The International Anthony Burgess Foundation played host to a competition that celebrated the diversity of children’s literature in the Commonword Diversity prize, which saw MMU Creative Writing student, Dale Hannah, scoop top prize. Commonword, partner organization with the Manchester Children’s Book Festival brought together the competition which saw Dale emerge victorious from a shortlist of five writers.
Pete Kalu, the Artistic Director of Commonword kicked off the proceedings by speaking about the purpose of the organization. He said it was about discovering “new writers” and helping them to find work in the publishing industry that is “not as diverse” as it could be. The award was as a reflection of “Britain’s rich diversity of cultures.” He went on to introduce one of the judges, literary agent Catherine Pelligrino. She talked about her experiences as an agent and what she looks for in a book. She mentioned that books needed “to stand out” and that the best way to write was to “be focused.”
The next guest was Alexandra Antscherl, Executive Editor of Fiction for Puffin, who gave her opinion on what makes a novel sellable. She advised having a “pacy plot” and “relatable character” in order to maximize audience potential. She made an example of The Fault In Our Stars and how it can be translated to a young and adult audience. It was important to understand that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on what can be accepted in the publishing industry. A suggested method of increasing the likelihood of being published was to work on having a “built in audience.” The author can then draw on the audience while the publisher is working on increasing sales in other avenues.
A panel opened up to ask both agent and publisher questions. Kalu asked whether diversification has a chance of affecting the chances of being published. Pelligrino insisted there was “no barrier” in terms of diverse characters and any author should feel free to submit, the more diverse the better. A woman asked about what classified as the right “emotional journey” for a protagonist in a children’s book. Pelligrino said that it should be measured by what the writer feels is appropriate for the type of character.
Kalu then brought up the entrants one by one to read their stories. Devon Black went first, reading from Wild Island, which was set in a dystopian future. Jenny Foley was on next and read from Pufferfish, a story that involved children in Shanghai. Next on was MMU’s own Dale Hannah whose book focused on a Hindu boy called Haroon Patel. He noted that he was the first male to be shortlisted for the prize. On being shortlisted he said that he was “gobsmacked.” He described himself as the kind of writer who will “play endlessly with prose.” As a result of Dale’s shortlisting, Melvin Burgess himself read the manuscript and provided a quote for publication.
Hannah described his book, The Multiple Lives of Haroon Patel as “A Christmas Carol meets the Fault In Our Stars” about a boy with a terminal illness. He used “humour as a counterpoint to the emotional subject matter.” He realized he was self-conscious when writing about situations he wasn’t directly familiar with. Hannah read from the first chapter, depicting Haroon being less than pleased about going to counseling. The fourth entrant, Honey Stavonhagen read from Hope Grayling, The Blind Detective. Finally, Joanne Wesley-Williams read from her book called Soul Child.
With each contestant having demonstrated why they belonged on the short list, Kalu reflected on “persistence” being the key to what makes a successful author. The judges came on stage and revealed that Dale Hannah was the winner with The Multiple Lives of Haroon Patel. The emotion was evident on Hannah’s face as he accepted the prize. He said that he “loved writing” and that “different cultures” would always be his inspiration for doing what he loved.
Hannah’s victory is a sign of the Manchester Writing School’s aptitude for cultivating writers who go on to find writing platforms. But if there was a greater lesson to be taken away from the evening it’s that writers should never give up. All five contestants were shortlisted because of their potential and their drive to succeed in their chosen subject matter. Each came away knowing that they deserved to get that far.
Jamie Ryder is an aspiring novelist with an appreciation for the fantastical and a love hate relationship with the written word. You can read more of his work on his blog.