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NI teen Dara McAnulty wins Wainwright Prize for his nature diary

'Miraculous things can happen,' says autistic pupil who dazzled judges

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Dara McAnulty who has won the Wainwright Prize

Dara McAnulty who has won the Wainwright Prize

Dara McAnulty who has won the Wainwright Prize

Teenage naturalist Dara McAnulty has won this year's Wainwright Prize for nature writing with his passionate portrayal of his intense connection with the natural world.

The 16-year-old from Castlewellan in Co Down, who has autism, said he was "stunned, honoured and deeply humbled" by the accolade after he enthralled this year's judging panel with his breathtaking account of his explorations into the natural world.

His debut book, Diary Of A Young Naturalist, charts his encounters with wildlife and nature which act as an antidote to his struggles with everyday life, the clatter of classrooms, the sensory overload of shopping centres and his problems with social integration.

Dara's mother Roisin, and younger siblings, brother Lorcan and sister Blathnaid, are also autistic.

In his book, Dara recounts his life as he and his family move across Northern Ireland, transporting him away from his beloved forest, called Big Dog, near his previous home in Co Fermanagh, and the added challenges of changing schools and dealing with bullying.

The book evolved from his wildlife blog, Young Fermanagh Naturalist, which he began when he was 12, charting how he finds peace in his connection with nature, diarised from spring equinox to spring equinox, from his 14th to 15th birthday.

Reviewers loved Diary Of A Young Naturalist, praising the "both spirited and spiritual" prose and how the "depth of his feeling illuminates every page of this miraculous memoir"

Dara was named as the youngest ever winner of a major literary prize at an online ceremony yesterday evening.

In his acceptance speech, Dara said: "It is an astounding moment not just for me but 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 and this is certainly one of them."

Chair of the judging panel, TV presenter Julia Bradbury, praised Diary of a Young Naturalist as "a significant nature book" and all the more remarkable "because it is Dara McAnulty's first, completed before his 16th birthday".

She added: "Our Wainwright Prize winner this year is nuanced, passionate and caring.

"It's 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," Julia said.

Named after nature writer Alfred Wainwright, 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.

Last year's winner was Underland by Robert Macfarlane.

Dara has also campaigned to end the persecution of birds of prey, fundraised for wildlife organisations and been a voice in the #IWill campaign for youth social action.

He is currently writing a children's book and says he plans to donate the £2,500 prize money to his school's environmental group, Roots and Shoots at Shimna Integrated College "to attempt to enhance people's lives".

Adrian and Gracie Cooper, the husband and wife team behind Dara's publisher Little Toller, based in Dorset, called him "an inspiration for us all".

"I hope this prize will urge other small presses to keep doing what they do, overcoming adversity to nurture writers, challenge stereotypes, stretch boundaries and keep finding inventive and passionate ways to connect writers with readers," they said.

Belfast Telegraph