Living Two Lives: Poets as Novelists, Novelists as Poets in Black British Children’s Literature

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Blackman’s look at clouds from both sides now.

In her 2004 novel-in-verse, Cloud Busting, Malorie Blackman writes that “Dreams are a way for us to live two lives” (65). Being an inveterate dreamer myself, someone who (like the twelve dancing princesses) spends my nights elsewhere than my real life, I understand this sentiment very well. But it struck me on reading it because Blackman was, by writing in verse, also living a second life.

Or perhaps a third, fourth, or millionth life would be more accurate. Blackman, although best known for her fantasy series Noughts and Crosses (in itself a way of living two lives, since it posits a world that has an entirely different racial hierarchy than the one in which she wrote it), has written in a variety of genres and for a variety of reading levels. She has some gentle picture books, such as Dizzy’s Walk (Tamarind, 1999) and I Want a Cuddle (Orchard, 2001); stories about adventurous girls for younger readers, including the Betsey Biggalow series and the Girl Wonder books; books about science and computing, like Hacker (Corgi, 1992) and Pig Heart Boy (Corgi, 1997); and she is soon to come out with her own take on Shakespeare’s Othello, Chasing the Stars (Penguin, 2016). And this is just a sampling; if I were to list all of Blackman’s work, I would not have any room in this blog to talk about it.

But Cloud Busting is, as far as I know, Blackman’s only verse novel. It is very much about what poetry is and what poetry can do, and is particularly aimed at readers who are wary of poetry. It opens with a school assignment to write a poem, which most of protagonist Sam’s class greet with horror, saying things like “Poems are for boring, old people” (3). Sam, however, has a story to tell and—although he too is wary of poetry—his story is about the only poet he has ever known, a former classmate called Davey. It is Davey who speaks the line about dreams being a way of living two lives. Davey is a “former” classmate in part because of an incident that occurs in which Sam has essentially betrayed his friend, and the tribute poem that he writes is his way both of sorting out that event and the role he played in it, and also honoring Davey and the poetry he brought into Sam’s life. Along the way, Sam tries out various types of poetry, including haikus and blank verse. Blackman describes these different types of poems in the back of Cloud Busting as part of her author’s note.

Sam’s novice poet status is, I think, a way to help young readers feel comfortable in the world of poetry, and give them a sense that “you, too, can write poetry”. The poems in the book are really at their best when Davey has a voice; Sam occasionally tries too hard to sound poetic. But this is part of the point; no one sits down to write a poem (or a novel in verse) and comes across sounding like Shakespeare (or Jacqueline Woodson). It takes practice, and more than that, it takes a new way of sensing the world. Poetry is not an activity, it is a way to live your life.

But poetry is not the only way to live a life, and many poets at some point in their career try out a different mode of expression. When I thought about Blackman’s verse novel, it occurred to me how very many Black British poets had also written at least one novel. John Agard (Letters for Lettie) and Grace Nichols (Leslyn in London) wrote theirs quite early in their careers (at least in terms of their British publishing). Valerie Bloom (Surprising Joy, The Tribe) wrote hers later on, after she’d won the Smarties Bronze award for her learn-to-count picture book Fruits (Macmillan, 1997). Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry runs the gamut of age groups (including that catch-all category, “adult poetry”), but has also had reasonable success with his novels for teenagers, such as Face, Refugee Boy, and Gangsta Rap. Jackie Kay, recently named the newest Scottish Makar, wrote Strawgirl (Macmillan Children’s, 2003) as well as poems for children and novels for adults.

Of course these writers are all multi-talented and it is perhaps unsurprising that they would write in multiple forms, even if they are best at one. Many writers do this (Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl are just two examples that spring quickly to mind). But I do think that a higher percentage of Black British children’s authors write in multiple formats than white British children’s authors. This, I would suggest, is because Black British writers have grown up in a world where the definition of normal was not them. In a way this is true for all writers—it is why writers write, because they want to set their stories alongside the boring everyday—but it is more so for writers whose otherness (racial, gender, religious, whatever) is not validated by the majority culture. Often, in fact, it is invalidated, not as a deliberate cruelty or overt form of racism, but because whiteness pervades cultures such as Britain to the point where anything else can seem “weird” or even, in a Foucaultian way (see Madness and Civilization), mad, bad or dangerous. Black British writers have needed to negotiate normality in white British society, and they often do this by seeing “normal” things in new ways. In multiple ways at once, even. And it is the hard but important job of Black British writers to describe the new and multiple in as many formats and for as many readers as possible. As Sam says in Cloud Busting when he is trying out Davey’s way of thinking: “I could see things in the rain/ And the clouds and the sky/ That weren’t there before. … I didn’t like it – at all” (59). It’s easier to live one life, especially if that life is the “normal” one. But we can all benefit from the struggle that comes through dreaming two—or more—lives, because it can often lead to the most poetic kind of joy.

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The final line and illustration of Blackman’s Cloud Busting. Illustrations by Helen van Vliet.

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