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Welcoming the new Children’s Laureate

7 Jun

Illustration by Margaret Chamberlain for My Two Grannies

Illustration by Margaret Chamberlain for My Two Grannies

Great news this week that Malorie Blackman, author of the acclaimed teenage novel Noughts and Crosses, has been appointed as Waterstones’ Children’s Laureate.

Malorie is the first black author to be awarded the title, which brings with it a £15,000 bursary and a commitment to participate in a calendar of engagements to support children’s literature and reading over two years.

Malorie has pledged to champion the survival of the local library, as well as redress the balance for teenage readers and promote diversity in literature.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Blackman’s work, she’s a best selling children’s novelist whose works feature black characters – the sort of books she wishes had been more readily available when she was a young girl. Unsurprisingly some sections of the media in announcing Malorie’s new role, have made much of this point.

I empathise with Blackman’s motive to feature black characters in her books; after all, as the mother of a mixed-race child I admit to actively searching out books in the library containing characters that my daughter might identify with. Most recently we have enjoyed My Two Grannies by the wonderful Floella Benjamin – the cover image of the two grandmas unashamedly resembling my little one’s real-life grandmas. The thing is, just because my daughter has a particular skin colour, doesn’t mean I exclusively read her books about children who look like her. As a matter of fact her favourite bedtime reading at the moment are the Tales of Beatrix Potter, in which there’s not a brown face in sight.

The question is, do we really need somebody to ensure that there are enough BEM (black and ethnic minority) characters in children’s books? There were certainly plenty in my local south London library. Of course, it may be less easy to find books depicting black, Asian, or eastern European children for that matter, in rural Cumbria – but my guess is that our wonderful local libraries pretty much know their local audience. Assuming our libraries, schools and book shops have got the balance right, surely the important thing is that the books featuring BEM character aren’t labelled as stories just for the black or ethnic minority kids.

You see, I believe that diversity in books is important for all children, just as it is for adults, in order to help us understand that all people, whatever their race or religion, are essentially the same, whilst appreciating the complex challenges that people from different cultural backgrounds face. Certainly, in adult literature there are plenty of examples of multicultural Britain from Monica Ali’s feted Brick Lane to the modern day tragedy, Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman, about the experience of a young boy from Ghana growing up in Peckham.

Presumably, in order to promote greater multicultural representation in children’s literature, the writing industry needs to encourage people of all backgrounds in their writing endeavours; and in this respect, Malorie is a great role model. Furthermore, if we’re looking to support diversity let‘s not stop at skin colour – let’s have more books about mixed-race families, same sex parents, children with disabilities and so on, to really reflect the diverse and wonderfully imperfect world in which we live today.

Above all, excellent children’s literature must feed our children’s imaginations, provide guidance on what’s right and wrong, entertain, as well as foster a love of reading and learning about the world.

In a nutshell, I whole heartedly welcome Malorie’s appointment, but I don’t think we should obsess about her being a black author promoting black characters in children’s books. I do however, hope that she will continue the excellent work of former Children’s Laureates in promoting quality literature for children which speaks to and inspires all of our younger generation.

Related links:

Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman: ‘I’m looking forward to redressing the balance for teenagers’

Book Trust: Malorie Blackman announced as new Children’s Laureate

Bird’s Song blog (chief executive of Booktrust)


Reading for inspiration

17 May

Bathsheba Everdene - a true heroine  © all rights reserved Bathsheba Everdene on Flickr from Yahoo

Bathsheba Everdene – a true heroine
© all rights reserved Bathsheba Everdene on Flickr from Yahoo

I’m feeling slightly bereft this week after finishing reading the excellent Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. The story is both a tale of unrequited love and personal fortitude, as well as an historical account of the economic crash in 1930s America. The journey of the central character, Honora, from unsatisfied newly-wed to single mother, sustained by friendship and the sense of purpose brought about by her baby, couldn’t fail to resonate with me.

Undoubtedly, many people read simply for entertainment and escapism without a thought for whether they particularly like, or agree with the central protagonists.

For me however, a good book, and in particular the characters in fictional narratives, can rattle around my head long after I’ve turned the last page, as I try to make sense of the emotional responses, actions and comeuppances of those whose lives I’ve inhabited for several weeks.

With this in mind, here’s my list of the top five books which have influenced my thinking, or inspired me in some way, particularly when the going’s got tough:

1. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

This key A level text made a huge impression on me as a shy teenager desperate to cultivate an air of sophistication and confidence. The main protagonist is a naïve but head-strong young woman holding her own in a man’s world. The novel charts her personal growth as she contends with the trials and tribulations of running a big farm and a tumultuous love- life, each knock back teaching her a valuable life-lesson. A true heroine, flawed and yet, self-knowing. Bathsheba Everdene, I salute you.

2. The Whole Woman, by Germaine Greer

As a young woman in my twenties and in all honesty, in hot pursuit of men, the notion that I might be a feminist was faintly ridiculous – didn’t they burn their bras and have dodgy haircuts? Needless to say, as press officer for Nottingham Trent University I was required to report on a lecture she was giving and was so buoyed up by the experience I swiftly went out to buy her latest book. Although I don’t fully embrace all of Greer’s opinions, The Whole Woman made me question things I’d never considered before about women, gender and equality.

3. Lovely Green Eyes, by Arnost Lustig

This gripping story centres on a teenage girl sent with her family to Auschwitz. Using her red hair and green eyes as cover, 15 year old Hanka poses as an Aryan to gain work in a German military brothel. Her unfaltering self-preservation and cunning enable her to escape death. This was quite a harrowing read, but Hanka’s survival reminded me of the immense strength, dignity and unfaltering hope of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I can recall reading this at a particularly trying time in my early married life, dealing with family and financial problems, and realising how insignificant my woes were in comparison to those living through wars or persecution. Humbling.

4. Eat, Love and Pray, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book, which preceded the no doubt smaltzy film, heralded a fresh mind set for me during a very difficult period of hurt and confusion about what direction my life should take following my separation. Very few of us can go to such great lengths to find inner peace, but like Liz, learning to allow myself to step off the treadmill and ‘just be’ has been hugely restorative.

4. Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now, by Maya Angelou

I chanced upon this book earlier this year, whilst I was struggling to juggle my demanding job and look after (single-handedly) my young daughter. Maya’s lessons on life are poetic, humourous and forgiving of human fallibility. Her guidance is as much about loving thy neighbour, as the importance of self-preservation and dignity. Take this nugget: “Whining is not only graceless but can be dangerous. It can alert a brute that a victim is in the neighbourhood”. Sage words indeed.

So dear book lovers, now it’s your turn – which books have inspired you, helped inform your life philosophy or given you succour when you needed it?

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