Novel inspired by pandemic anxiety wins Waterstones Children’s Book Award

Nadia Mikael won the Waterstones Children’s Book Award for her first novel, The Cats We Meet Along The Way, which was inspired by her experience of worrying about her family during the pandemic.

The young author, originally from Sarawak in Malaysia and currently studying law in London, has been awarded a £5,000 prize and commitment from the bookseller to support her writing career.

Set in Malaysia, the novel tells the story of Ayesha who embarks on an eventful road trip with her family in a quest to find her estranged sister June as the world is soon set to end.

Mikail said: “I was really missing my family when I started writing this book, and I was constantly worried about them during the pandemic, so I wrote it as a worst-case scenario kind of thing, like what would happen if the end of the world was about to happen, and I was away from my loved ones.

“In the midst of trying to deal with these fears through writing, I realized that the only thing we can do is care for the people we love every day and hope for a better future for them even when things seem hopeless.”

The Cats We Meet Along the Way saw competition from five other novels to also win in the Older Reader category.

Florentina Martin, Head of Children’s Department at Waterstones, said: “On a wonderful and tender debut, Nadia Mikel’s prose impresses with the growing market for older readers.

Booksellers are overwhelmed by the tenderness woven into each chapter; the moments of silence between the characters are as honest and evocative as their conversations.

“Mikail has ultimately created a hopeful narrative, in the face of an eventful road trip, that encourages us to share stories and dreams.”

Now in its 19th year, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize is voted for solely by booksellers.

Rachel, of Waterstones Canterbury, called The Cats We Meet Along the Way “an amazing and gently moving read”.

Meanwhile, Charlie – of Waterstones Fareham – praised the tale as “life-affirming and heart-breaking” with its “mesmerizing and lyrical writing”.

MT Khan’s Nura And The Immortal Palace won the award in the Young Readers category.

A magical adventure rooted in Islamic culture and folklore, the story follows a young girl’s journey from contemporary Pakistan into an underground world where rogue jinns rule.

Winner in the picture book category is Gretel The Wonder Mammoth by Kim Hillyard, which encourages kids to embrace their feelings as they follow the story of the last woolly mammoth on earth.

Here are three former award winners to put on your reading list…

1. The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Penfold

Writer Hannah Gould from Lincolnshire received the award in 2022 for The Last Bear – an Arctic adventure story with an environmental message.

It tells the story of April, who accompanies her research father to Bear Island, where she is told that polar bears no longer live. April soon discovers that isn’t quite right when she stumbles across Bear, who is starving and in desperate need of help – so she goes on an epic journey to save him.

Levi Pinfold’s drawings are dreamy, and legendary children’s author Sir Michael Morpurgo deemed the book “unforgettable”.

2. A Spark Type by Elle McNicol

Elle McNicoll’s 2021 award-winning book, A Kind Of Spark, is a thought-provoking book with an important message behind it.

MacNicol draws on her own experience on the book and is a strong advocate for better representation of neurodiversity in publishing.

11-year-old Addie is autistic and constantly hides – hiding her emotions in social situations – to try to fit in. She is involved in a campaign to commemorate the witch trials that took place in her hometown in Scotland. Addie feels misunderstood by these women – something she can relate to – and she needs to use all her courage to make her voice heard.

3. Search! By Nathan Brion, Illustrated by Dabo Adeola

Few picture books are as delightful as Look Up! By Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola, who won the award in 2020.

It’s the inspiring story of a little girl named Rocket who dreams of becoming an astronaut – if only she can convince her brother Jamal to stop looking at his phone, and start looking up at the night sky.

She’s curious and free-spirited, and shows the power of boundless imagination – and what might happen if kids spent less time with technology, and a little more time enjoying the world around them.

Painter Adeola was inspired by one of his nieces.

He said, “I tried to capture her curiosity and enthusiasm for knowledge in Rocket’s mannerisms as well as her innocently self-righteous attitude toward problem-solving, traits that should be celebrated in both boys and girls.”

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