Author wins CILIP Carnegie Medal after 'years of heartbreaking rejection'

Updated: 

An author who suffered years of "heartbreaking rejection" before being published has scooped the UK's most prestigious children's book award - and credited years of working with a "bunch of unsavoury rock bands" for her success.

Ruta Sepetys, 49, has been awarded the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal for her refugee story, Salt To The Sea, a fictionalised account of the worst maritime disaster in history.

The book has recently been picked up for development by Universal Pictures, with a "dream team" writer and producer adapting it for the big screen. 

Sepetys said that the 20 years she spent in the music industry as an artist manager, working with "a bunch of unsavoury rock bands, a video game composer, and a film composer,"  helped her find her writing voice.

"I spent many years helping artists and musicians tell stories through song and it really taught me the power of melody and rhythm," she told the Press Association.

"That was such good training for me, to understand the importance of melody and rhythm as a novelist now....Rhythm and melody are so powerful."

The CILIP Carnegie marks outstanding writing for children and young people and is the oldest children's book award in the UK.

But the US author told how she had years of rejection.

"I had a very, very rocky path to publication. Part of that was about finding my own authentic voice... I received so many rejections," she said.

Her first novel, Between Shades Of Gray, which followed the story of a 15-year-old arrested by the Soviet secret police and deported to Siberia, became a best-seller.

"I decided I was really passionate to write my first novel about these Lithuanians who were exiled to Siberia. Imagine trying to sell that book!

"I'd say: 'I'm writing about Lithuanians who are sent to the Gulag. It's a book for teens', and they'd say: 'Yes, good luck with that.'

"Every major publisher in the US passed.

"The rejections that were the most heartbreaking were the ones that said that the history was too obscure. That was painful because the people who I met with had said 'don't bother, the world has forgotten us'. The publishing community decided it was not marketable."

After a small publisher did buy the book, it "sat on the shelf" for several years because her editor left.

Salt To The Sea, which has won the 80th anniversary Carnegie Medal, tells the story of the sinking of former cruise ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff.

In the book, four young people, in Germany in 1945, are escaping Russian forces but the ship they thought would be their salvation is torpedoed and everyone on board is drowned. 

The author said: "I'm the daughter of a refugee. My father fled from Lithuania and spent nine years in the camps. The narrative of displacement has always interested me."

She discovered that a cousin of her father's should have been on board but an accident near the port meant he missed boarding, saving his life.

It was also announced that Lane Smith, 57, also from the US, has won the 60th anniversary Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration in children's books.

He won with There Is A Tribe Of Kids, a picture book about collective nouns.

Previous winners of the medals include Arthur Ransome, CS Lewis and Raymond Briggs.

Sepetys said of her win: "They are enormous shoes to step into and follow. It's an honour and a privilege."

Both winners receive £500 worth of books to donate to their local library, a specially-commissioned golden medal and a £5,000 cash prize.