North East Book Awards 2016

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill

Amina Ambrose lives with her mother, father, two sisters and brother in a country ruled by a dictator. Amina and her sisters have to wear coloured headscarves that identify their age and they have been banned from education since the tyrant came to power. Amina can’t help asking questions that get her into trouble – “Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t we change things?” – and she is constantly told she has too much imagination and should keep her head down.

To Amina’s delight, and to the relief of many people, an army arrives to liberate the country. She assumes that the old regime will be got rid of quickly, but things only go from bad to worse. The government cracks down on minority groups, and Amina is forced to wear a badge to indicate her cultural and genetic heritage; a badge that can only divide the population, not unite it against their rulers.

Amina’s brother is furious and desperate to join the rebellion. Their father, enraged by his disobedience and frightened for the future of his family, throws him out. But the damage is done and the whole family will pay…

Amina finds herself walking to a refugee camp with her sister Jenna. To keep their spirits up, she starts to tell stories about the stars they can see in the night sky. Soon she discovers that her imagination, once a thing to be despised and hidden, can have immeasurable value in their new life as refugees. Amina, “the girl who tells stories” now has a new direction and a reason to keep living. And who knows? One day, what remains of her family may be united again…

Looking at the Stars was published on 30th January 2014 in hardback and in June 2015 in paperback. It’s suitable for readers of 11 upwards because of the content.

Themes: civil war, oppression, death, poverty, refugees, discrimination, imagination, hope, family, loss, love, friendship, the power of storytelling.



The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

An Edwardian department store provides a glamorous setting for this sparkling girls’ detective story, and there’s something of the Little Princess about its central character Sophie Taylor too. Left penniless when her father dies she’s pleased to find a job in the millinery department of Sinclair’s. The other girls decide she’s stuck-up but she makes friends with Billy a junior porter and beautiful Lil, who models clothes during the day and dances in the chorus at night. A daring burglary plunges them all into an exciting – and dangerous – adventure. Sophie is an appealing heroine, the mystery is cleverly plotted and leads to a thrilling climax, while the period details – clothes, hats, tea and cake – add to the charm. Splendid!


Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis

Gill Lewis writes outstanding animal stories, and Gorilla Dawn is very good indeed. The setting is the forests of the Congo, home to the great lowland gorilla but also to rebel soldiers, who hide out there after attacks on local villages. Imara is just a child, but regarded as a talisman by the Black Mambas, one of the rebel groups. Their leader believes her to be a Spirit Child with magical powers to protect his men. It’s a frightening life and Imara has withdrawn into herself for protection. The arrival in camp of a baby gorilla taken to be sold into captivity breaks down her defences and she determines to save it. Imara’s story is terrible and Lewis chooses to reveal it in full only when Imara is safe. She allows us to feel hope for the gorillas too while explaining to her readers all the dangers they face. Above all, this story tells children that we all share the world, that if we lose our love of it, we lose our souls. A thrilling story which will sweep readers along, this is one of the best books of the year.


The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair by Lara Williamson

Becket Rumsey is all at sea.

His dad has run away with him and his brother Billy in the middle of the night. And they've left everything behind, including their almost-mum Pearl. Becket has no idea what's going on - it's a mystery. So with the help of Billy and a snail called Brian, Becket sets out on a journey of discovery. It's not plain sailing but then what journeys ever are?


Time Travelling With a Hamster by Ross Welford

This clever, touching time travel adventure owes as much to The Railway Children as it does to Back to the Future! Al (for Albert, after Einstein) Chaudhury’s dad is dead but – and here’s where it gets really interesting – a physicist, he’d already been experimenting with time travel and, realising what is going to happen, left instructions enabling his son to go back in time and prevent the childhood accident that will ultimately kill him. Huge congratulations to Ross Welford for observing all the rules of time travel (never easy and he manages a sly dig at Dr Who!) and constructing a terrific adventure that puts family relationships, particularly male ones, at its heart.