Booktrust Teenage Book of the Year

by Emily Lezzeri, Get Into Reading South West

“Congratulations, you’ve won”, the e-mail said. Unaware that I had entered a competition, I read on eagerly and quickly found out that the e-mail was addressed to my son, Theo. Unaware that he had entered a competition, I was amazed to find out that he had won a national short-story competition and was soon to be a judge for the Booktrust Teenage Book of the Year Award. As I didn’t know anything about this, I presumed that Theo’s school had entered him. My son is thirteen and the usual response to my persistent question “what did you do at school today?” is answered, mono-syllabically, with “stuff”. As a result, much to my amusement (and his annoyance), I cannot resist answering the perennial question “what’s for dinner, Mum?” with “stuff!”

Along with a state-of-the-art Flipcam, the prize was to go to London and judge the Booktrust Teenage Book of the Year and attend the award ceremony. The short-listed books soon arrived in the post and Theo set about reading six novels in a month. Fortunately, all of the books were fantastic and I didn’t have to crack the parental whip too much to get this accomplished. Please note: “parental whip” is used metaphorically here (you can’t be too careful these days!) Theo was so enthusiastic that, even with five hours of debating ahead of him, he wanted to spend the whole two hour train journey to London discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each book.

I delivered Theo to the meeting point at Portland Place and left him to enjoy his five hour literary debate. I proceeded to have my own internal debate on arrival at the adjacent RIBA cafe: chocolate tart or (a very architectural) chocolate brownie….? Chocolate tart won and was magnificent. Please note: I did not spend all of the five hours eating chocolate tart!

Theo, meanwhile, was happily discussing the novels with Tony Bradman (author), Barbara Band (chartered librarian), Barbara Ellen (journalist), Mary Hoffman (author) and the other teenage judges: Chelsea Jane Brown, Poppy Freeman-Cuerden, Hannah Jenkins and Claudia Freemantle (young judge of 2009). The contest to find the Teenage Book of the Year was a fierce one; the panel had to choose between six very diverse novels. Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick; Nobody’s Girl by Sarra Manning; Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace; Halo by Zizou Corder; The Enemy by Charlie Higson and Unhooking the Moon won and, at the end of a hard day, the judges, so Theo told me, were all happy with the final decision.

Unhooking the Moon is the first novel by Gregory Hughes. The story focuses on a recently-orphaned brother and sister travelling to New York to search for long-lost Uncle Jerome. Along the way, they meet a variety of characters from a cigar smuggler to a celebrity rapper. The novel explores “big” issues such as love, loss, violence and mental illness. Gregory Hughes handles these issues with compassion and humour and has produced a novel of great depth; I would recommend it to teenagers and adults alike.

Gregory Hughes, unfortunately, could not come to the award ceremony but, from the interviews he has given, it is clear that he has led a life no less dramatic than that of his two protagonists. Gregory was born in Liverpool and had a troubled childhood, ending up in a reform school at the age of fourteen. He completed his GCSEs and A levels at Liverpool Community College when he was twenty-three and then went on to travel and work in America, Canada and Norway. Gregory has now been writing for ten years; he states his inspiration as stemming from a writing teacher in Liverpool who told him: “to tell a story the way you would tell a story to the person sitting opposite you”. Sound familiar?

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