It was a BBC article about a 400-year-old Greenland shark that triggered Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston’s children’s novel Julia and the Shark, which has just won an award at Waterstones. But it was the pandemic that drove its exploration of the fragility of a parent’s mental health.
Hargrave’s novel, illustrated by her artist husband de Freston, tells the story of 10-year-old Julia, who travels with her parents to an island in the Shetland Islands. This summer, her marine biologist mother will be obsessed with finding the elusive Greenland shark. The title was named the children’s gift of the year today by Waterstones, described by lead child buyer Florentyna Martin as “an incredible piece of storytelling” that explores “powerful topics of warmth and honesty”.
“I read about Greenlandic sharks when they discovered someone who was 400 years old,” says Hargrave. “Usually with sharks, they date them by their bones, which grow small like trees. Greenland sharks have very soft bones, so they can not. The way they date them is this parasite that creates crystals in their eyes and in these crystals are caught light from hundreds of years ago. So the way they age them is that they date the light in their eyes. It’s so magical. I still get goosebumps – it was one of those alchemical moments you get when you say : ‘Oh, there’s a story’. “
The pandemic, Hargrave says, then had a “major impact” on the novel’s trajectory. “It’s much more of a hopeful book, and mental health came out a lot. During the pandemic, it became so apparent, especially to children, that you’re navigating such a difficult situation, and you do not have your usual support structure, and it’s pretty similar. how Julia has been on this island without her usual support, structure around her, in this very strange situation where her mother is becoming something of a stranger. “
De Freston, whose dreamlike illustrations sit next to Hargrave’s text, agrees. “Children pick up on everything – in a way, their worlds are smaller, and they know when something is wrong at home or when their parents are having a hard time. We felt that this book could be a way of saying that there is a language for these things. “
Hargrave won Waterstone’s children’s book award for her debut novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, in which Isabella sets out to rescue her friend, who has disappeared into a forbidden forest. “I have written books where the child saves the day completely, and absolutely, a hugely important part of writing children’s literature is giving children freedom of action, but I would really like to say in this book that it is not your responsibility to fix things. You do not have to save your mother. She is an adult, ”she says. “Often children try to take responsibility for so many aspects of their parents ‘lives and their parents’ happiness, which is much of what this book is about. Julia tries to be a savior. But that’s not her job. She’s a child. “
While writing the book, they burned Freston’s studio down in a fire, and he created many of the illustrations using the ashes and fragments of the works of art that were destroyed. “The fire ruined 12 years of my work,” he says. “I think since then there has been a shift in my work in general – now it is far more filled with hope and beauty in the dark. And on a really simple level, that’s what this book is about – that even in the darkest moments, there is always hope. ”
Waterstone’s book awards are selected by its bookstores, with Ed from the Winchester department praising Julia and the shark’s “sincere look at the fragility of our minds and our lives (especially relevant in a time of pandemics)”. This year, two titles were named winners thanks to “equally unique enthusiasm,” with Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics, which explores his songs with poet Paul Muldoon, named the Waterstones Book of the Year. CEO James Daunt called the title “magnificent and deeply original” and “a true delight for bibliophiles”. Past winners of the award include Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage.
“We are honored to be honored with this special honor,” Hargrave and de Freston said in a statement. “We made this story to celebrate the natural world, to celebrate families and to celebrate curiosity and alienation. To think that our Greenlandic shark is swimming in so many hands this Christmas is extraordinary. Thank you to each and every one of the booksellers who help our book find its readers. “
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