Tag Archives: BEM

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)

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