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Teachers' favourite wins the Whitbread

Hilary McKay's warm, funny novels are already much-admired in schools. Now her latest has won a top children's book prize. Geraldine Brennan reports.

Hilary McKay is already indispensable on primary school library shelves; now her first novel for readers over 11, Saffy's Angel, has picked up the pound;5,000 Whitbread Children's Book Award and is eligible for the pound;25,000 overall Whitbread prize which went to Philip Pullman last year.

"It couldn't have come at a better time, the roof is leaking," she said from her home near Matlock, Derbyshire, amid preparations for her 10-year-old son Jim's birthday party. "Just to be on the shortlist was a great boost ... I'm so pleased."

Saffy's Angel - about an artistic family in which the children are named after colours on a paint chart - continues the writer's tradition of warm, funny novels about eccentric families. This began in 1991 with the publication of The Exiles, rescued from the slush pile at Victor Gollancz by editor Chris Kloet while Ms McKay was working as a biochemistry analysis technician.

"I was very lucky; it's a lot harder for an unknown author to get a break now," she says.

The Exiles, which won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, was the first of three delightful books about the four Conroy sisters which have all the depth of Little Women but better jokes. The Guardian prize, and a Smarties award for The Exiles at Home, helped her to shift to full-time writing. The influence of her own childhood as the eldest of four siblings in a book-filled house cannot be far away. "And today I know lots of bright and funny children, which probably helps," she said.

Saffy's Angel, pitched at slightly older readers, is the tale of Saffron, who discovers that she's adopted and stows away in her neighbours' car to Siena to find a stone angel bequeathed to her. Back home, Saffy's sister Cadmium terrorises her driving instructor in some of the funniest scenes in children's literature ("difficult to read without breaking off for a bout of watery-eyed chuckling", said The TES review in November 2001) Meanwhile, her brother Indigo heads for the roof to work on his fear of heights. Her father waits to be inspired in a lofty artist's retreat while her mother turns out saleable pictures to pay the bills. A sequel to Saffy's Angel, Indigo's Star, is to be published later this year.

Hilary McKay's short novels for key stage 2 readers are particularly treasured by children and teachers. These include The Amber Cat and Dog Friday.

Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay is published by Hodder Children's Books (pound;10 hardback, pound;5.99 paperback)

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