Diary of a Young Naturalist hailed as ‘astute and candid’ by judges, who call for the book to be added to national curriculum
Dara McAnulty, a 16-year-old secondary-school student from Northern Ireland, has seen off competition from established writers to win the Wainwright prize for nature writing, for his debut Diary of a Young Naturalist.
McAnulty started his wildlife blog, Young Fermanagh Naturalist, when he was 12. He started writing Diary of a Young Naturalist at 14, documenting the year from spring equinox to spring equinox, from his 14th to 15th birthday. In it, he recounts his life as his family moves across Northern Ireland, transporting him away from his beloved local forest, changing schools and dealing with bullying. McAnulty, who is autistic along with his two siblings and his mother, seeks sanctuary in nature as he juggles school, friendships and environmental campaigning.
“I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family,” he writes.
Ahead of his win on Thursday evening, McAnulty said he was very surprised by the news. “I just feel disbelief because there were so many amazing books on the shortlist. It was really quite humbling because this is my first book I have ever written. Knowing my voice can be heard, as a young, autistic person, has delighted me,” he said.
Chair of judges Julia Bradbury said the panel was unanimous in selecting Diary of a Young Naturalist, and called for it to be added to the national curriculum, “such is the book’s power to move and the urgency of the situation we face”.
“This book would be good if it was written by anyone of any age,” she said. “Dara’s writing is beautiful. He’s remarkably astute and candid. We felt it was a very important book to win because it will reach young people and that is vital. So we gave it to him both because of and regardless of his age – it is beautifully written, and by the way, he’s 16. He’s obviously going to be extraordinary whatever he decides to do.”
Due to McAnulty’s age and autism, the judges were concerned that the win “might turn the spotlight on him too much”, Bradbury said, so the prize organisers approached the McAnulty family and offered him the opportunity to decline the win if he felt daunted by the pressure.
“We wanted to make sure we could take care of him, especially in this day and age with social media. You could mention Dara in the same breath as Greta Thunberg, and look at the stick she’s received. We did wonder if we were doing the right thing,” said Bradbury. “But his family are involved, his publishers care about him deeply. He’s not going to be lost to the media wolves. He’s a smart young man.”
Adrian and Gracie Cooper, the husband and wife team behind McAnulty’s publisher Little Toller, a small independent based in Dorset, called him “an inspiration for us all”.
“We’re elated for Dara, for his family, and for ourselves. This is the first award Little Toller have won since we started publishing 12 years ago, and we’re grown used to not getting prizes or reviews. So I hope this prize will urge other small presses to keep doing what they do, overcoming adversity to nurture writers, challenge stereotypes, stretch boundaries and keep finding inventive and passionate ways to connect writers with readers,” they said.
McAnulty, who is currently writing a children’s book, said he wanted to donate the £2,500 prize money to his school’s environmental group, Roots and Shoots at Shimna Integrated College.
“While I was writing, it held me together for a long period of time, giving me human contact. So I want to give something back to them, because they have shaped parts of who I am. I could write the book because of them,” he said.
Named after nature writer Alfred Wainwright, the prize is traditionally worth £5,000 to the winner and has been won by the likes of Robert Macfarlane and Amy Liptrot. However, this year McAnulty will split the prize with Benedict Macdonald, who has won the inaugural prize for books on global conservation and climate change, for his “visionary” book Rebirding, a manifesto for restoring Britain’s wildlife.