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The Waterstones Children's Book Prize Blog: Elle McNicoll

Posted on 1st July 2021 by Mark Skinner

Congratulations to Elle McNicoll whose groundbreaking novel A Kind of Spark has been crowned both winner of the Younger Readers' category and Overall Winner of this year's Waterstones Children's Book Prize. In this exclusive piece, Elle discusses the book that fostered a love of books in her and inspired her writing journey.

I went from picture books to audiobooks in the car to adult literature in the space of twelve years. The Middle Grade section of my village’s mobile library consisted of Enid Blyton and other usual suspects, which I burned through quite quickly. I sometimes experience flashes of mild jealousy when I see the incredible range of Middle Grade books published for children these days, which is ridiculous because I can enjoy them as an adult. And I do!

But as Nora Ephron once wrote, when you read a book as a child it becomes a part of your identity. I enjoyed school days at Malory Towers, but with a detached fascination. It was a world quite far away from my own. I moved to Dickens and Jane Austen before leaving junior school, mainly because I loved some of the film adaptations. Sadly, film and television taught me to love the classics before anyone else did.

Then one summer, while my parents despaired over how to keep me occupied while they both worked full time, I was sent to a tent in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. Inside this tent, a white-haired woman with a lovely smile spoke about being a children’s author. She told a story about a rabbit and a pencil. She was soft-spoken and compassionate, clearly an adult who actually liked children.

I left the tent wanting to read about the books she had spoken of. The first one I lifted up from the school library was called Secrets. A dual narrative children’s book about two girls from different social circles, Treasure and India. The former lived on a council estate with her larger than life Nan, hiding from her abusive stepfather and weak-willed mother. The latter was a privileged private schoolgirl whose fashion designer mother seemed permanently disappointed in her. 

The book told the story of their friendship, and how they rescued each other.

£6.99
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Tapping into childhood friendships with the utmost credibility, Wilson crafts a moving and relatable story of the bond between two girls from different backgrounds peppered with unforgettable characters and memorable moments.
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It was the most gripping and emotional thing I had ever consumed as a reader. Treasure and India, to me, were every bit as real and alive as Nicholas Nickleby and Smike. The imagery and characterisation was so close to the bone, I could picture every frame of the story. I was inside of it.

India’s emotional outburst in class about Anne Frank (her heroine) taught me more than any history class thus far. Treasure’s attitude to life and found family was fresh and unbelievably touching. It’s been almost twenty years but I still remember the colourful negligees India’s mother wore, and the way she would squeeze a lemon. I remember the New Year’s Eve party that Treasure’s Nan threw. I heard about manslaughter for the first time in my life.

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson is the book I remember the most when I look back at my childhood. There were others. I loved Anne of Green Gables. I adored The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. But Secrets was the one I read over and over again. It’s the book that taught me how gripping and important central relationships are in a children’s book.

Now that I am a children’s author who visits schools, I smile when I see Hetty Feather in a child’s hands. The author who turned me from a casual reader into a voracious one is still inspiring young people today. As I write this, I’m about to attend my first in-person book festival as a children’s author. Jacqueline Wilson is appearing just before me. 

I might look in just to see. Just to spot more children discovering before their very eyes an author, one that makes books for children who see beauty in the real world. One who creates protagonists like Treasure and India who would go to the ends of the earth to protect a friend.

She has no way of knowing how that book festival event changed me, all those years ago. So, I’m glad I can say it here.

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson made me a hungry reader and started that inevitable transformation. Where a young reader has swept through all of their librarian’s suggestions, so they must write their own.

Books sustain me like food, and I cannot remember every single bite of every single morsel.

But Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson was a feast that kept offering up new tastes every time I picked it up.

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