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Sunday June 23, 2013
By SUSANNA RUSTIN
Britain’s newest children’s laureate talks comics, cliffhangers and why she’s banging the drum of diversity in literature.
BY the time Malorie Blackman read a work of fiction featuring black characters, she was 23. The book was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, set in the American South in the 1930s, and its impact on her was huge.
Blackman was then working as a computer programmer, having given up her childhood dream of becoming an English teacher after the careers adviser at her London secondary school put her off. But she still read children’s books, and in her spare time began to write her own, and imagine they might one day be published.
It took a long time. None of the texts for picture books she offered publishers was accepted, and she changed tack before an editor at the Women’s Press said yes to a collection of short stories for teenagers that blended horror and science fiction. Published after she left her job watching stock prices in the City of London – because she “couldn’t care less whether the prices went up, down or sideways” – it was called Not So Stupid!
Earlier this month, Blackman, now 51, was named Britain’s eighth children’s laureate, a position she inherits from mega-selling Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson and will hold for two years, until 2015. At the announcement of her appointment in London, a few days before publication of her latest novel for teenagers, Noble Conflict, she looks delighted.
“I think younger children have been incredibly well served by the laureates we’ve had, but maybe teenagers haven’t had as much of a look-in, so I’m looking forward to redressing the balance,” she says.
Blackman is also the first black laureate and a forceful advocate for black and ethnic minority children’s needs and rights. As a child, Blackman loved myths, legends and fairytales, and comics such as Bunty, Judy and Jinty. She read Elinor Brent-Dyer’s chalet school stories, Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly-Molly-Mandy series and later Agatha Christie, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. She loved them all, she says, “but I was very aware that I was not in the books I was reading. I still remember feeling I was totally invisible in the world of literature”.
In her 20s, Blackman was a volunteer reader in a south London primary school but her awareness of the lack of black faces in books didn’t go away.
“I remember going into a bookshop and the only book I saw with a black child on the cover was A Thief In The Village by James Berry and I thought, is this still the state of publishing? Then I thought either I can whinge about it or try to do something about it. So that was a major reason for me wanting to write books for children, because I wanted to write all the books I’d missed as a child.”
But it was years before Blackman would address the subject of race directly. She says people criticised her for not doing it sooner, “but people love to stick you in boxes and put labels on you, and I didn’t want that. I thought, I wanted to write the kind of books I would have loved to have read as a child.” These were books with characters who looked more like her, but not books with race as their theme. Most importantly, they were books that were hard to put down. Blackman is a devotee of the cliffhangers she enjoyed in her weekly comics, and makes an effort to end her chapters at a suspenseful point.
Her first novel, Hacker, pitted a teenage girl against the bank that thinks her father is a thief. She followed it up with several novels combining technological themes with thriller-type plots in which enterprising children rescue their parents and avert disasters.
Her writing was brisk and vivid, her focus on story more than style. But fearful once again of being pigeonholed, she thought “time to change, so then I wrote Pig-Heart Boy” – about a teenager who undergoes an experimental transplant, it was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal – “and some other books. I wanted to have a body of work behind me before I wrote about racism. But then with the Stephen Lawrence case I thought now I’m going to write about racism, but I’m going to do it my way.” (Black teen Stephen Lawrence was killed in a racist attack in London in 1993.)
She planned to write about slavery and its legacy, “but all my friends – black, white, Asian, whatever – were underwhelmed by that idea. My white friends were like, what do you want to write about that for? It’s so long ago. And my black friends were like, what do you want to write about that for? It’s so painful.” So she thought again, and came up with the idea for a series of dystopian adventures in which roles and races would be reversed.
The alternative modern society in which the Noughts & Crosses books are set is governed by the black Crosses, who have all the power, status and money, while the miserable underclass of former slaves are the white Noughts, otherwise known as “Blankers”. The first book’s plot revolves around the Romeo and Juliet-style romance (albeit with the emphasis more on friendship than sex) between Nought Callum and Cross Sephy, whose father is a government minister.
By making her young white characters the victims of oppression but without dwelling on their race, she offered a new way in. And while she was angry when she sat down to begin Noughts & Crosses, having just watched a TV documentary about the Stephen Lawrence case, she knew she had to channel this.
There was plenty of life experience that Blackman could pour into Noughts & Crosses, which she says was her most painful and satisfying book to write. Blackman, like Callum, was accused of stealing the ticket the first time she travelled in a first-class train compartment. And like Callum, she had a habit of standing up to her teachers. “I remember being in a history lesson and saying to my teacher, ‘How come you never talk about black scientists and inventors and pioneers?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Because there aren’t any.’”
The racism Blackman experienced as a child in south London is shocking. Her father drove a bus, her mother worked in a pyjama factory, and there were five kids. The family avoided public places such as restaurants, and Blackman remembers being called a “jungle bunny” and told to go back to where she came from. “It was a strange and confusing time,” she says. “I would think, but I was born in Clapham. But as a child, you get on with it.”
She was sent out of class the first time she went to school with her hair loose in an afro, and was told by the careers adviser at her girls’ secondary school that “black people don’t become teachers”.
Her education left her with many unanswered questions, some of which she answered for herself as a young adult when she spent much of her spare time and money in a specialist bookshop researching black history. It also shaped her conviction that efforts to engage ethnic minority children in education are essential if they are not to feel excluded.
Unlike British Prime Minister David Cameron, who argued two years ago that multiculturalism has failed, Blackman believes it needs to go further. “I don’t think we’ve gone far enough with it in terms of making sure children know about different cultures and ways of living. If you want people to feel they are part of a society, it’s about making it more inclusive.
“That’s why I bang the drum for getting more diverse books out there, and for getting rid of the idea that if a book contains pictures of a black or Asian child, it’s going to have a limited market.”
Through talent, application and a self-belief she says she learned from her mother, Blackman made it. Her backlist features more than 60 books for all age groups, several of which have won awards. Pig-Heart Boy was adapted for television, and Noughts & Crosses won a spot in the BBC’s 2003 “Big Read” poll of all-time favourite books.
But her life story also taught Blackman to distrust authority, and many of her novels are about the crises produced when those in charge get things wrong. In Noughts & Crosses we are invited to sympathise with terrorists. In her latest and even more dystopian novel, Noble Conflict, the reader is forced to switch sides.
Blackman’s parents, she says, had an unquestioning attitude to those in charge of their children’s education – when her teachers were racist her parents asked what she had done wrong.
But Blackman had a different response: when she was told she was not university material, for instance, she remembers thinking, “I’ll show you, you old cow! If anything, it made me work harder.”
But she knows not everyone had her confidence, and she speaks with sadness of “a whole generation, my generation, that was undervalued and lost”. Newer immigrants, she suggests, don’t carry the weight of frustration and disappointment of their African-Caribbean peers.
Over the next two years Blackman will do what she can to raise expectations, visiting schools and promoting libraries.
“As a child I loved Star Trek,” she says. “You had Russians and Americans and a black officer and a Japanese officer, and I thought, yes that’s the ideal, having all those people working together, when we get to the 21st century it’s going to be brilliant because we’re going to be past all this nonsense. And here we are in the 21st century and it’s the same old, same old. Sometimes I feel we need to get over ourselves and move on. There are bigger issues.” – Guardian News & Media
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