Author who lived in a van is on the road to success

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Emily Gravett, 33, has been nominated for the Nestlé Children's Book Prize for Wolves, a book about an unfortunate rabbit who borrows a story about wolves from the library and finds its characters come to life to pursue him.

The book was originally created as a project for her degree at Brighton University, which she finished last year.

But her path to higher education and literary success was an unlikely one. Having failed most of her GCSEs - with the exception of art - she spent the next eight years living on the road in a variety of vehicles including a truck, a caravan and an RAF bus called Toby Diesel before doing a foundation course in Pembrokeshire and moving back to the South Coast.

Gravett, who lives in Brighton with her partner, Mik, and daughter, Oleander, said she kept on having to pinch herself to believe it was true. "It feels quite scary, a bit unreal," she said.

Nine books in three different age categories are shortlisted for the prize by a panel of judges including previous winners, Liz Pichon, a children's illustrator, and Mal Peet, a writer, and the broadcaster Kirsty Young.

But it is children in hundreds of participating schools who will now read the books and vote on who should win the gold, silver and bronze awards in each category. A total of £13,500 prize money is divided between the chosen authors.

Emily Gravett faces competition from Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers and The Dancing Tiger by Malachy Doyle, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, in the section dedicated to books for readers aged five or under.

But she is thrilled to have made the shortlist at all. Gravett grew up in Brighton and won a place on the illustration degree course at Brighton University.

Another of her college projects, Orange Bear Apple Pear is due to be published next spring followed by Meerkat Mail in the summer. She has just secured another two-book deal with Macmillan for after that.

She explained that it was the "drudgery" of settling back into living in a home with a new baby after years on the road that encouraged her to study art. "I got really really bored at home with the baby so I decided to go to college," she said.

It was "definitely beneficial" going as a mature student. "I worked harder towards it. When you're in your twenties you think you're going to be successful. In your thirties it doesn't always work like that," she said.

"I was half-expecting I would never even get anything published, let alone have this happen to me. It's fantastic."

Julia Eccleshare, a children's book editor, said: "This year's shortlist reflects the remarkable quality of children's literature published today. There was an amazing array of books submitted this year, from fairy stories and historical novels to witty picture books and tough emotional tales." This is the 21st year of the Nestlé Children's Book Prize which has previously recognised writers including J K Rowling and Lauren Child, who have each won three times.

The other contenders are The Whisperer by Nick Butterworth, Michael Rosen's Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake and Corby Flood by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, in the six to eight years category; and I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, The Scarecrow and the Servant by Philip Pullman and The Whispering Road by Livi Michael for nine to 11-year-olds.