The teenager Dara McAnulty has become the youngest writer ever to be longlisted for the UK’s most prestigious nonfiction award, the Baillie Gifford prize, for his book Diary of a Young Naturalist, which he began writing at the age of 14.
The book chronicles a year in the life of McAnulty, who is autistic, as he deals with his family’s move across Northern Ireland and seeks sanctuary in nature, detailing encounters in his garden and in the wild.
At 16, McAnulty is the youngest author to be longlisted in the prize’s history. If he wins the £50,000 award, he would be by far the youngest ever winner of a major UK literary prize. Téa Obreht is the youngest winner of the women’s prize, taking it in 2011 at the age of 25, while Sally Rooney, at 27, is the youngest winner of Costa award for best novel and Eleanor Catton is the youngest winner of the Booker at 28. Last month Marieke Lucas Rijneveld became the youngest winner of the International Booker, at 29.
Diary of a Young Naturalist, which won McAnulty the Wainwright prize for nature writing on Tuesday, is one of 13 titles in the running for the Baillie Gifford. Praised by the judges for providing “a unique insight into a teenager’s connection with the natural world”, it is up against two new books by former winners: Kate Summerscale’s “compelling” The Haunting of Alma Fielding, an investigation of seemingly supernatural events experienced by a young woman in London in 1938, due out in October; and Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha, a study of Tibetan history through the people of the town of Ngaba.
Two books on UK healthcare also make the cut: Dear Life, by NHS doctor and specialist in palliative care Rachel Clarke, and Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love, an investigation into the country’s crisis of care.
“Narrowing more than 200 books down to a longlist has been a herculean task, made even more challenging by the lockdown,” said the chair of judges, Martha Kearney. “Despite the joys of Zoom, we have managed to agree on 13 exceptional books which reflect the creative power of 21st-century nonfiction from new writers to accomplished authors, spanning war, art, science, history, ghosts and the Beatles.”
Six biographies are nominated: William Feaver’s second volume of his biography of artist Lucian Freud; Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus, about the Haitian rebel leader Toussaint Louverture; Craig Brown’s history of the Beatles, One Two Three Four; and Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City, a look at 19th-century Japan through the life of one woman, Tsuneno. The German-French journalist Géraldine Schwarz is nominated for her investigation into her own family’s complicity with the Nazis, Those Who Forget, as is Francesca Wade for Square Haunting, a group biography of five women including Dorothy L Sayers and Virginia Woolf, who all lived in London’s Mecklenburgh Square between the wars.
The longlist is completed with Matthew Cobb’s history of humanity’s quest to understand the human brain, The Idea of the Brain, and Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefields, about the weaponisation of rape in warfare.
The shortlist will be announced on 15 October, with the winner unveiled on 24 November.
One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown (4th Estate)
Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting (Granta)
Dear Life by Rachel Clarke (Little, Brown)
The Idea of the Brain: A History by Matthew Cobb (Profile Books)
Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town by Barbara Demick (Granta)
The Lives of Lucian Freud: FAME 1968-2011 by William Feaver (Bloomsbury)
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh (Allen Lane)
Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women by Christina Lamb (William Collins)
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (Little Toller)
Those Who Forget: One Family’s Story by Géraldine Schwarz (Pushkin)
The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)
Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade (Faber & Faber)