‘Uplifting’ book of sonnets by Hannah Lowe wins Costa book of the year | Books

Hannah Lowe, a former London teacher, has won the £30,000 Costa book of the year for The Kids, a book of sonnets drawing on her experiences teaching in an inner-city sixth form.

After what judges called “a long and passionate discussion”, Lowe’s poetry collection beat the bookies’ favourite, Claire Fuller’s novel Unsettled Ground, to the Costa award for the year’s “most enjoyable” book. The prize pits the winners of five categories – first novel, novel, biography, poetry and children’s book – against each other, with Lowe also emerging ahead of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel Open Water, John Preston’s biography of Robert Maxwell, Fall, and Manjeet Mann’s young adult verse novel The Crossing.

The Kids by Hannah Lowe.
The Kids by Hannah Lowe. Photograph: Costa Book Awards/PA

Judges said The Kids was “a book to fall in love with”. “It’s joyous, it’s warm and it’s completely universal,” said chair of judges, the BBC News journalist and broadcaster Reeta Chakrabarti. “It’s crafted and skilful but also accessible. Words from the judges were ‘insightful’, ‘empathetic’, ‘generous’, ‘funny’, ‘compassionate’, ‘uplifting’.”

Speaking at Tuesday night’s awards ceremony, Lowe said she was feeling “joy, squared” at winning the Costa book of the year award. “The book is very much a love song to young people and to the kids that I taught, who taught me so much,” she said. “It’s also a book about my teachers, and again, my deep appreciation and thanks to everyone that’s taught me in my formal and informal education.”

Lowe also thanked “my little boy, Rory, who is learning about the world and teaching me every day, and is the absolute heart of this book”.

Chakrabarti said it took judges “several hours” to come to their decision. “It was a vigorous debate, it was passionate, people felt really strongly. But the centre of gravity in the room was with the winner,” she said. “We were looking for the most enjoyable book, the most accessible book, the book that you would most want to pass on to other people. And the winner was, for all of us, fresh and immediate, it spoke very directly to everybody. It has a universality to it – in a simple way, because everybody’s been to school.”

Some people, Chakrabarti, said “find poetry a little bit intimidating. They think, ‘Gosh, I’m not necessarily going to get on with it.’” But Lowe’s collection “is so direct that actually you feel that you’re being talked to by somebody. And it spans so much, in a very concentrated way. So it’s about everything, it’s about love and grief. It’s about the present and the past. It’s about teaching and being taught. Motherhood, parents, singledom – there’s so much in it. And it’s very witty and very funny at times as well, and in that sense really uplifting.”

Lowe’s sonnets move from the decade she spent teaching in a London sixth form in the 2000s, to her own coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s. A collection of fictionalised portraits of the students she taught, it also sees Lowe write about her son, growing up in London today.

“Boredom hangs like a low cloud in the classroom. / Each page we read is a step up a mountain / in gluey boots,” Lowe writes, in The Art of Teaching II. “Even the clock-face is pained / and yes, I’m sure now, ticking slower. If gloom / has a sound, it’s the voice of Lerow reading / Frankenstein aloud.”

In Try, Try, Try Again, Lowe writes about failing exams, and of how “you rip the notice // open, your keen heart pumping, and find a D / or damn, an E”. In Sonnet for the A Level English Literature and Language Poetry Syllabus, she explores “all summer term reading poems – / down in the mud / of words, wanting / the kids to hear what I heard – / breaking the poems apart, slapping / their parts to the board – ”.

The poet, who is also a lecturer at Brunel University, London, was interviewed by current students at City and Islington College, where she previously taught, after winning the poetry award last month.

“I began sketching these poems about five years ago after I’d left the sixth form and had a period of reflection where I started to think about what I’d learnt in my time as a teacher, not least from the students I was teaching,” she told them. “I realised I’d learnt so much from the young people that I taught about personal things, and public and political issues to do with feelings of belonging, a sense of Britishness or not, social class and gender; and I started to think about how they had impacted my own sense of identity.”

According to the Costa poetry judges, who selected it as winner of that award, The Kids “buzzes with life while re-energising the sonnet that Shakespeare would recognise”.

Lowe, who was born in Ilford to an English mother and Jamaican-Chinese father, was shortlisted for the Forward prizes for her first collection, Chick, in 2013. The Kids, her third, was also shortlisted for the 2021 TS Eliot prize for poetry. It marks the second win in five years for publisher Bloodaxe Books, which also took the top Costa prize in 2017 for Helen Dunmore’s posthumous collection Inside the Wave.

The book of the year award has been won 13 times by a novel, five times by a first novel, eight times by a biography, nine times by a collection of poetry and twice by a children’s book, with last year’s prize going to Monique Roffey’s novel The Mermaid of Black Conch.






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