Tag Archives: libraries

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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Bringing library closures to book

25 Apr

reading

My heart sank this week to learn of the demise of the local library – with more than 200 libraries up and down the country closed last year due to Councils’ spending cuts, 170 so called community-run libraries being kept afloat thanks to unpaid volunteers, and hundreds more facing closure.

Since arriving in Brittany a couple of weeks ago, myself and the little one have already acquainted ourselves with the excellent local library here (albeit for a nominal fee). Reading the likes of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood) and Le Lapin (The Rabbit) are not only quenching my daughter’s thirst for a story, but improving both our French.

Our regular library visits (which date back to her very first months) by no means precludes a burgeoning book collection of her own, but the benefits of learning about borrowing books from a library extends beyond the cost savings. Flicking erratically through the array of titles (invariably starring an animal as the main protagonist), and sitting on her own to ‘read’, while I peruse loftier titles (ahem), is particularly rewarding for mademoiselle. Even returning the books is teaching her a valuable lesson about looking after borrowed items and sharing with other children. Not forgetting the social aspect of meeting and greeting other library users and staff.

My personal passion for libraries is relatively recent, admittedly. This is perhaps, in part, due to the fact that as a child books were readily available in our house, and in my teenage years, my passion for reading was fuelled by my grandmother – a voracious reader, with whom I could freely discuss not only books, but music, fashion and my latest crush.

As an English Literature undergraduate in the early ‘90s I developed a love/hate relationship with my university library – not unlike the haunted library in Ghostbusters, mysteriously catalogued and with an eerie quietness which made me want to blurt out some profanity, Tourette’s style, to break the uncomfortable silence. Where the student grant allowed, novels, plays and poetry would be purchased, untouched by human hand, from Blackwell’s and devoured back at my digs. Countless afternoons spent curled up on my ramshackle sofa, never far from a boiling kettle and the biscuit tin; far more conducive to literary digestion than sitting straight-backed and silent at a rigid desk.

Aside from a brief encounter with an academic library in the name of professional development, I pretty much managed to put the sweaty-palmed experience of libraries behind me until 2010. I didn’t give up reading– I just preferred to pick up books on Amazon, or on a whim in the airport WH Smiths.

The combination of tightened purse strings and an expanding belly forced me to venture tentatively into the local library to swot up on baby-rearing techniques. Of course I consulted the internet too, but physical books by recognised authors, with their forewords and friendly pictures, seemed to provide greater comfort and reassurance in light of the challenges ahead. Greeted by a cheery face and intuitively displayed books, I could easily find everything from romantic fiction, to travel books and indeed, baby manuals – with comfortable seating to boot! (In actual fact, mother’s instinct was never far wrong, but Tracy Hogg’s Secrets of the Baby Whisperer provided a good foundation).

Later, with a pram in tow, the local library had even greater appeal, – with nursery rhyme CDs, ‘bounce and rhyme’ classes and information about local playgroups and activities.

Library visits and our nightly reading sessions continue to be met with gusto by my daughter and I am relieved that I overcame my library phobia in good time for her to enjoy this particular habit.

I also count my own blessings for having been given an early introduction to reading and books and strongly support efforts to protect our local libraries, which are such an important gateway to reading and ergo, life chances, for many young people who may not be able to access books so readily at home.

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