Interview with Christine Pillainayagam and Leah Thaxton, winners of Branford Boase Award

In July, Christine and her editor Leah won the Branford Boase Award for the book Ellie Pillai is Brown. We spoke to both about winning the award, working together, and what they hope young people will take from the book.


First of all, congratulations on winning the Branford Boase award. What did it mean to you to win it?

It meant a lot! This story is really personal to me, I wanted to connect with people who feel a bit ‘othered’ and people from my own community who felt how I felt when I was growing up. So winning this prestigious award is validation that those people exist and that stories for them are allowed to exist. Many years ago, an editor that I admired was nominated for it and I remember thinking “wow, if you get nominated for the Branford Boase, you’ve really made it.” So, to actually win it is just incredible, and I’m so excited and happy.

This is your first foray into writing, what inspired you to pick up a pen?

I’ve always done some kind of writing in my professional life, but never this kind of creative long prose. I suppose the biggest factor in my decision was Trump becoming President in 2016. My eldest son was in primary school at the time, and he came home one day and asked me “am I white?” The kids in his school had told him Trump doesn’t like brown people. There was a lot of anti-Muslim, anti-brown sentiment around his election.

And so I really wanted to be able to have a conversation with him about race and identity. I went to bookshops and looked for books with my children that might help me do that, and I realised that there was still a real lack of representation for people like me. That is what made me decide to write this book. I didn’t even necessarily write it with the intention of it being published, I just knew I needed to write it.

What was it like working with Leah?

The thing that I enjoyed about working with Leah and Faber was that they just allowed me to write the story that I wanted to write. There are parts of the book that try to tackle some big themes and big issues, and I wanted to do it in a way that felt accessible and joyful and didn’t just focus on the trauma. I was a bit worried about whether that would work. What was great about working with Leah was her saying “no, you can do that.” She really encouraged me to do things that I had pulled back on a bit, and it helped me to find my voice as an author.

Did you find it natural writing for a younger audience, or did you have to carefully consider your approach?

I think I found it quite natural actually! Partly because I’m somebody who’s obsessed with 90’s romcoms and reads a lot of young adult fiction. I think teenagers are probably the most interesting group of people, they haven’t yet built up all these layers and constructed this adult version of themselves. I think people often underestimate them and their intelligence. So I really enjoyed delving back into that world.

What do you hope the young people reading the book will take from it?

I hope that they feel included, and I hope that they just feel like they are a normal young person even if it might not feel like it to them. I just want young people growing up today to feel like whoever they are, they absolutely belong. There shouldn’t be this idea of how you are supposed to be that everybody has to bend to. I hope that in 10 years’ time, someone like me be at an awards ceremony and see more faces that look like mine. I want children to see themselves in the books they read, going on adventures and being the main character, and feel like they deserve to be heard and seen.


The contributions of editors often go unrecognised, the Branford Boase Award is unique in that it recognises both author and editor. How did you feel winning the award with Christine?

It’s the ultimate prize and accolade, and every year the odds of winning feel impossible. Winning it was a real career high for me. I couldn’t love Christine’s novel any more, it’s a diamond and I still can’t get over the fact it’s a debut, so it really was a double win – best book, best author. I am so happy to be sharing even a bit of the limelight. Aside from that, I love the fact that this prize inspires editors to cherish our craft. We have the best job in the world and sit in a unique position.

What were your first impressions of Ellie Pillai is Brown?

I fell in love with Ellie, Christine’s funny, self-deprecating, self-doubting, crazily talented heroine. Ellie doesn’t realise how lovely she is, and that’s her journey through this novel, alongside a cast of characters that are so rich you could spit them out into several novels. The novel made me laugh. It’s so warm and big hearted, with music rippling through it in the most fabulous way. But I think the thing that stood out most for me was the way in which Christine so deftly interweaves very big ideas with such a light touch. The novel hits home in a way that few do.

What do you think makes a good editor?

Being sure you know what makes for a good story, but not so sure you are always right. It’s always the author’s book and I think you need to stay humble. Editing is so different with each author, but I think it boils down to challenging authors with the right questions at the right time to make sure that all the very best aspects of a story are fully realised.

Sometimes a story is so clear in an author’s head, there are gaps or unexplored avenues that can really warrant an extra look. As the editor you are also the cheerleader, and I like to think we are there to ensure the author never doubts that their work is one in a million. With this book, I was at pains not to over-meddle and preserve the gorgeousness at all costs.

As an editor specialising in children’s books, what do you think makes an outstanding children’s book?

I think a story that inspires a child and infuses them with energy is a beautiful thing. I’ve got a particular fondness for stories that make them laugh and are playful in some way. I’d like a child to come away for a book feeling more confident and hopeful about the world. I think a great children’s writer holds a mirror up to the world but tilts it at just the right angle that a reader doesn’t ever glimpse too much in one go. I also remind myself that 1 in 7 children in the UK have reading difficulties, and that many struggle to focus, and it’s crucial that they are able to access the story.

ALCS is proud to sponsor the Branford Boase Award as part of our Cultural Support & Sponsorship Fund.

You can find out more about Christine and Ellie Pillai is Brown  here.