Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola have won the Waterstones children’s book prize for their “utterly joyful” picture book about a science-loving black girl, Look Up!, at a time when only 4% of British children’s books contain a black or minority ethnic main character.
Following the adventures of Rocket, a little girl who is trying to convince her phone-obsessed teenage brother to look up at a meteor shower, Look Up! was named winner of the £5,000 award, chosen by Waterstones booksellers, on Thursday.
Bryon, a writer and actor, came up with the story after visiting Hyde Park in London with his girlfriend to see the Peter Pan statue. While there, he spent the whole time refreshing his phone. He originally intended the work to be a short animation, but was convinced by his agent to try writing a book instead.
“Long story short, after a tax bill came through I was like, ‘I need to learn how to write books.’ So I went to Waterstones and studied the hell out of some picture books,” he said.
He then approached his friend Dapo Adeola, an illustrator and character designer, and asked him to draw the character of Rocket. “I just told him she was a black girl, with big hair, and glasses – it was like he had a cable to my brain,” said Bryon.
Adeola said his depiction of Rocket was inspired by one of his nieces. “I tried to capture her curiosity and zest for knowledge in Rocket’s mannerisms as well as her innocently self-assured attitude to problem solving, traits that should be celebrated in both boys and girls. At the time I looked around and space in picture books was dominated by young boys, young white boys, to be precise. I wanted to see what I could do that was original, and stands out.”
Bryon said that reading the book to children at events had been “incredible”. “When you read the story out loud to kids, they don’t lie, if they find it boring they’ll tell you. We had the exact opposite,” he said. “We were reading it to groups of school kids, a hundred at a time. A lot of them, the minute they see Rocket and her big brother Jamal, especially young black kids, their eyes light up. When you see something that represents you, that’s a really powerful moment.”
Waterstones children’s buyer Florentyna Martin said that Look Up! had recast the “mould of traditional picture-book storytelling for a new era”, and that Rocket was “a little person with big dreams, who has captured our hearts”, praising her “boundless enthusiasm, curious nature and kind spirit as a hero for us all”.
Look Up! won both the overall Waterstones children’s book of the year prize, and the illustrated book category. Liz Hyder’s young adult dystopia Bearmouth won the older readers’ category, while High-Rise Mystery, Sharna Jackson’s whodunnit starring sister sleuths Nik and Norva, took the category for younger readers.
Bearmouth, in which the protagonist, Newt, has worked in a coalmine since the age of four, is a “powerfully atmospheric story … with an addictive narrative”, said Martin, while High-Rise Mystery was praised as “a fresh, pacey and exciting angle for the genre”.
Jackson said she had loved the mystery genre since she was small, but felt that “the typically posh, vintage, white and stuffy characters and settings were due an update”.
High-Rise Mystery was an experiment “to see if mystery’s codes and conventions could be transposed to today in a new context, to a working-class setting, led by two contemporary, clever and funny black girls”.
“I like to think that winning this prize means that the experiment was a success, so thank you,” she said.