The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize: A love-letter to booksellers

Sin eater  cover shareI am so, so delighted, stunned, honoured, and proud that The Sin Eater’s Daughter has been shortlisted in the Teen Books category of the 2016 Waterstones Children’s Book Awards. It seems such an impossible, magical thing to happen. And yet it has. And the best thing about it is I’m in this incredible position because of the lovely booksellers at Waterstones.

I used to be terrified of Waterstones booksellers, when I was a teen. They seemed a different species to me; they moved with a little extra grace, their smiles were a bit more knowing. I couldn’t really look them in the eye.

During my younger teens I went to Waterstones every Saturday, and just hung around. I didn’t have the money to buy anything, but I liked to be near the books. I’d go into town, meet my friend and we’d go to Woolworths. I’d keep an eye out while she nicked bath pearls. Then she’d meet her boyfriend, and I’d go to Waterstones. I’d spend an hour in there, lusting after the books, and then go to the library and get some books out (thanks libraries, I love you, too). Then I’d nip back to Waterstones for a final visit, before sneaking to my Nana’s for lunch, and to read. I was a rebellious child.

the perfumeI remember the first ever, brand new book I personally chose and bought from Waterstones. It was The Perfume, by Caroline. B. Cooney, and it cost me £3.50 from the old Waterstones in Cathedral Lanes, Coventry. For a wannabe bibliophile who had almost zero access to brand new books of her own, this trip was to be GAME CHANGING. Prior to this most auspicious of days, I’d been taking Point Horror books out of the library for a whole year, wondering if I’d ever be sexy enough for a ghost to try and date me, or for a vampire to come and attack me (nope, and nope. To this day). It was time to buy my own.

Looking back now, I can see some similarities to the cover of The Sin Eater’s Daughter and the cover of The Perfume; a scary, creepy bottle; beautiful, vibrant colours; alluring title.

It’s cool when things come full circle.

It’s even cooler when you never even imagined it was possible.

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Artists impression of a Waterstones Bookseller in the mind of Melinda Salisbury, aged 14

I’ve digressed, I meant to talk about why booksellers intimidated me. It’s nothing they did, more just that they just were. They were everything I wanted to be and everything I had no idea how to be. In my head they spent all day in Waterstones with the books, being all smooth and knowledgeable, and at night they went to house parties where everyone wore black, and drank red wine, and talked about sexy exciting things. Like books.

Back then I was a scrawny, be-fringed, goblin child. I was not sexy. The only knowledge I had was the Latin names of every mammal native to the UK, and how to identify them from their stools. And it would have been very illegal to give me red wine.

So I couldn’t imagine that the booksellers would even deign to acknowledge my existence.

I was wrong.

After giving me a good hour to lurk in the stacks like a creepy creeper, a young man finally, delicately approached me to see if I needed any help. Lord, did I.

He was generous with his knowledge, and his time, and he made me feel like buying a single Point Horror book was as weighty a decision as buying a Booker winner. There was no rush. It was as important to him I went home with the right book as it was to me, or at least that’s how it felt. When I’d finally made my choice, the book was carried reverently to the till, where I paid for it. He gave me a shiny, pristine black carrier bag with a big gold ‘W’ on the front and a quote on the back to carry it home in. He even gave me change from my fiver (which, in fairness, he had to. That’s the law. I could try and romanticise it, but that would be weird. Weirder.).

I’ve always been so incredibly envious of authors who talk happily about their lifelong relationship with books, who grew up surrounded by them, had easy access to them, who begged for ‘just one more chapter’ every night. These lucky, lucky people who knew from when they were little that they wanted to be writers, and – more importantly – who believed that they could be.

I didn’t grow up in a family of readers, you see. My whole life it’s been the booksellers of the world, the librarians, and, recently, the bloggers, and the tweeters, and the Instagrammers, who have helped guide and shape my reading experience. Who have led me to the books I didn’t know I needed until they handed them to me.

So thank you, Waterstones booksellers, for that. These days, I realise that not all booksellers are magical beings from another realm who wear black, and drink red wine (obvs most are, I’ve met some of them). I can’t believe how lucky I am to be saying that I’ve been shortlisted for this prize. Thanks for being.

And congratulations to my fellow Older Fiction nominees, the incredible Lisa Williamson, Lisa Heathfield, and Jandy Nelson, my agency sister Moira Fowley-Doyle, and of course, my arch-enemy Leo Hunt. I’ve read all of our books and I’m lucky to be considered your equal.

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Second blogpost in as many days… Miracles do exist.