The Little Rebels Award, now in its eleventh year, recently revealed its 2023 shortlist: a rebellious line-up of seven books exploring social justice issues with heart, humour and compassion.
The award is given by the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, a collective of radical bookshops in the UK which also runs a radical writing prize for adults, the Bread & Roses Award. Little Rebels celebrates socially engaged children’s stories which challenge the status quo; whether exploring the environmental crisis, the UK’s immigration system, sexism, racism and homophobia, or the dangers of Big Tech, the prize seeks out the books that are trying to change the world for the better.
This year’s shortlist is a dazzling collection of titles that speak to our political moment and put children’s experiences and voices at the centre. Most importantly, they include page-turning adventures, wonderfully funny picture books, and richly drawn characters to root for.
This year’s shortlist:
Ajay and the Mumbai Sun by Varsha Shah (Chicken House Books, 2022)
This is the story of Ajay, a boy abandoned on the Mumbai railways who grows up with a burning desire to be a journalist. He navigates complex global issues, from workers’ rights and corporate corruption, to inequality and Western hypocrisy. As Ajay and his friends search for stories for their newly founded newspaper, they are confronted with powerful adults who will do anything to stop them. They overcome with courage, imagination and an instinctive sense of justice.
Fight Back by A.M. Dassu (Scholastic, 2022)
A.M. Dassu won the Little Rebels Award in 2021 with her novel Boy, Everywhere (Old Barn Books, 2020), which explored the experience of a young boy and his family seeking asylum in the UK. In Fight Back, we meet Aaliyah, an ordinary Muslim girl who loves books, shoes and K-Pop, and whose world is changed when a terrorist attack prompts a surge of Islamophobia. Aaliyah is forced to examine her identity and choices in the face of prejudice and intimidation. But, she finds allies in other children at her school, and together they speak up and fight back.
I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek (Five Quills, 2022)
This sweet and charming picture book introduces Nefertiti, a little girl who is proud of her name: it makes her feel strong and confident. But when her music teacher shortens it to ‘Nef’, she finds herself feeling smaller and smaller. The story, with particular resonance for children of colour, explores the importance of names, and the small but important ways adults and children alike can show respect for each other.
Mayor Bunny’s Chocolate Town by Elys Dolan (Oxford University Press (OUP), 2022)
The picture book misadventures of Mr Bunny have made the Little Rebels shortlist before: in Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory (OUP, 2017) he exploited the chicken workers in his chocolate factory. In Mayor Bunny’s Chocolate Town, Mr Bunny’s running for mayor of Coop Town, and his campaign tactics include fake news, scaremongering, empty promises and smear campaigns. The story is a delightful introduction to the politics of elections, and a cautionary tale on what to look out for in our elected leaders.
Needle by Patrice Lawrence (Barrington Stoke, 2022)
This short novel (in dyslexia-friendly format) is the story of Charlene, a black girl who loves knitting and is struggling to navigate the foster system and separation from her little sister Kandi. In a moment of frustration, she stabs her foster mum’s son in the hand with a knitting needle, and is thrust into the reality of the UK’s criminal justice institutions. The story is grounded in compassion and empathy, and offers a frank look at how children, and black children in particular, are treated by systems that should protect them.
The Secret of Haven Point by Lisette Auton (Puffin Books, 2022)
This magical adventure novel explores the world of the Wrecklings, a community of disabled children who have built a radical new society free from the discrimination of the outside world. They navigate friendships, find families and mysterious intruders in their fight to live the lives they want, and the plot deftly handles complex social issues in a child-centred, liberatory way.
You Need to Chill! By Juno Dawson and Laura Hughes (Farshore, 2022)
This picture book is a fun and joyful call for allyship. The children at school are confused about where Bill has gone – lost in the park? Eaten by a shark? Fortunately, Bill’s sister can explain – “My brother Bill is now my sister Lily.” Amidst a climate of anxiety about young people and gender identity, ‘you need to chill’ is a timely and reassuring message, and a celebration of love and understanding.
You can find downloadable reading guides on the Little Rebels website.
Author: Catherine Barter, Housmans Bookshop co-manager and Little Rebels Award co-coordinator