Annabel Pitcher … author of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. Photograph: Kate Christer
Annabel Pitcher's "practically perfect" first book has won the 30-year-old author the Branford Boase award for the most outstanding debut novel for children.
With the eye-catching opening, "My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London," Pitcher's debut My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece has already been shortlisted for the Carnegie medal and the Guardian children's fiction prize. The story of a 10-year-old boy coming to terms with the death, five years before, of his sister in a terrorist bombing, and the subsequent collapse of his family, was on Thursday named winner of the £1,000 Branford Boase award. The prize is given to an author and an editor "to encourage new writers and to highlight the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent". Pitcher wins the prize jointly with her editor at Orion, Fiona Kennedy.
Chair of judges Julia Eccleshare, Guardian children's books editor, said that the judges for the Branford Boase felt that My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece was "a practically perfect" novel.
"It has been an exceptionally strong year for debut novels, and any of the seven books on the shortlist would have made a worthy winner," said Eccleshare. But Pitcher's novel won over the panel of judges. "The writing is excellent, the difficult premise is handled with great skill, and Pitcher absolutely captures the voice of 10-year-old Jamie," she said.
Previous winners of the prize include Marcus Sedgwick – also edited by Kennedy – Meg Rosoff, Philip Reeve, William Nicholson and Frank Cottrell Boyce. Pitcher said the Branford Boase was the award that she "really wanted to win, because it recognises your partnership with your editor, which is the whole reason I signed with Orion: because I wanted to work with Fiona".
Kennedy said she was "really struck" by the power of Pitcher's debut the moment she first read it. She acquired the novel following a major auction between publishers – "every publisher in London was after this," she said. "I'm always looking for really exciting storytelling, good quality writing and a very distinctive voice, and Annabel has that. There's so much poise in her writing," said Kennedy, who also edits Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon.
Pitcher began writing her debut when she was 25, while travelling through South America with her husband. "I'd always wanted to write, but never had the time, then I had this year and I got the idea at the start of the trip in a youth hostel in Ecuador," she said. "I wrote in hostels as we travelled around the world – it was a blissful 12 months."
Landing a publisher, and then being shortlisted for a host of major prizes, was unexpected, as were the adulatory reviews. "Anyone who describes this as an outstanding debut children's novel might just as well exclude the word 'debut'. The fact that this is Pitcher's first foray into fiction is gobsmacking – and she's only 29 – but such a book would deserve equal oxygen if it were a 10th novel by a cherished old hand. It's a wonderful piece of writing. Am I gushing? I do hope so. Books this good don't come round that often," wrote Philip Ardagh in the Guardian. "Clear your shelf for the awards, Annabel Pitcher."
"It's been a pinch-yourself kind of year," Pitcher said. "I was amazed when it got published – as an aspiring writer, you don't ever expect that to happen. And then to be nominated for these prizes as well was just incredible."
Readers are responding, she hopes, to "the combination of the sadness and the humour" in the novel. "That's what I really wanted to nail with it – I wanted it to be poignant and funny at the same time," she said. "The narrator is a 10-year-old boy in this terrible situation and is seeing it through a child's eyes, which enabled readers to laugh at terrible things."
The prize was set up to commemorate award-winning author Henrietta Branford and Wendy Boase, one of the founders of Walker Books, both of whom died of cancer in 1999.