Awards: In London, Poet Hannah Lowe Wins the Costa Book of the Year Award

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The 50-year-old Costa Book Awards’ 2021 cycle concludes with poetry on top in the battle of the prize’s five categories.

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Kids’: A Collection of Sonnets
Although many award announcements may have passed under your radar since then, it was January 4 when the 50th iteration of the Costa Book Awards in the United Kingdom announced its slate of five category winners.

That quintet of wins forms the effective shortlist for the “big Costa,” the Book of the Year winner. Each of the five category winners takes home £5,000 (US$6,704).

The poet-memoirist Hannah Lowe tonight (February 1) in London has won the larger purse, £30,000 (US$40,224), for her book of sonnets, The Kids (Bloodaxe Books). This is the second time that the independent poetry publisher Bloodaxe has managed to produce a Book of the Year winner. The first was for Inside the Wave by the late Helen Dunmore.

At a ceremony at the Pan Pacific hotel in Houndsditch, jury chair Reeta Chakrabarti has been quoted, saying, “After a long and passionate discussion that reflected the quality and complexity of all five books, one winner emerged.

“Hannah Lowe’s The Kids is a book to fall in love with. It’s joyous, it’s warm and it’s completely universal.

“It’s crafted and skillful but also accessible. Words from the judges were ‘insightful,’ ‘empathetic,’ ‘generous,’ ‘funny,’ ‘compassionate,’ and ‘uplifting.'”

That line “a book to fall in love with” line proves that BBC journalist and news anchor Chakrabarti is a publishing house marketing director’s dream. If this poetry were a play, such an endorsement would be up in lights on a marquee in the West End by morning. And Lowe’s win is something of an upset, as bookmakers had tipped the established novelist Claire Fuller to win Book of the Year for her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground.

But this points up something authentically distinctive about the Costa protocol: the Book of the Year is chosen from a very disparate group of category winners. Few awards programs will pit a children’s book against a debut novel or a book of poetry against a biography. But that’s exactly what the Costa does. Here’s a look back at the five category winners, including Lowe:

First Novel
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (Penguin Random House/Viking)

Novel Award
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller (Penguin Random House/Fig Tree)

Biography
Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston (Penguin Random House/Viking)

Poetry
The Kids by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe Books)

Children’s Book
The Crossing by Manjeet Mann (Penguin)

Lowe’s The Kids, the thinnest of the category-winning volumes, previously has attracted a shortlisting from the 2021 TS Eliot Prize, and a poetry book-of-the-year-nod from both The Irish Times and The Guardian. Its sonnets fictionalize various students Lowe taught and examine her own childhood and that of her son in London.

Jill McDonald

Jill McDonald, CEO of Costa Coffee, is quoted, saying, “On behalf of all of us at Costa Coffee, many congratulations to Hannah Lowe for winning the 2021 Costa Book of the Year in this, the awards’ milestone anniversary year.

“For many of us, our reading patterns have changed [during] the pandemic.

“We’ve had the opportunity to read more and appreciate the joy of reading a good book and the escapism it can bring … Being named Costa Book of the Year is a terrific achievement and I wish Hannah and the book every continued success.”

Just for clarity, this is the 2021 award, the Costa being one of the publishing prize programs that anoints a winner early in one year for the previous year’s cycle of releases.

And as we occasionally like to look at amusing moments in publishing-industry sloganeering, we’ll just point out that the Costa Book Awards program currently is observing a prideful anniversary with the line, “Celebrating 50 Years of Enjoyable Books”—as if for just a fleeting moment half-a-century ago they entertained the idea of celebrating the unenjoyable reads.

Ah, for just a peak into that alternate universe.

One Book of the Year

Of course, other award programs in the UK have Book of the Year designations.

Most prominent is the British Book Awards, the Nibbies, which last year conferred nine Books of the Year awards, plus one for illustrators and one for authors. But those were intra-category determinations. The Costa’s five-way battle not only of books but of categories continues to create something of an oddly brewed quality to its stance in the packed prize pantheon of the awards-smitten UK market.

Since the introduction of the Costa’s Book of the Year super-category award in 1985, it has been won:

  • Thirteen times by a novel
  • Five times by a debut novel
  • Eight times by a biography
  • Nine times by a collection of poetry
  • Twice by a children’s book

The Costa Book Awards were established in 1971 as the Whitbread Book Awards. Prior to 1985, the Whitbread Literary Awards, as they were then known, recognized a number of books across a variety of categories.

The 2020 Costa Book of the Year was The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey.

Reeta Chakrabarti

This year’s jurors joining Reeta Chakrabarti as chair were:

  • Jessie Burton
  • Rishi Dastidar
  • Xiaolu Guo
  • Smriti Halls
  • Andrew Wilson
  • Damian Barr
  • Judy Murray
  • Melanie Sykes

The Costa program also has a short story award attached to its multi-layered effort. LE Yates, a writer and lecturer based in London, has won the public vote that chooses the winner of that one. She wins £3,500 (US$4,692) for her story, “Sunblock. Two runners up–Matthew Hurt from London and Lindsay Gillespie from Lewes received £1,000 (US$1,340) and £500 (US$670) respectively.

The short story honor is open to submissions from both published and unpublished writers for a single, unpublished work of up to 4,000 words. That contest drew more than 800 entries for the 2021 cycle.


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Costa Book Awards is here, and more on international book and publishing awards overall is here

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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