M.G. Leonard and her editors Barry Cunningham and Rachel Leyshon have won the 2017 Branford Boase Award given annually to the author and editor of the outstanding debut novel for children, for Beetle Boy published by Chicken House. Publisher Chicken House has now won the award a record four times.
M. G. Leonard (centre) and her editors Barry Cunningham and Rachel Leyshon
On a shortlist that reflects the current boom in original, inventive, well-written books for children aged 8 – 12 (‘middle grade’), M G Leonard’s thrilling adventure of a boy and his beetle, and the array of wonderfully villainous adults lined up against them, stood out for its humour, characters and plotting and because of Leonard’s special understanding of her young audience.
Beetle Boy fuses science and sleuthing. When Darkus’s dad goes missing a giant beetle called Baxter comes to his rescue, but can the two solve the mystery of his dad's disappearance, especially when links emerge to cruel Lucretia Cutter and her penchant for beetle jewellery?
The book is already an international bestseller with rights sold in more than 30 different countries and has thousands of young fans in the UK who love this rollicking adventure.
On winning the award Leonard said: ‘My heart is brimming over with joy and delight that Beetle Boy has won the Branford Boase Award. I would never have dreamed such a prestigious award was within my reach, because my literary beginnings were extremely humble. I wrestled unsuccessfully with the English language at school and didn't get to university until my late twenties, doing my first degree with the Open University. My route into higher education, writing and storytelling was provoked and inspired by my love of the theatre.
The language of entomology was new to me when I began writing Beetle Boy, and the vocabulary alien. I worked for the best part of a decade, researching coleoptera, writing and rewriting the story to introduce the reader to this new language without alienating them. I love my subject, I love my characters and I'm over the moon that the award will help put the book into the hands of more children. I hope the story will inspire children to go outside, turn over a stone, or look amongst the flowers and marvel at the wonder of the insect world.
I am particularly happy that this award is shared with my editors Barry Cunningham and Rachel Leyshon. Everyone who writes a book knows it is a team effort. My editors have taught me a great deal, and helped me to develop confidence in my writing. I am excited about our partnership and what stories we might bring into the world together in the future.’
Last year’s winner, Horatio Clare, a judge for the 2017 award said: ‘Beetle Boy is a wonderfully funny, energetic and involving story. It combines classic story-telling with a tremendous sense of fun and excitement. I expect children will be reading it with huge pleasure and interest for many years to come.’ He added, ‘This win is good news for books and beetles!’
Chair of the judges, children’s literature expert Julia Eccleshare said, ‘The UK children’s book market is booming, and our shortlist reflected all the new vigour and excitement in the market. M.G. Leonard is a classic storyteller, in the tradition of Roald Dahl or Dodie Smith, but an original voice. We predict that once again the Branford Boase Award judges have recognized an author who will be thrilling young readers for decades to come.’
The Branford Boase Award is the only award to recognise the role of the editor in nurturing new talent.
Winning editors Rachel Leyshon and Barry Cunningham said: ‘We were so lucky to find in Maya one of the best debut authors we’d ever come across – one who knew the story she wanted to write, and who was then so willing and able to beetle away on it, editorially speaking. We are thrilled that she has received this hugely important recognition of her talent and originality, and feel sure that this marks not just a celebration of one book, but also the launch of a famous career.’
Founded in 2000 the Branford Boase Award has an impressive record in picking out future stars. Frances Hardinge, winner of this year’s Costa Book of the Year won the Branford Boase in 2006 while Meg Rosoff, recent recipient of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, is also a previous winner, as are Marcus Sedgwick, Mal Peet, Siobhan Dowd and Kevin Brooks.
The 2017 winners of the Award were announced on Wednesday 5 July at a ceremony at Walker Books in London. Frances Hardinge, who won the Branford Boase in 2006 and went on to win the Costa Book of the Year Award, presented M.G. Leonard with a cheque for £1,000 and both Maya and Barry Cunningham and Rachel Leyshon received a unique, hand-crafted silver-inlaid box.
M.G. (Maya) Leonard has a first-class honours degree in English Literature and an MA in Shakespeare Studies from Kings College London. She works as the Senior Digital Media Producer for the National Theatre, and previously worked at the Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe. Leonard spent her early career in the music industry running Setanta Records, an independent record label, and managing bands, most notably The Divine Comedy. After leaving the music industry, she trained as an actor, dabbling in directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write her stories down. She lives in Brighton with her partner and two sons.
Barry Cunningham has had an impressive career in publishing. After an English degree at Cambridge, he joined Penguin Books in 1977. As Children’s Marketing Director for Puffin, he worked with all the great names in children’s books including Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan. In 1984 he was promoted to the Penguin Board and became responsible for the marketing of all Penguin Books, a position he held until 1988, when he was headhunted by Random House. In 1994 he was approached by Bloomsbury to set up their first children’s book list. Not only was the new list a success, but Barry soon became one of the best known names in publishing after he signed up J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Barry left Bloomsbury at the height of its success and, in early 2000, decided to start his own publishing company Chicken House. He has now won the Branford Boase Award three times.
Rachel Leyshon grew up in Northern Ireland and South Wales. She read English at the University of Birmingham and at the Open University, and began her career in publishing in 1994, shortly after graduating. Her first job was at a literary agency, though she went on to work as an editor of adult fiction and non-fiction, notably at Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Orion, before finding her natural home in children’s books at the Chicken House. Her authors have been translated into many languages and shortlisted for multiple multiple awards, including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.
“M.G. Leonard writes so well, this is very well paced and she’s particularly patient with the child reader.”
“I enjoyed it even more on a second reading; I really love the characters and the plot.”
“Darkus is a great character and this is a book that will appeal to many, many children.”
“I really enjoyed it and felt too that I was learning something as I read.”
“The world is very well realised, it’s full of humour and I really liked learning about the beetles.”
“She knows what she is doing, it’s very accomplished.”
“Well-imagined, well-written with real child-appeal."
This year the judges are Brenda Gardner, former children’s editor and founder of Piccadilly Press; Joanna Halpin, manager at Waterstones Trafalgar Square; Elizabeth McDonald, winner of the 2016 Public Librarian of the Year Award; and Horatio Clare, author of Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, winner of the 2016 Branford Boase Award. The panel is chaired by Julia Eccleshare, children’s director of the Hay Festival.
Winning author M. G. Leonard (second from left) and her editors Barry Cunningham and Rachel Leyshon (L) with Frances Hardinge.
The Branford Boase Award was set up in memory of prize-winning author Henrietta Branford and Wendy Boase, editorial director and one of the founders of Walker Books. Both Henrietta and Wendy died of cancer in 1999. The award is specifically to encourage new writers and to highlight the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent. It has an excellent record in identifying talented authors. Previous winners include Frances Hardinge, Meg Rosoff, Marcus Sedgwick, Mal Peet, Siobhan Dowd and Kevin Brooks.
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.