Today the shortlists for the 2021 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize have been announced, and I am absolutely delighted that Orion Lost, the debut novel by Alastair Chisholm, has been recognised in the Younger Readers category.
It is an incredible prize for any book to be shortlisted for – and never more so than now, after a year of bookshops being closed, with all of the challenges around visibility that this has created for debut novels like Orion Lost (which published in January of last year – just a few months before the start of the first lockdown).
But I’m also especially happy that Orion Lost in particular has been shortlisted, for other, non pandemic-related reasons, too.
There is a sort of received wisdom in children’s publishing that science fiction can be a bit of a tough sell – that there isn’t as much of a market for it as there is for other genres; that it’s too niche. If you subject this idea to any sort of scrutiny it doesn’t really make an enormous amount of sense: why shouldn’t sci fi sell, given its enormous successes in other areas of our culture like film and television? Why does it face such a different fate to, for instance, fantasy – a perennially popular (and hugely competitive) genre of children’s fiction? I suspect, to be honest, that it has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Before I acquired Orion Lost, though, I was as guilty as anyone else of believing this myth. When I received it on submission from Alastair’s agent, Caroline, I was initially hesitant – I read the pitch and found myself asking ‘Will this sell?’ and ‘Who is its audience?’ But any skepticism I might have had for the subject matter was immediately overcome as soon as I started reading the story – and once I’d started, I simply could not (please forgive the awfully overused cliche) put it down.
It is an unbelievably gripping, fast-paced, and exciting story, and while it has all of the ingredients of classic science fiction – spaceships, aliens, A.I., light-speed travel – it’s told in a way that feels completely contemporary, hugely accessible, and with genuinely broad appeal. And at its heart it is absolutely a human story. One of the things that Alastair does brilliantly, I think, is to use all of the elements and conventions of the genre as a vehicle to explore big ideas and tell stories that are fundamentally about people and human nature. I remember being struck by something Nosy Crow’s senior sales manager, Frances, said to me after she’d read it: that if you stripped out all of the science fiction elements (the space travel, the aliens), it would still work as a story, because the human element – the story of the relationships between the characters and the journey they go on – is so compelling.
And the other thing that I usually tell people when I recommend Orion Lost is that it has what are – and I say this with no hyperbole – some of the best twists I have ever read in a submission. And not just one twist! There are *multiple* moments in the story that come as such brilliant, unexpected surprises that (apologies for a second overused cliche) when I first read them I did actual gasps-out-loud. They are the sort of brilliantly devised, rug-pulling reveals that as a reader you’d normally be delighted to find once in a book – and Alastair delivers at least three of them.
So, this is the book that made me a convert to middle grade science fiction. And I knew, when I was working on it with Alastair and after it had been published, that we might still have something of an uphill battle in front of us: that convincing people to pick up this book and take a chance on something different might be a challenge (and that was before the pandemic…). But the thing I was even more certain of was that as soon as people did pick it up, they’d be sold, just like I was – that if we could just get it in front of readers, then Alastair’s brilliant story would do the rest. It’s a book that I knew would rely on word-of-mouth recommendation – and from booksellers in particular.
Very gratifyingly, thanks to Nosy Crow’s brilliant sales, marketing and publicity teams, that’s exactly what we started to see once the book was out in the world – in all of the reviews for the book, on social media, from booksellers, bloggers, teachers and librarians, and in The Times, where it was named Children’s Book of the Week. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read some version of, “This isn’t the sort of thing I’d usually pick up, but I loved it.” And then, of course, Covid hit, and bookshops closed, and suddenly, opportunities to get debut novels like Orion Lost in front of readers – books that would normally rely so heavily on the passion and knowledge and enthusiasm of informed booksellers – shrank dramatically.
And that is why I am so delighted that the book has now been shortlisted for this prize: because it means that Waterstones booksellers up and down the country will be recommending it to more and more readers, giving those readers the opportunity to discover something completely new, and allowing Orion Lost to find the audience that I have always hoped for it.
You can find out more about the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and read all of the shortlists, here – and you can take a look inside Orion Lost below:
And you can also listen to a preview of the audiobook edition of Orion Lost here:
You can buy Orion Lost from Waterstones here.
The winners of the prize will be announced on Thursday, July 1 – congratulations, Alastair, and good luck!