violence, she wanted to reflect the real situation faced by many black teenagers in Britain.

Novels tackling difference, she added, were vital in a society in which intolerance and racism were on the increase. “I keep coming back to empathy,” she said. “Books teach us to empathise. They are the only time you get in to someone else’s head and under their skin, which is really important.”

Alongside Orangeboy, two other of the six novels competing in the young adult category tackle contemporary issues: Lisa Heathfield’s story about abuse, Paper Butterflies; and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star, which has one protagonist on the verge of being deported from the US to Jamaica.

Dr Rory Conn, a psychiatrist at Simmons House, an adolescent inpatient unit in north London, said fiction was a vital aid for the increased numbers of teenagers he sees. “There is something about the vicarious experience of reading about another young person going through difficulties that is very helpful to them.”

Conn said the rise of 24-hour news and social media commentary about Brexit and global politics had compounded the usual stresses faced by teenagers. “I can’t remember a harder time to be young. The future looks bleak to the young people I see. It is right that they should think about what is happening in the world, but there is not much to temper [the negativity], which seems to be constant.”

Nicola Morgan, children’s author and an expert on adolescence, stress and the science of reading, said that adults’ reactions to world events were compounding the anxiety. “Adults are doing their worrying very publicly and I don’t think it helps children when they see their parents in Armageddon mode,” she said. She believed teenagers were turning to fiction because novels were “more nuanced, more thoughtful, more contextual than newspaper or online news reporting”.

Italian author and illustrator Francesca Sanna, whose refugee story The Journey is shortlisted in the illustrated book category, said her book was inspired by working in refugee centres in Italy and Switzerland. “I have been really happy to find that the children I speak to have so many questions about the story and refugees,” she said. “I left the ending open deliberately, because the situation for refugees is constantly changing and there is no certainty for them.”

The category winners will be voted for by booksellers in the chain and will be announced at Waterstones Piccadilly on 30 March. Each will receive £2,000, with the overall children’s book of the year receiving a further prize of £3,000.

The full shortlist:

Illustrated books:
The Bear Who Stared by Duncan Beedie (Templar - Bonnier)
Life is Magic by Meg McLaren (Andersen Press)
Super Stan by Matt Robertson (Orchard Books - Hachette)
The Journey by Francesca Sanna (Flying Eye)
Tiger in a Tutu by Fabi Santiago (Orchard Books - Hachette)
There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzy Stewart (Frances Lincoln)

Younger fiction:
Cogheart by Peter Bunzl (Usborne)
Captain Pug by Laura James (Bloomsbury)
Beetle Boy by MG Leonard (Chicken House)
The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Chicken House)
Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford (HarperCollins)
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (Corgi – Penguin Random House)

Older fiction:
Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager (Walker)
Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield (Egmont)
Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence (Hodder - Hachette)
The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy (Pushkin)
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Bodley Head)
The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Corgi – Penguin Random House)


Danuta Kean

The GuardianTramp

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