I read a lot of Malorie Blackman as a teenager and then again in my early twenties. I always thought she was fantastic. She never wrote in a particularly difficult way, but at the same time, she dealt with some very complex ideas. As a keen reader, I still felt challenged despite her simplicity; her words flowed, her stories just appeared, like magic, and her characters were so easy to imagine. Simple, but never simplistic. I always thought that this must be a very difficult thing to do, especially in children’s and teenage literature.
When I was interviewed for my current job, in summer 2011, I saw posters all around school advertising an author visit for the beginning of term. Malorie Blackman. I was terrified when I got offered the job and realised that I would be helping out with it. We ended up with a packed hall full of kids aged 11 to 16 and Malorie spoke to them about all manner of subjects: her career in I.T, her favourite music, Tinie Tempah mentioning her in a song, the lack of black characters in picture books when she was growing up. However, one thing she said really stuck with me. She mentioned that when she was at school she had expressed an interest in becoming a teacher, but her teacher had discouraged her because of the fact she was black. Thus, Blackman ended up working in I.T and only later became a writer.
I think it is important, at this stage, to note that she was saying this to a packed hall where perhaps 70% of the kids were non-white. Having a world-famous black author stand up on stage and talk about her writing and the things she had experienced brought reading out of the Library and into the real world. Books are still and quiet and do not shout about themselves. Blackman talked about the big ideas that are contained within books; the big ideas that so many children in that hall could identify with. She talked in a dynamic way about things like racism, very much real world issues, and it made everyone think. The racially segregated schools of the 1950s that were the inspiration for Noughts and Crosses, but also the more recent prejudice that Blackman had encountered in her lifetime, in the 1970s, in Britain. Blackman was not only proof that her teacher had been wrong about black people, but also that authority figures could be wrong about everyone. She also proved that books are, and can be, relevant to everyone.
Of course, Blackman’s race shouldn’t matter. But her comments proved that it did matter to her that she didn’t see black characters in books growing up, that it did matter that her teacher said what she said, it did shape who she was, and that even though racism is ridiculous, our race is still part of our identity. Saying racism is stupid isn’t the same thing as saying that race doesn’t exist. Because it does matter what children see in their books and how that corresponds to their world. In our school, the everyday reality for children is an extremely diverse peer group. If they read a book containing only white characters, they are bound to see that it doesn’t reflect this reality. Of course, historical literature should not be changed simply to reflect this. However, authors such as Malorie Blackman are completely correct in their comments about diversity in children’s literature today. As such, the stories don’t have to be about race, but they should reflect the world that we live in. It is important.
One thing that really angered me fairly recently was the comments that certain (unnamed) newspapers made about the Olympic opening ceremony. The multi-cultural world it depicted was a myth, they said. A certain tabloid paper even implied that a happy mixed-race couple such as the one that featured in the ceremony did not, in reality, exist, or at least they were a rarity. I am not sure what Britain these people live in, but it certainly isn’t London and it is certainly not the same one I live in, or have ever lived in. I grew up in an ordinary town, Stockport, just south of Manchester, in the late 80s and early 90s, and went to a school with children of all backgrounds. My parents were very liberal. That was the world I was used to. When I got to 19 and went to University in Leeds, things were much the same.
Of course, I am here referring to urban or suburban life. I know there are villages, including the one my partner grew up in, that may have no non-white families, or at least very few. But wasn’t the Olympic opening ceremony supposed to be about London? After I read the offending article, which later got edited, I did a quick count of my immediate friendship circle and the racial make-up of its couples. About half of them, I realised, were made up of mixed-race couples. I had never considered this before; it never mattered. It doesn’t matter, not really, apart from to say that this newspaper was wrong. And I didn’t bat an eyelid when I watched the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Race didn’t even cross my mind. However, a London opening ceremony featuring only white people? I’m pretty sure I would have noticed that.
When I read the comments section about Blackman’s comments on the website of the aforementioned tabloid paper, I felt a similar sense of rage.
She said there was a lack of black and Asian children in picture books and described feeling ‘totally invisible’ when she was younger due to never reading a book that featured a black child, The Telegraph has reported.
“PC Nonsense” was the general gist of most of the responses. Many people said that they live in a mostly white country, so what’s the need for diversity? I think that if this is true, that these people do indeed experience as mostly or all white, it actually proves how diverse Britain is. If my experience is so different to so many others and their experience is different again from a Muslim kid living in Manchester, which is different again from a black kid living in London, then there is a need for books featuring different types of experiences and different types of children. A lot of children cannot relate to the world depicted in many books. It is not relevant to the world they live in. If we were all the same, all books could be the same, could be written to the same formula, featuring similar characters and similar plots. But we aren’t all the same. That, to me, is the crux of this. We aren’t all the same. We are different in many ways. Race is one way. Sexuality another. Religion another. And then there are lots of invisible differences. They are all important, they do matter, but they should not push us apart. They make life interesting and they enrich us. Kids who understand these differences but are not threatened by them are surely more likely to grow up to be mature and understanding adults. And surely this is good for everyone.
If I were to speculate a little, I would perhaps wonder if the reason for the lack of diversity in children’s fiction is that proportionally more white authors are getting published. If this was the case, then why? This is obviously a massively complex Sociological issue that people write PhDs on, so I can’t possibly explore it in enough detail to do it justice, but there are questions, questions like: do children today experience what Blackman experienced when she was younger? It is easy to think that it wouldn’t happen now, at least not so explicitly, but who can say? The Lena Dunham Girls controversy proves how difficult this subject is at the moment, how tangled everything can get. I think Blackman is raising important points that are relevant to everyone, no matter where they live. Those who live in all-white countryside villages need to remember that their experience of Britain is completely different from that of many others. Personally, I wouldn’t recognise their world.
(NOTE TO SELF: Do not read the comments section of bad tabloid newspapers. It is bad for the health)