YoungMinds is a charity devoted to the mental health of children and young people - an issue critical to the longterm health and well-being of society.
The charity has an annual book award.
The 2007 Short List
I've been practising my two possible responses for the YoungMinds Book Award ceremony, so that I look natural and unrehearsed.
("And the winner is ...")
- Nod head several times in wise, assenting manner, clap hands in a measured way, and exclaim: "Bravo! Well deserved!" (Mutter: "'Book Thief'? Bloody 'prize thief', more like.")
- Look shocked, prod chest with fingers of both hands, shake head in disbelief and mouth the words, "Who? Me?", in exaggerated fashion. Wipe tear from eye. (Mutter: "Ha! Losers!")
At the New Players Theatre in London, on the evening of 15 November 2007…
At the VIP Reception, Barbara Herts, the Chief Executive of the charity, shook my hand very firmly – gripping it tightly for an extended period – looked me in the eye and said; "I really, really enjoyed your book." (“Yes! I've definitely won!”)
I was then taken to meet renowned writer Phillip Pullman – the sponsor of the award and donor of the prize cheque. I shook his hand firmly, looked him in the eye and said: "How do you do? I'm Imran Ahmad." I articulated my name very clearly, but not a flicker of recognition crossed his face. (“No! I've definitely lost!”)
The others books were about: death of family members in the Holocaust; murder of childhood friends by a serial killer; imprisonment and torture in Iran; teenage prostitution, drugs and gang culture in LA; a collection of interviews with children who had been traumatised by the death of a parent.
The writers, or their representatives, each read an extract from their books. We had been instructed in advance that each reading was to last about three minutes. I had rehearsed mine earlier in the day, and my initial selection was 3 minutes and 45 seconds, so I had cut that further to get it down to 3 minutes.
When the readings kicked off, it was obvious they weren't keeping to 3 minutes. (“'The Book Thief'? The bloody 'Time Thief', more like.”)
I was the fifth to read and – after having heard four long, sad and traumatic extracts – the audience was ready for a change. I announced that my reading would last 3 minutes and 45 seconds and they all laughed. They continued to laugh very loudly throughout my selection of extracts, so I was very pleased with that. I would have read for longer, but I didn't have my book – I had printed my extracts on sheets of paper (like a business professional giving a presentation – oh yeah, that’s my day job) and I had no more material.
Will Self gave an excellent, very droll talk about the judging process – the final meeting had taken place in a private room in a restaurant. He explained that, on this occasion, the judges were prevented from throwing each other out of the window – because the room was in a basement. The YoungMinds Book Award is for a book which gives the reader an insight into the mental trauma and emotional pain which can be experienced by children. Will Self explained that the prize did not necessarily go to the book with the most literary merit, but to the one which the judges felt best gave that specific insight. (“Dammit – what is he saying? Have I won, or haven’t I?”)
They called the writers, and representatives, back up on stage (I was the only man) and gave each of us a big bunch of flowers (“Hey, I'm a guy!”). We lined up in a row and had to face the audience in the glare of the spotlights, so that they could see our faces perfectly, as Phillip Pullman announced the winner...
“… And the winner of the YoungMinds 2007 Book Award is … ‘Still Here With Me’, by Suzanne Sjoqvist … “ (The non-fiction book of interviews with orphaned children.)
I did my best forced-smile, locking my face muscles into an entirely natural and relaxed-looking stone façade, looked over at Suzanne and gave her a generous, congratulatory, vigorous nodding of the head.
Actually, I had chatted with Suzanne extensively earlier, and her book really is heartrending. My personal traumas (such as being cheated out of First Place in the Karachi Bonny Baby contest) are just not in the same league. She is a well-deserved winner.
Afterwards, they nearly sold out of copies of my book, apparently, and countless people sought me out in the canapé reception to get it signed, saying how much they had enjoyed my readings. I promised the Chief Executive that I would do some kind of reading event for YoungMinds.
Phillip Pullman took me aside to tell me that he had really enjoyed my book, so he must have been doing his ‘I’m not giving anything away’ look earlier.
So, overall, I had a wonderful time and I was very grateful to have been short-listed.
(Double-click to view full size photos)
'Hey Phillip, just wink if I'm the winner.'
'You wouldn't be laughing if it had happened to you!'
'I have a very natural, gracious smile.'
Photos credit: Many thanks to Ian Cundell
Photos credit: Many thanks to Nigel Scott