London: India-born author Jasbinder Bilan has bagged a coveted UK children's book award for her debut novel set in the Himalayan territory of her Indian roots and inspired by the special childhood bond with her grandmother.

'Asha and the Spirit Bird', aimed at readers aged nine years and above, beat competition from three other shortlisted books to be named the winner of the 2019 Costa Children's Award this week. Bilan will receive 5,000 pounds as the winner of the award, open to authors resident in the UK and Ireland and presented annually across five categories of First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children's Book.

"As a girl, I always loved writing. In fact, I can't remember a time when I didn't invent stories, but I never imagined that one day I'd write a story that would be published," said Bilan, who moved from India to Nottingham in the Midlands region of England with her family as a small child.

"I was born on our family farm in India, close to the Himalayas. We kept India alive by continuing to talk about our farm and all the funny things that happened there during the big family gatherings we had," recalls the author, now based near the town of Bath in south-west England with her husband and two children.

Her winning debut work follows eleven-year-old Asha, who is empowered with spiritual connections to her grandmother as she journeys through the wild and dangerous Himalayas with her best friend Jeevan.

"Wow! We unanimously lost our hearts to this gorgeous book," said the three-member judging panel.

"Jasbinder's majee (grandmother) was a strong, special woman who had the challenge of raising five children single-handedly, as well as running the farm in India, and Jasbinder's bond with her was the inspiration for 'Asha & the Spirit Bird'," adds the Costa Awards citation.

Bilan's book was shortlisted from 144 entries alongside 'Crossfire' by Malorie Blackman, 'In the Shadow of Heroes' by Nicholas Bowling and 'Furious Thing' by Jenny Downham.

In 2017, Bilan had entered 'Asha and the Spirit Bird' - then called 'Song of the Mountain' - into the Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition for unpublished writers, where she was chosen by a prestigious panel of judges to win a publishing deal with Chicken House. Her debut novel went on to be published in its award-winning form in February 2019 and attracted critical acclaim.

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Free Press Journal