Jasbinder Bilan on winning the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition

I first heard about the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition while I was studying for the MA Creative Writing course where I wrote a first draft of my debut Asha and the Spirit Bird. Once I had completed the course it took me a whole year of editing before I felt the manuscript was ready to send out.

The competition was always on my radar as a brilliant way to get your story published, but I knew that it would be tough. This is why I wanted ‘Song of the Mountain’, as it was called then, to be the best it could possibly be. I made a huge change to my original manuscript which was to change it from past to present tense. This took quite an effort, but once I had done this I felt the story worked so much better; it was immediate and fast-paced which pulled the reader along. Having made this change, I felt it was ready to enter, so I pressed the button with a huge amount of hope!

At the point of entering the prize, I had already spent a lot of hours refining my manuscript, writing and re-writing it, so by the time the entry date arrived I felt it was ready. The story I entered for the competition was a very personal one which was inspired by the close relationship with my grandmother and my family roots in India. During my masters course we were always encouraged to write the story only you could tell, so in this sense I had confidence in my story.

One of the things I did to make sure my entry stood out was to make it the absolute best version of itself and that meant a lot of hard work. You have to remember that all writing is re-writing and you don’t get to a knockout script straight away; it takes time for everybody, even the best writers.

I knew that the competition would be fierce. It’s probably the best-known and most highly-regarded literary contest for children’s writing, with around 1,000 entries each year, so I knew I had to make the judges notice my story! I did this by writing something that I cared about and meant a lot to me all wrapped up in an exciting adventure.

To get a sense of what the judges were looking for, I researched the sorts of stories that had won the competition in previous years. Although this was helpful, the judges want something fresh with a unique voice too. The judges are made up of industry experts who really know their children’s literature, so it’s a good idea to read widely, to find out what’s getting their attention. But of course, the main thing to bear in mind is that they also want something different

My immediate reaction to winning the competition was one of huge shock! Even though I naturally wanted to win the prize more than anything, I didn’t feel I could let myself think it might be me, not even when I was shortlisted. I recall on the day, I decided that I would just enjoy the wonderful experience of being at the Savile Club and meeting the other writers. After the announcement I couldn’t believe it was me. I was hugely excited and Chicken House’s lovely Rachel Hickman captured my look of surprise – it’s one of my first and favourite author photos!

After I won, I spent the first few hours, days and weeks floating on cloud nine! But immediately after the announcement there was a flurry of photos and meeting the Chicken House team and judges. It felt like the most thrilling chapter of my writing journey had started and I was over the moon. I was on the brink of becoming a published author and my childhood dream was about to come true after all those years. A few weeks later I went to Chicken House HQ and signed my contract, which was one of the happiest moments.

Winning the prize meant that when my debut Asha and the Spirit Bird came out, it already had lots of publicity and people were looking out for it. Winning the Costa Children’s Book Award 2019 made my debut year totally stand-out and I’m hugely grateful to everyone at Chicken House for all their wonderful support in making that happen.

Jasbinder Bilan’s top tips for entering the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition

My first top tip for anyone thinking of entering this year’s competition is to absolutely go for it. It’s an amazing opportunity that can lead to all sorts of wonderful things, not least getting your book published by one of the best publishers and having the magical Barry Cunningham write a special comment in the front of your actual book!

Secondly, even if you win, there is more editorial work to be done to make sure your manuscript is the best version of itself.

And finally, it’s tempting to send in something that you think the judges want, but it’s better to send something in that has your own unique strong voice, something your younger self would have loved and something that only you could write! Good luck!

According to family stories, Jasbinder was born in a stable in the foot-hills of the Himalayas. Until she was a year and a half, she lived on a farm in India inhabited by a grumpy camel and a monkey called Oma. Her debut novel Asha and the Spirit Bird, inspired by Jasbinder’s close bond with her grandmother, was the winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award and the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition, and is shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. She lives in Somerset with her husband, two teenage boys and dog Enzo, and splits her time between teaching and writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jasinbath.

The Times/Chicken House Competition is now open and will close on 14th May 2021.

Photo credit: Ian Sharp