Historical YA novel exploring Welsh language and identity wins 2021 Tir na n-Og Award

Historical YA novel exploring Welsh language and identity wins 2021 Tir na n-Og Award

The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press, 2020), a powerful and exciting YA novel set during the early Middle Ages, has triumphed in the English-language category of the prestigious Tir na n-Og Awards 2021 for children’s and young people’s literature.

The Short Knife was written as part of the author’s PhD in Creative Writing which explored the creative opportunities of bilingual writing, and this is the first time Elen has won a Tir na n-Og Award.

The winning book was announced on the Radio Wales Arts Show at 18:30 on Friday, 21 May, with the author receiving a cash prize of £1,000 as well as a specially commissioned poem by Bardd Plant Cymru (Welsh Children’s Laureate) Gruffudd Owen.

Now in their 46th year, the annual Tir na n-Og Awards celebrate the best books for children and young adults in Wales published during 2020. They are organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by the librarians’ association CILIP Cymru Wales.

The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott for ages 12+ is a story set many centuries ago, in the early Middle Ages, 454, at a time when a new Welsh identity was just starting to emerge, when the Romans had left and the Britons and Saxons were battling to take hold of different territories.

It is narrated through the voice of the main character, Mai, a young girl, who up until now, along with her sister Haf, has been kept safe by her father. The story starts with the arrival of Saxon warriors at their farm, forcing the family to flee to the hills where British warlords lie in wait. From here we see Mai surviving in a dangerous world where just speaking her mother tongue could lead to her death, and where she comes to mistrust even the people she loves the most.

Chair of judges, Jo Bowers, said: “Congratulations to The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott, an outstanding and original story with a strong female voice, a story with a twist that grips you right from the start. It is an eloquently written novel with lyrical language throughout, set in the early Middle Ages at an important time in Welsh history.”

Elen Caldecott said: “I am over the moon that The Short Knife has won this award. When you write about home, the reception the novel gets from the people who live there matters enormously. To have the book so championed and supported means 
the world. Thank you to everyone involved in the Tir na n-Og Awards!”

The other two books on the English-language shortlist were The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (Y Lolfa), about a family emigrating from Wales to the USA at the turn of the twentieth century, and Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth (Orion), a contemporary story set in the Celtic rainforest of north Wales.

Helen Jones, Head of Children’s Books and Reading Promotion at the Books Council, said: “This category honours and celebrates the best English-language novel with an authentic Welsh background published in 2020. As a Books Council, it’s extremely important to us that our children and young people have a choice of high-quality, exciting reading material which reflects their lives in some way. Our warmest congratulations to Elen and to everyone who’s been involved in this year’s awards.”

Amy Staniforth from CILIP Cymru said: “We are delighted to sponsor the prestigious Tir na n-Og Awards once more this year, helping children and young people to discover great new reading experiences which show life through a Welsh lens. Many congratulations to the winners on their fantastic achievement and to all involved in the process of bringing these wonderful books to our shelves.”  

Chief Executive of the Books Council, Helgard Krause, said: “The Tir na n-Og Awards have been honouring the best books for children and young people in Wales for almost half a century now, offering a platform to celebrate and promote the talents of writers and illustrators. Our heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been involved in this year’s competition and to all those creating outstanding content to inspire, educate and entrance us as readers during an extremely challenging year.”

The winners of the Welsh-language categories were revealed on S4C’s Heno programme on Thursday, 20 May. Casia Wiliam won the primary school age category for her novel Sw Sara Mai (‘Sara Mai’s Zoo’, published by Y Lolfa), with#helynt (‘#trouble’) by Rebecca Roberts (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch) taking the top prize in the secondary school age category. It’s the first time both authors have won a Tir na n-Og Award.

All the Tir na n-Og Awards 2021 books are available through your local bookshop or library.

About the winning author

Elen Caldecott was born and raised near Llangollen in north Wales, where her family still lives. She has published many books for children in the last decade. Her most recent novel, The Short Knife, was written as part of her PhD in Creative Writing which explored the creative opportunities of bilingual writing. Before becoming a writer, Elen trained as an archaeologist and has a love of history, which was another important influence on her work. She currently teaches part-time at Lancaster University. @ElenCaldecott

About the awards

  • The Tir na n-Og Awards were established in 1976 to celebrate the best books for children and young adults, and to promote the sale and reading of quality books. They are organised by the Books Council of Wales.
  • Since 1976, some of Wales’ leading writers have won the award including Emily Huws, T Llew Jones, Caryl Lewis, Gareth F Williams, Manon Steffan Ros and Angharad Tomos (the latter two were on the 2021 Welsh-language shortlists).
  • Three prizes of £1,000 are presented to the winners of the three categories.
  • The awards are sponsored by CILIP Cymru, the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Officers Wales.
  • Judging panel for the English-language award: Jo Bowers (Chair of judges and Associate Dean for Partnerships in the School of Education at Cardiff Metropolitan University), Jannat Ahmed (Subscriptions and Marketing Officer for Poetry Wales), Pooja Antony (primary school teacher) and Alex Ball (Senior Library Assistant with Caerphilly County Borough Council).