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It was a BBC article about a 400-year-old Greenland shark that sparked the children’s novel Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston, which just won an award at Waterstones. But it was the pandemic that prompted his exploration of the fragility of a parent’s mental health.

Julia and the Shark Writers on their Pandemic Book Hailed by Waterstones |  Books
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston Photograph: Waterstones / PA

Hargrave’s novel, illustrated by her artist husband from Freston, tells the story of 10-year-old Julia, who travels with her parents to an island in the Shetlands. There for the summer, her marine biologist mother becomes obsessed with finding the elusive Greenland shark. The title was named today’s Children’s Gift of the Year by Waterstones, described by chief children’s buyer Florentyna Martin as “an amazing tale” that explores “powerful topics with warmth and honesty.”

“I read articles about Greenland sharks when they discovered one that was 400 years old,” says Hargrave. “Normally with sharks, they date them by their bones, which form rings like trees. Greenland sharks have very soft bones, so they can’t do that. The way they date them is this parasite that creates crystals in their eyes and in those crystals is trapped light from hundreds of years ago. So the way they age them is they date the light in their eyes. It is so magical. I still get goosebumps – it was one of those alchemical moments you get when you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a story’.

Julia and the Shark Writers on their Pandemic Book Hailed by Waterstones |  Books
An illustration of Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston Photograph: Tom de Freston / Orion Books

The pandemic, explains Hargrave, then had a “huge impact” on the trajectory of the novel. “It’s much more of a hopeful book, and the mental health aspect has become much more important. During the pandemic, it became so clear, especially for children, that you are going through such a difficult situation, and you don’t have your usual support structure, and it’s quite similar to how Julia ended up. on this island without its usual support. structure around her, in this very strange situation where her mother is becoming a stranger.

De Freston, whose dreamlike illustrations appear alongside Hargrave’s text, agrees. “Kids pick it up – in a way their world is smaller and they know when there are problems at home or when their parents are having difficulty. We felt like this book could be a way to say that there is a language for these things.

Julia and the Shark Writers on their Pandemic Book Hailed by Waterstones |  Books
Paul McCartney lyrics Photography: RP

Hargrave won the Waterstones Children’s Book Award for her first novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, in which Isabella sets out to save her friend who has disappeared in a Forbidden Forest. “I have written books where the kid saves the day entirely, and absolutely, an extremely important part of writing children’s literature is about empowering children, but I really wanted to say in this book that it wasn’t it’s not your responsibility to fix things. You don’t have to save your mother. She’s an adult, she said. “Often, children try to take responsibility for so many aspects of their parents ‘lives and their parents’ happiness, which is much of the subject of this book. Julia tries to be a savior. But that’s not his job. She’s a kid.

While writing the book, de Freston’s studio burned down in a fire and he created numerous illustrations using the ashes and fragments of the artwork that were destroyed. “The fire destroyed 12 years of my job,” he says. “I think since then there has been a change in my work in general – now it is much more hopeful and beautiful in the dark. And on a very simple level, that’s what this book is about – that even in the darkest of times, there is always hope.

The Waterstones Book Awards are selected by its booksellers, with Ed of the Winchester branch praising Julia and the “candid look at the fragility of our minds and lives (particularly relevant in the era of pandemics)”. This year, two titles were elected winners thanks to “an equally remarkable enthusiasm”, with The Lyrics by Paul McCartney, which explores his songs with the poet Paul Muldoon, named Waterstones book of the year. Managing Director James Daunt called the title “magnificent and deeply original” and “a real joy for bibliophiles”. Previous award winners are Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Normal People by Sally Rooney and La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman.

“We are impressed to receive this special honor,” said Hargrave and de Freston in a statement. “We made this story to celebrate the natural world, to celebrate families, and to celebrate curiosity and weirdness. To think of our Greenland shark swimming in so many hands this Christmas is extraordinary. Thank you to each of the booksellers who help our book find its readers.

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