Julia and the Shark’s writers on their pandemic-driven book lauded by Waterstones

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Waterstones/PA</span>
Photograph: Waterstones/PA

The novel written and illustrated by husband-and-wife duo, Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston, has been named children’s gift of the year by Waterstones, while Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics wins book of 2021

It was a BBC article about a 400-year-old Greenland shark which sparked Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston’s children’s novel Julia and the Shark, which has just won an award at Waterstones. But it was the pandemic which drove its exploration of the fragility of a parent’s mental health.

Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston Photograph: Waterstones/PA

Hargrave’s novel, which is illustrated by her artist husband de Freston, tells of 10-year-old Julia, who travels with her parents to an island in the Shetlands. There for the summer, her marine biologist mother becomes obsessed with finding the elusive Greenland shark. The title was named children’s gift of the year today by Waterstones, described by head children’s buyer Florentyna Martin as “an incredible piece of storytelling” which explores “powerful topics with warmth and honesty”.

“I read about Greenland sharks when they discovered one that was 400 years old,” says Hargrave. “Normally with sharks, they date them by their bones, which grow rings like trees. Greenland sharks have very soft bones, so they can’t do that. The way they date them is this parasite that creates crystals in their eyes and in those crystals gets trapped light from hundreds of years ago. So the way that they age them is they date the light in their eyes. It’s so magical. I still get goosebumps – it was one of those alchemical moments you get when you’re like: ‘Oh, there’s a story’.”

The pandemic, says Hargrave, then had a “huge impact” on the trajectory of the novel. “It’s a lot more of a hopeful book, and the mental health strand came very much to the fore. During the pandemic, it became so clear, especially for children, you’re navigating such a difficult situation, and you don’t have your usual support structure, and that’s quite similar to how Julia has found herself on this island without her usual support structure around her, in this very strange situation where her mum is becoming something of a stranger.”

De Freston, whose dreamlike illustrations sit alongside Hargrave’s text, agrees. “Children pick up everything – in a way their worlds are smaller, and they know when there are things wrong at home, or when their parents are struggling. We felt like this book could be a way to say, there’s a language for these things.”

Hargrave won the Waterstones children’s book award for her debut novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, in which Isabella sets out to save her friend who has vanished into a forbidden forest. “I’ve written books where the child saves the day entirely, and absolutely, a hugely important part of writing children’s literature is giving children agency, but I really wanted to say in this book that it’s not your responsibility to fix things. You don’t have to save your mum. She’s a grownup,” she says. “Often children try and take responsibility for so many aspects of their parents’ lives and their parents’ happiness, which is a lot of what this book is about. Julia tries to be a saviour. But that’s not her job. She’s a kid.”

During the writing of the book, de Freston’s studio burned down in a fire, and he created many of the illustrations using the ash and fragments of the artworks which were destroyed. “The fire destroyed 12 years of my work,” he says. “I think since, there’s been a shift in my work in general – now it’s far more full of hope and beauty within darkness. And at a really simple level, that’s what this book’s about – that even in the darkest moments, there’s always hope.”

Related: Cosy crime and Greek myth retellings: the Waterstones book of the year shortlist

Waterstones book awards are selected by its booksellers, with Ed from the Winchester branch praising Julia and the Shark’s “frank look at the fragility of our minds and our lives (particularly pertinent in an age of pandemics)”. This year two titles were chosen as winners thanks to “equally outstanding enthusiasm”, with Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics, which explores his songs with the poet Paul Muldoon, named Waterstones book of the year. Chief executive James Daunt called the title “magnificent and deeply original”, and “a true joy for bibliophiles”. Previous winners of the prize include Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage.

“We are awed to be awarded this particular honour,” said Hargrave and de Freston in a statement. “We made this story to celebrate the natural world, to celebrate families, and to celebrate curiosity and strangeness. To think of our Greenland shark swimming into so many hands this Christmas is extraordinary. Thank you to each and every one of the booksellers who help our book find its readers.”