Christine Pillainayagam has won the prestigious 2023 Branford Boase Award with her funny, heartfelt, true-to-life, coming-of-age page-turner Ellie Pillai is Brown

The Branford Boase is an annual award that recognises outstanding debut novels written for young people, and is unique in honouring editor as well as author. Christine shares the win with her editor, Leah Thaxton, of Faber & Faber.

Elie Pillai is Brown fizzes with emotional energy and the power of music. Navigating loss, love and family strains while standing out as a brown girl in a predominantly white school isn’t easy for Ellie, a budding songwriter and music aficionado. A beautiful, funny ode to finding the strength to sing up and stand out, this winner is sure to chime with readers who also feel they don’t quite fit in, with QR codes peppered through the book bringing Ellie’s songs to life, and adding extra depth to the experience.

Christine Pillainayagam describes her book as “a classic coming of age story with the added layer of colour” and says the idea came from some of her own experiences growing up as a second-generation immigrant in a majority white community: “Ellie’s a British teenager growing up with all the classic teenage woes, but she’s also caught between two cultures, dealing with family grief and a sense that she doesn’t really belong anywhere.”

Conversations with her son about race and identity also prompted Christine to write.“Going to bookshops to try and find material to help me support the conversations I was having with him, I didn’t see Black and Brown stories on the shelves, particularly ones that focused on joy. It made me want to sit down and write a story for me at 15. Something that would have made me feel seen and understood, that talked about what I was facing with humour but didn’t shy away from the more challenging issues.”

On winning the Branford Boase Award, she says, “A few years ago, an editor I admired was nominated for the Branford Boase Award. At the time, I had a rough manuscript, no agent and nothing close to a book deal. To win this award (my very first!) is so surreal, and so hugely important to me, because it validates that stories like mine belong, bringing a mirror to readers who may feel they’ve never seen themselves before. I’m so delighted to share this with my brilliant editor Leah, who not only took a chance on me as a first-time writer but gave me the courage to tell the story I needed, without compromise. I think I can officially call myself a writer now!” 

Editor, Leah Thaxton says: “When I first read Christine's novel I pinched myself – it couldn't possibly be a debut; or this thought-provoking and funny. Christine is the voice of a generation. My journey with Ellie Pillai is Brown has been an honour and a blast – because Christine is the real deal and gorgeous with it too. She writes for readers who absurdly haven't yet seen themselves in novels - what marks her out as exceptional is that she does so with such style, intelligence and charm, citing universal truths that have stayed with me and all who read her novels long after reading. She has the ability to nail character in a sentence, and to write dialogue that sings. I'm just so happy to have been along for the ride. Thank you for the honour of this award but the credit is all Christine's, it honestly is. (But I'll take the praise, anything to hang on to her coattails!).”

Maisie Chan, who won the 2022 Branford Boase Award for Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths and was a judge this year, says, “Ellie Pillai is Brown is a wonderfully lyrical book about the messy teenage years told with humour and pathos. Ellie is a character you want to root for and hug. It is an expertly crafted book that looks at first love, identity and grief."

Her fellow judge, Sajeda Amir, English teacher and KS3 coordinator at Levenshulme High School for girls in Manchester says, “When I read Ellie Pillai is Brown, I felt like I was seeing my 16-year-old self in the pages of the book. Whilst I was growing up, I never read a book that featured someone that looked like me and Christine has created an inclusive book in which the main character allows us to be seen and understood. The writing is humorous, poignant and lyrical and whilst the coming of age story is at the forefront of the novel, Christine deals with culture and the trials and tribulations that come with being a second-generation immigrant with care and sensitivity. The soundtrack is a lovely, additional bonus too, the cherry on top of the cake!”

LoveReading4Kids Editorial Expert Julia Eccleshare, Chair of the judges and co-founder of the Branford Boase Award adds, “Children’s books, like everything else, are changing very fast and the latest threat from technology is much in everyone's minds. But some things remain constant: the desire to create the best stories for children is one of them. The BBA has a past that grew out of sadness. Its foundations are a tribute to the great work of an author and an editor who together made wonderful books. Its legacy is tonight at this celebration of the winners of the 2023 Branford Boase Award, two gifted and creative individuals, a writer and her editor, are a brilliant embodiment of the commitment all of us in this room have to continue to create the best stories for children and young adults.”

Watch the Branford Boase Awards 2023 Celebration Ceremony, with contributions from Chair of Judges Julia Eccleshare, Judge Sajeda Amir and the winning author and editor, in conversation with LoveReading MD, Deborah Maclaren.

The 2023 winners of the Branford Boase Award were announced by Maisie Chan on Thursday 13 July at a ceremony at CLPE, Webber Street, London SE1 8QW. Christine Pillainayagam received a cheque for £1,000 and she and Leah Thaxton both received engraved trophies.

The Branford Boase Award is delivered in partnership with the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and supported by Walker Books.

You can find all the shortlisted books here - with comments from the judges. They are all brilliant debuts that we highly recommend.