Ask a children’s author to name some cherished books from their own childhood and in all likelihood you won’t be getting a word in for some time. But Sally Gardner, who has just won the prestigious Costa Children’s Book Award for her fifth novel, Maggot Moon, is decidedly different, perhaps, unique.
Born severely dyslexic, and in what she calls the “dyslexia dark ages”, she was fourteen years old before she could read at all. “I would like my winning this prize to be an inspiration for anyone who dreams,” she told the Independent. “We test people far too much in this country, especially little people. We are all special. Everyone is special, and has special needs. Lots of them don’t fit into mainstream education. We fail a lot of them. They don’t get a chance.
We write them off far too early. My education was a write off. I couldn’t do any of the exams. I was totally ignored, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
Ms Gardner is one of five category winners who are now nominated for the overall Costa Book of the Year prize. For the first time ever, a female features in every award winning category.
Hilary Mantel triumphs in the Novel category for Bring up the Bodies, which also won the Booker Prize in October. Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie collects the Costa Poetry Award for The Overhaul. First-time writer, Francesca Segal, claims the Costa First Novel Award for The Innocents, and graphic memoir, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, becomes the first-ever graphic work to win a Costa Award. It was co-authored by husband and wife Mary and Bryan Talbot.
If the art of writing has come naturally to Ms Gardner, the process certainly hasn’t.
“I have a very good dyslexic font,” she explains. They are z relatively new idea. “A lot of it is to do with how you see things. A ‘bb appear as a ‘d’. The font has heavier gravity on where the b should be. You can’t, in your head flick it round. Dyslexia is not to do with spelling. It’s to do with seeing, and the twisting of things round the wrong way. I’ll start off in one colour and then change it in the afternoon, then I weave it altogether, and switch it back to black.”
The hero of Maggot Moon is Standish Treadwell, a 15 year old boy written off by his teachers, living in a world that has succumbed to totalitarianism. “I became fascinated by the conspiracy theories,” Ms Gardner explains. “It was fascinating. The what it’s of history, become more and more fascinating. What if we didn’t live in a free world? Democracy is such a gentle bird. One has to be so gentle and precious. We should all be vigilant or one risks losing it.”
Treadwell doesn’t spell like everyone else, but he doesn’t think like everyone else, either. To him, a woman’s eyes are “fishes swimming in a puddle of tears”, and his heart is “an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.”
His is a situation Ms Gardner remembers all too well. “My memory of being that age is so vivid. I haven’t forgotten at all. When I go into schools now and look at schoolkids I think, ‘I couldn’t read when I was your age.’ I have a very vivid memory of learning to read. Not many people have that, do they. And I remember what it was like not being able to read as well. I like that age group – age 12, up to about 20. It’s a really riveting way of seeing the world. It’s a real challenge to engage those kinds of minds.
“I could always tell stories, especially ghost stories. I would scare the pants off people with them. Then I worked in theatre for 15 years. Then I met an amazing editor who told me, ‘You can write. Don’t be frightened, just write it.’”
Her severe dyslexia is a recurrent topic in interviews. “I would love to be able to just talk about the books, in the way other authors do. I used to think it was a real problem, always talking about it. But I remember a friend who said to me ‘Look, you’ve got to do this. There are people out there you will help. You’ve got to swallow the pill and do it. Hopefully, people are coming to understand it.”
Last year the Book of the Year award was won by English author Andrew Miller for his historial novel Pure. The overall winner will be announced on 29 January at a ceremony in London - an event which this year will include an additional prize for the winner of the inaugural Costa Short Story Award as voted on by the general public - but Ms Gardner is modest about her chances.
“Up against Hilary Mantel? You must be joking,” she says. “I would be speechless. Gobsmacked and speechless.”
Mary and Bryan Talbot, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Biogaphy Award
Husband and wife team Mary and Bryan Talbot, jointly won with Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, an interweaving of two father-daughter relationships. James Joyce with his daughter Lucia, and that of the author with her father, a James Joyce scholar. It is the first graphic work ever to win a Costa Award
Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies, Novel Award
The second part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, the seemingly all powerful minister at the court of Henry VIII has already won the Booker Prize this year.
The Innocents, Francesca Segal, First Novel
Journalist, critic and writer Francesca Segal’s debut novel is set in a tightly-knit Jewish community in north-west London, and modelled on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
The Overhaul, Kathleen Jamie, Poetry Award
Described by the judges as ‘the collection that will convert you to poetry’
Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner, Children’s Book Award
Writer-illustrator and dyslexia campaigner Gardner was branded ‘unteachable’ as child, and couldn’t read until she was fourteen.