Nadia Mikail has been named winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for her debut novel The Cats We Meet Along The Way, which was inspired by her experience of worrying about her family during the pandemic.
The young author, who is originally from Sarawak in Malaysia and currently studying law in London, was awarded a £5,000 prize and a commitment from the book retailer to support her writing career.
Set in Malaysia, her novel tells the story of Aisha who embarks on an eventful road trip with her family in a bid to find her estranged sister June as the world is due to end imminently.
Mikail said: “I was really missing my family when I started writing this book, and constantly worrying about them during the pandemic, so I wrote it as sort of a worst-case scenario situation, like what would happen if the apocalypse was about to happen, and I was away from my loved ones.
“In the midst of trying to kind of work out those anxieties through writing, I realised the only thing we can do is care for the people we love every day and hope for a better future for them even when things seem hopeless.”
The Cats We Meet Along The Way also saw off competition from five other novels to also win in the older reader’s category.
Florentyna Martin, Waterstones head of children’s department, said: “In a phenomenal and tender debut, Nadia Mikail’s prose sparkles in the growing market for older readers.
“Booksellers were overwhelmed by the tenderness woven through each chapter; the moments of silence between the characters are as truthful and evocative as their conversations.
“Mikail has ultimately crafted a novel of hope, set against an eventful road trip, that encourages us to share stories and dreams.”
Now in its 19th year, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize is voted for solely by booksellers.
Rachel, from Waterstones Canterbury, described The Cats We Meet Along The Way as a “stunning, gently moving read”.
Meanwhile, Charlie – from Waterstones Fareham – praised the tale as “life-affirming and heart-breaking” with “luscious and lyrical writing”.
MT Khan’s Nura And The Immortal Palace took home the prize in the young readers category.
A magical adventure rooted in Muslim culture and folklore, the story follows a young girl’s journey from modern-day Pakistan into an underground world where trickster jinns hold sway.
Kim Hillyard’s Gretel The Wonder Mammoth won in the category for illustrated books, which encourages children to embrace their feelings as they follow the story of the last woolly mammoth on earth.
Here are three past winners of the prize to put on your reading list…
- The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold
Lincolnshire-based author Hannah Gold took home the prize in 2022 for The Last Bear – an Arctic adventure tale with an environmental message.
It tells the story of April, who accompanies her researcher father to Bear Island, where she is told polar bears no longer live. April soon discovers this isn’t quite true when she stumbles across Bear, who is starving and in dire need of help – so she goes on an epic journey to save him.
Levi Pinfold’s illustrations are dreamy, and legendary children’s author Sir Michael Morpurgo deemed the book “unforgettable”.
- A Kind Of Spark by Elle McNicoll
Elle McNicoll’s 2021-winning book, A Kind Of Spark, is a thought-provoking page-turner with an important message behind it.
McNicoll draws upon her own experiences in the book and is a strong advocate for better representation of neurodiversity in publishing.
Eleven-year-old Addie is autistic and constantly masking – hiding her emotions in social situations – to try and fit in. She gets involved in a campaign for a memorial marking the witch trials that took place in her Scottish hometown. Addie feels like these women have been misunderstood – something she can relate to – and she needs to use all her courage to make her voice heard.
- Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola
Few picture books are as joyful as Look Up! by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola, which won the prize in 2020.
It’s an inspirational tale of a young girl called Rocket who dreams of being an astronaut – if only she can get her brother Jamal to stop looking at his phone, and start looking up at the night sky.
She’s curious and exuberant, and shows the power of limitless imagination – and what can happen if kids spend less time on technology, and a bit more time enjoying the world around them.
Illustrator Adeola was inspired by one of his nieces.
He said: “I tried to capture her curiosity and zest for knowledge in Rocket’s mannerisms as well as her innocently self-assured attitude to problem solving, traits that should be celebrated in both boys and girls.”