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The winner of the 2019 Branford Boase Award for outstanding debut novel for children is Muhammad Khan for his YA novel I Am Thunder.
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.
Like his character Muzna, Muhammad Khan grew up in South London, and his parents are first generation immigrants from Pakistan. Like Muzna, 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.
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.”
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.”
Coincidentally, Helen Cleaves, one of the three school librarians shortlisted for the 2019 School Librarian Award, chose this title as the one she has been most frequently recommending: “I defy anyone to read this stunning debut and not be moved by this powerful coming-of-age thriller that the author, a Maths teacher in South London, felt compelled to write when three British schoolgirls from Bethnal Green flew out to Syria to join IS in 2015. Muzna is a truly unforgettable character – funny, fierce and vulnerable – and, as a multi-dimensional Muslim teenager who dreams of being a writer, a vital foil to today’s relentless Islamophobia and agenda of ‘othering’ by those determined toset us against one another. She is also the much-needed voice of a teenage experience that is seriously under-represented in books. I have recommended I am Thunder to students and grown-ups of all ages: not only is it a compelling story of friendship dilemmas, teen rebellion and first love, but by shattering stereotypes and showing how easily teenagers may become radicalised, it invites empathy and seeks to connect, as all the best books do.”
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.
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.’
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
- Mitch Johnson, author of Kick, winner of the 2018 Branford Boase Award.
The panel was 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,, 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.