Co Down teenager Dara McAnulty has won the Wainwright Prize for nature writing for his first book, Diary of a Young Naturalist.
The 16-year-old from Castlewellan, who began writing the book when he was just 14, was announced at the winner at an online ceremony this evening.
In his acceptance speech, he said that he was “stunned, humbled and deeply honoured” to have received the award, and that “for young people, young writers, young nature-lovers, this tells our community that our voices matter, our ideas [are] worthy, our stories captivating.
“When young autistic people are nurtured and accepted, miraculous things can happen,” he said.
Told in the form of a diary, the turning of the seasons and the rhythm of the natural world are the accompaniment to a year in which McAnulty – who has autism – overcomes many personal challenges, including bullying at school, and comes to a deeper understanding of his love of nature and what he can do to protect it.
The chair of the judging panel, the television presenter Julia Bradbury, praised Diary of a Young Naturalist as “a significant nature book” which was “nuanced, passionate and caring”, and was made all the more remarkable “because it is Dara McAnulty’s first, completed before his 16th birthday.” She described it as “a wonderful diary that fits around Dara’s personal endeavours and family experiences, but ultimately, shaped by the nature that surrounds us all.
“The judges were almost breathless from reading it and would like to call for it to be immediately listed on the national curriculum. Such is the book’s power to move and the urgency of the situation we face,” she said.
McAnulty is the youngest ever recipient of the award, which last year was won by Robert Macfarlane.
The prize is run in association with the National Trust, and aims to reward outstanding literary titles inspired by the general outdoors and UK nature and travel.
He told The Irish Times he felt “shock, confusion, and a large sense of gratitude” at winning the award, but what was most important was the validation it represented for young people in general and for himself as a young writer.
“I’ve proven that a young person’s voice in a literary world can be heard, and that it isn’t just older people doing nature writing,” he said.
“When you write, especially about nature, you more write about how you see the world and your particular view, and the fact that this has almost proven to me that a younger person can do it has been really important to me.”
“It feels almost like what the book set out to do, to show that young people can write and love [nature] and show their appreciation of and wonder at nature.”
This, he said, was one of the core sentiments of the book, as well as to raise awareness about what he describes, with typical enthusiasm, as “the incredibleness of nature” and his sense of wonder at it.
“I think it’s beginning to achieve this,” he said, describing how he has heard, anecdotally, that people have changed their way of looking at the natural world after reading his book.
“Any book you read aspires to alter, to show you their [the author’s] view on the world, so the fact that that has come true for me is really quite incredible.”
As a teenager with autism, he also hopes the award will play a role in increasing awareness about the condition, as well as inspiring others to embrace their own individuality and talent.
At school, McAnulty has just begun studying for his A-levels; at home, he is adamant he will continue writing. A second book is in the pipeline – “it’s going to be a children’s book, but I can’t say who it’s with or anything, because of confidentiality”.