Katherine Rundell 'new Tolkien' as novel wins Book of the Year

Family tragedy behind ‘new Tolkien’: Waterstones book of 2023 winner Katherine Rundell, 36, says losing her sister when she was ten is why she writes for young people

  • Read more:  David Walliams, Dermot O’Leary, Rochelle Humes and other celebrity authors are too dominant in Britain’s bookshops and children need to see ‘a huge sweep of books’, says award-winning author Katherine Rundell

The author who’s been dubbed ‘the new Tolkien’ after scooping multiple awards, including this week’s Waterstones book of 2023, says a family tragedy still shapes her work. 

Katherine Rundell, 36, has published six children’s books and is proving a formidable force in children’s literature – she began writing for children at just 21 and won the Costa prize at the age of 30 in 2017 for her book Explorers. 

She describes her work as ‘wildly unlikely adventure stories’; Waterstones CEO Bea Cavarhlo this week said the book that won the booksellers award, Impossible Creatures, is as ‘close to perfect as fiction gets.’

Warhorse writer Michael Morpurgo has said of her work: ‘There was Tolkien, there is Pullman, and now there is Katherine Rundell’. 

Katherine Rundell, 36, has been named as winner of the Waterstones Book of the Year for Impossible Creatures; Michael Morpurgo said of her work ‘There was Tolkien, there is Pullman, and now there is Katherine Rundell’

Behind her success is a childhood tragedy that the writer, who shares her life with the film and literary agent Charles Collier, says has shaped the literature that she writes. 

Last year, she told BBC Radio 4’s Private Passions that losing her foster sister when she was ten had proved a huge influence on deciding to write for children. 

Born in Kent, the 36-year-old author spent much of her childhood in Zimbabwe, where her father was a diplomat; she grew up with an older brother and two foster sisters. 

This week, she told The Telegraph: ‘She had an inherited genetic illness which meant that she died when she was 16. 

‘I’m always wary of talking about it too much, because it is so important to me and so private a thing, but I loved her wildly, and in losing her I learned that things that you love can be lost.’

The 36-year-old author was ten when she lost her foster sister to an inherited genetic illness, calling it ‘the great, lasting tragedy of my life’. She began writing children’s books at 21 and was named the youngest ever fellow at Oxford’s All Souls College

She told the Radio 4 programme in 2022 that the bereavement was ‘the great, lasting tragedy of my life’, and said it was no accident that she lost her sister at ten and she writes for ten-year-olds now. 

The author describes her books as ‘wildly unlikely adventure stories’

Rundell also praised her own parents for letting her and her siblings run ‘wild and free’ during childhood, describing it as ‘the greatest gift’. 

The writer has also been vocal about her thoughts on celebrity authors, telling The Times this week that she doesn’t like the stranglehold that famous faces have on the children’s book market. 

Rundell said the likes of David Walliams, Dermot O’Leary, Rochelle Humes and other famous authors leave other writers in the shadows, saying children need to see ‘a huge sweep of books’. 

She told The Times: ‘I think that what children need most urgently is access to a huge sweep of books and our current eco-system of children’s fiction means what is readily available does tend to be the Walliams of the world.’ 

She added that they need ‘access to a wide variety of books so that they can see characters like themselves; it is not a mystery how to get kids to read, there is really good evidence of how to make a kid fall wildly in love with books.

‘It just takes a little bit of shifting of our current marketplace from the way that it currently works.’ 

Walliams in particular has enjoyed huge success in the field, having first penned The Boy In The Dress in 2008, followed by 14 more children’s novels including Mr Stink, Ratburger and Billionaire Boy, which have sold more than 35 million copies globally.

Rundell said research data has proven that providing a wide range of options is the best way to interest children in reading and fears celebrity authors such as David Walliams (pictured)  dominate the market

At more than £100 million, his book earnings outweigh his showbusiness income and when WH Smith listed its most popular children’s books of 2020, three of his were in the top ten, beating even JK Rowling. 

His output is prodigious, publishing at least two books a year, including picture books for younger children and short story collections.

Seven novels have been adapted for TV – which he also produces and stars in – while five have been turned into stage shows.

His success represents a growing trend of bookshop shelves increasingly being filled by novels written by famous names – with experts pointing out how a little literature, often written with a ghostwriter, can be a lucrative sideline for stars in every field.


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