Disabled heroine reaches the top

Geraldine Brennan, TES literary editor, helps choose a winner for the 10-plus reader.

A former science teacher has beaten off 3,500 contenders to become a children's author and will have her novel, with a teenage heroine who loses her legs in a car crash, published by Faber Children's Books.

Sarah Wray, a science teacher at Rathmore grammar in Belfast before leaving 11 years ago to have her three children, had her Eureka moment after entering the FaberWaterstone's Wow Factor competition by dropping off an outline and sample chapter of the winning entry, The Forbidden Room, at her local Waterstone's branch.

Last week I joined the nine judges who decided which of the 13 regional finalists had the required factor. The winner will be published next autumn and promoted by the bookstore chain. All had to submit their completed novel by the end of September.

We decided that Ms Wray's book had everything for the 10-plus reader: drama, romance, mystery, genetics, disability awareness and pottery. The story opens with a flavour of Jacqueline Wilson's Tracy Beaker, introducing Jenny, who has lost both her legs in a car accident that also killed her mother. She is now about to meet her new foster family. It accelerates into a tightly written thriller that draws on the author's degree in genetics and first career in medical research.

Jenny finds out what's going on after hours in her foster mother's pottery workshop and falls in love while getting used to her new artificial legs: the breakthrough comes when she fulfils her dream of learning to ski.

Ms Wray said: "I want to write for children because young people think about and feel things deeply, sometimes more so than adults, who are a bit tired and jaded. I like my books to be optimistic overall, and I think generally children are more optimistic than adults." Ms Wray now teaches Sunday school and runs a toddlers group at her local church.

Also on the shortlist was Naomi Rich, who leaves St Paul's girls' school in west London this term after 25 years as head of English. Her novel, The People of the Book, was inspired by interest in the Puritans and centres on a 14-year-old girl who rebels against her pre-industrial religious community and an arranged marriage.

* geraldine.brennan@tes.co.uk

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