The best free and independent publishers take risks, amplify original voices, and know how to spot a gem in the dust. With many under unprecedented financial pressure in 2020, The Big Issue has chosen go the extra mile spotlighting their work this year.
We have been basking in a golden age of nature writing for seven or eight years now, with some of the very best British writers in any genre, fact or fiction, dedicating themselves to educating readers about the daily miracle of British flowers and fauna, birds and beasts.
Robert Macfarlane, Ben Myers, Horatio Clare, Helen Macdonald, Jonathan C Slaght, and Lucy Jones are just some of the names who have enriched our understanding and deepened our appreciation for the blue/green, feathered/furry planet we are privileged to inhabit.
There was, of course, an added dimension to our nature reading this year.
As months of isolating and distancing, and anxiety and sorrow made their shock impact on our wellbeing and our faith in the balanced order of the world, many of us turned to the natural world for solace.
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How odd, we said (to ourselves and our dogs), that we, usually so happy slobbed out on the sofa in our lazy pyjamas, should find ourselves gazing at trees, staring at roses, and being moved to tears by a murmuration of balletic swooping starlings. It was an instinct difficult to explain, yet unmistakable in its therapeutic effect.
This year saw another slew of superlative studies of the outdoors, with books like Peter Wohlleben’s Walks in the Wild, Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence, Benedict Macdonald’s Rebirding, Joe Harkness’ Bird Therapy and Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights showing that no matter how much information we devour, there is still much to learn, and new subject matter as well.
Despite such an exceptional shortlist, we do however have a favourite. As we are celebrating independent publishers this year, it made sense to go for an independent book. But even if this book had been published by an industry monster, it would have been hard to see past it. We can’t think of – or indeed imagine – a 2020 book with a more profound long- term impact than Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist.
Northern Irish Dara was just 14 when he wrote his journal. It’s a deeply felt and very personal response to the pleasures of the natural world from the perspective of an autistic teenager dealing with exams, friendships, and the unique challenges his condition poses (he had a series of panic attacks and suffered a mental breakdown during the time of writing). His observations are unmatched among his peers; he has the hyper-alert antennae of a scarab.
He puts this partly down to his autism, which he believes has compensated for his struggle with the chaos and demands of daily life by intensifying his awareness of the colours, shapes and smells in the less frenetic world of wildlife. His sensitivity to every tiny detail around him, his palpable joy in what he beholds – and the sophistication of his eloquent writing – have resulted in a reading experience that isn’t just emotionally rewarding, but satisfyingly edifying.
No surprise then that this book won the prestigious Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, making Dara the youngest-ever winner of a major literary award. It wasn’t a long debate when we considered whether we should put Dara, also a powerful environmental campaigner lauded by Chris Packham, on our cover back in May.
Our advice – first read the book. The chances are you’ll fall in love with Dara and his exquisite sentences as well as the family he describes as being “as close as otters”. Next, search for him on YouTube – his readings, presentations and interviews are enriching and uplifting. Then go outside and try to see, hear and smell the world as he does. Finally, listen to what your body and your brain are telling you: thank goodness for Dara.
A message from Dara
Dara sent us a message of thanks when we told him the news:
“Heartfelt thanks for making Diary of a Young Naturalist your book of the year. I am truly humbled. We are avid supporters of The Big Issue in our home, and it has been a joy to also write for the magazine this year, when my book took its uncertain flight during lockdown. So, I owe double thanks really!
“The central theme of my book is home, belonging, connection and compassion. It’s also about acceptance, celebration of difference and of course the joy that connecting with nature can bring, during times of not only hardship and anguish; but at all times. Nature is ever present and waiting to be discovered. I know though that due to social injustice and austerity it is hard to love and appreciate nature when a belly is empty, when the elements are felt, due to the most unjust of reasons.
“The Big Issue has grown its roots to support the most vulnerable, to raise them up to feel sunlight and love. Acceptance and safety. This makes this accolade so special and heartwarming to me. Deepest gratitude to the Big Issue for your work, your storytelling and your monumental effort to be the light in the darkness for so many.”
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Oneworld)
The writer of the award-winning Obama favourite An American Marriage returned this year with another unputdownable dissection of the human heart and head. The headline-grabber is its portrayal of bigamy, but more affecting is the tender coming of age daughter’s tale unfolding inside this unorthodox family.
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (Pushkin Press)
Chilean author Labatut gave us a visionary fact/fiction guide to world-altering science and the crazed, genius minds behind it. This audacious book is full of fascinating anecdotes about Goring, Albert Speer, Alan Turing, Einstein, Schrödinger and Hitler’s beloved German shepherd Blondi, filling in the cracks in knowledge with wild, compelling speculation.
Xstabeth by David Keenan (White Rabbit)
Scottish writer Keenan’s Xstabeth is a literary victory born entirely of instinct and faith. Its experimental stream of consciousness serves its subject matter – a lovelorn young Russian girl is visited by maybe an angel – as beautifully as candy floss suits a sweet tongue.
The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey (Gallic)
Carey’s version of Pinocchio, told by Geppetto from inside the belly of a sea monster, has the curious balance of a writer’s controlled precision and an enthralling lack of respect for the usual rules about reimagining old stories. The writer of 2019’s delightful Little continues to take outrageous liberties with charming aplomb.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (Europa)
The author of the internationally feted Neapolitan Quartet continued to show her almost supernatural recall of the details of female adolescence in this terrific
novel tracing the transition from child to teen to adult.
I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me
And Other Stories, Juan Pablo Villalobos
Back in June I described the cult Mexican writer’s latest as a wild-eyed, motor-powered, hilarious blast about kidnapping, gangsters and political corruption in Barcelona and frankly, I still can’t think of a better way