On July 8, the Guardian released its 2016 longlist for its children’s fiction prize (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/gallery/2016/jul/08/guardian-childrens-fiction-prize-2016-longlist). The list of previous award winners of the prize, given since 1967, reads like a who’s who of great contemporary children’s authors: Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Peter Dickinson, Diana Wynne Jones and Jacqueline Wilson, among others, have won the prize. Some of the best-known British children’s fiction of the last half-century, including Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig (later made into the movie “Babe”) and Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom were recognized for their merits by the Guardian judges.
This year’s longlist contains three titles that feature Black British characters or authors: former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars (which *might* feature Black British characters, but as the book is set in space at a far future time, distinctions between humans based on nationalities are meaningless; however, Blackman is perhaps the most-recognized Black British writer for children); Carnegie-winner Tanya Landman’s Hell and High Water, and ‘One of the most exciting writers of the black urban experience’ (according to the Times) Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights. Before I talk about the books, I want to discuss the prize itself.
For those unfamiliar with the Guardian prize, it is—unlike Britain’s Carnegie and Greenaway medals, which are awarded by librarians—judged by children’s authors (this year’s judges are David Almond, Kate Saunders, and SF Said). I was able to see something of how the Carnegie judging worked during my year in Newcastle, and the librarians on the judging committee are not given any support (financial or time) to read the hundreds of books that might be nominated. This means that many librarians (particularly those with families or other commitments) cannot participate in the process. Those that do participate also, inevitably, have their own specific population of readers in mind. The fact that the Guardian prize has a panel of authors who generally spend at least part of their year doing author visits throughout the country (and beyond, for that matter) suggests that the judges might have a broader spectrum of the British population in mind as they read through the longlist.
The Guardian prize has been historically much more likely than either the Greenaway or, especially, the Carnegie to choose texts that reflect the diversity of Britain in its winners. It is, for example, significant that of the three authors on the Guardian longlist that I mentioned here, only Landman has won the Carnegie—and she’s done it for a book (Buffalo Soldier) that is set, not in Britain but in the USA. (Blackman has been shortlisted, but hasn’t won.) As early as 1988, however, the Guardian prize had been awarded to a book with a major character who is Black British—Ruth Thomas’s The Runaways. Before this, the Guardian prize had been awarded to non-white authors, including Anita Desai whose Village by the Sea won in 1983.
The current Guardian longlist continues that tradition of committing to a broad range of texts, but not just in terms of authors or main characters and their skin colour. The three books I mentioned above may have the thread of “Black British” running through them one way or another, but they are themselves very diverse texts. Blackman’s story, as I’ve already mentioned, is set in space and has echoes of Othello (not to mention a pinch of Romeo and Juliet) about it. It is the kind of book that is not written enough for and about Black Britons: science fiction complete with technological jargon and plot twists. Set in the future, it asks readers to think about the things about humanity that might change (as in, how much our humanity can be dependent on technology for example) and the things about humanity that never change (the frustrations of teenage love affairs, for example). Landman’s Hell and High Water, like Buffalo Soldier, is set in the historical past, but in this book it is Britain’s, not America’s, history. And unlike Buffalo Solider, which focuses on one of the few time periods when African-Americans are allowed to exist in children’s books (the post-civil war is not as popular in children’s books as the period of slavery or civil rights, but it is not like World War I when apparently few Black people existed in America if one were to judge by children’s books), Hell and High Water is about a free Black Briton in mid-1700s England. The book speaks not only to racial issues, but to class issues as well, since Caleb and his (white) relatives have to struggle with the unequal justice meted out to poor people during the time period (potentially leading the reader to question the equality of justice in modern Britain as well). Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights is set in contemporary urban Britain, and uses slang-filled dialogue and situations which might appeal to readers turned off by more “literary”-appearing books. But being a book about urban kids involved with crime and gangs does not make it unliterary, just as these qualities did not make the books of African-American author Walter Dean Myers, such as the 1990 Scorpions, unliterary. In fact, it has features of both the other longlisted books featuring Black characters. Wheatle’s story, like Landman’s, raises issues of equality of justice as well as the equality of opportunity for Black Britons. It considers both personal responsibility for actions taken and the meaning and value of loyalty, which are features of Blackman’s novel as well.
Even if the shortlist (which is to appear in October) includes none of these books, there’s still a good chance that it will feature at least one book that focuses on non-majority characters; Australian author Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow is about a Rohingya asylum-seeker in a detention camp in Australia. But no matter what happens, it is significant (and I think probably historic) that the Guardian prize’s longlist includes books that feature the past, present and possible future of Black Britons from three high-quality authors. Kudos to the Guardian prize for including these books in their galaxy of potential prize-winners; I’ve got my fingers crossed that the shortlist, as well as other prize and readers’ lists, will include them as well.