Tag Archives: Alex Wheatle

Not Banned, Just Ignored: BAME Lit and Banned Books Week

A news story this week caught my eye—perhaps I should say “news” story, as it was accompanied by the usual screaming headlines of The Sun.  It concerned Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta’s Biff, Chip and Kipper books, and the adult themes of some of the illustrations (https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4540364/childrens-author-dogging-scenes-biff-chip-kipper-books/).  The comments on the story were a mix of calls for censorship and raised-eyebrow-amusement, but it got me thinking about Banned Books Week, which has been celebrated in the US since 1982, and what censorship means for BAME authors and readers.

Going al fresco? Ed Brody tweeted a photo of the Biff, Chip and Kipper books with something strange going on in the background of one page

What are they doing behind those bushes?  One of the controversial pictures from the Biff, Chip and Kipper series.

On the Banned Books Week coalition website, they list the top ten challenged books of 2016 (http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about).  Most of the books on the list were challenged for sexual content, and most are for young adults (I am Jazz, about a transgender child, is a rare picture book exception).  Most of the books are about white children.  Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel, This One Summer, and Bill Cosby’s Little Bill books are the exceptions; and these are both challenged for sexual explicitness (in the case of Bill Cosby, his own rather than the books’).  This is quite a change, historically speaking; books in the US used to regularly be challenged on the basis of their depiction of race, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the “mixed race marriage” depicted in Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding.

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It might not have been the worst day of his life, but Bill Cosby has had his children’s books challenged over the past year because of the charges against him.

The UK has, at least over the last few decades, not had the same kind of censorship culture as the US with regard to children’s books.  The last publication to be banned under the UK’s Obscene Publications act was David Britton’s graphic novel, Lord Horror (published in 1989, banned in 1992), a book definitely not aimed at children.  Indeed, the Obscene Publications act has mostly focused on adult literature, and in recent years hardly used at all.  The 1955 Children and Young Persons Harmful Publications Act, which was introduced in response to a National Union of Teachers exhibition of horror comics they deemed harmful to children, ultimately resulted in only two prosecutions (both in 1970) according to the parliamentary record (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1974/dec/05/childrens-publications-prosecutions#S5CV0882P0_19741205_CWA_237).  In 2010, the BBC noted that US-style banning of books was rare: “Part of the difference is in the level of local control over schools. Typically in the US, locally-elected school boards can have books withdrawn when parents petition them. In the UK, control lies almost exclusively in the hands of headteachers, says Sally Duncan, of the School Library Association” (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-11417672). This attitude of UK rationality regarding the US with benign bemusement is fairly standard across articles from the UK about censorship.

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I wonder if Mary Hoffman’s Grace ever dreamed of being Wishee-Washee in the Aladdin pantomime? Dean Kilford plays him here in this photo by James Spicer.

But the suggestion of British superiority belies the ways in which the institutions and industries (particularly education and publishing) in the UK effect the same result: producing literature which reinforces a white, patriarchal, Christian, heterosexual status quo.  This is true in terms of the books and authors who do get published: the most lauded picture book about a Black British child was written by a white author, and rewards the Black British character for wanting to participate in British (and more particularly English) literary and dramatic tradition (including Kipling, Shakespeare, J. M. Barrie, and British pantomime); most of the books written by BAME authors or about BAME characters that have won awards in the last fifty years have gone out of print in a relatively short amount of time.

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Books like Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet may not have been banned, but they aren’t in print in the UK anymore–and were never in print in the US.

BAME British books and authors that depict alternatives or challenges to white dominant society are often ignored or criticized.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, an alternative-reality story where Black people hold the majority of power positions and white people form militant groups, garnered considerable attention, including from racist trolls.  Except for Noughts and Crosses, Blackman’s books were not published in the US.  Neither are the books of most other BAME authors, including award-winners such as Alex Wheatle and Patrice Lawrence (although the picture book I mentioned above by the white author was not only published in the US but has remained in print), suggesting that UK publishers do not value the literature enough to promote it, or US publishers do not see the works as “translating” to the US, a dubious idea. Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights may have won the Guardian Prize for fiction, but neither he nor Blackman has ever won the most prestigious children’s book prize in the UK, the Carnegie Medal (and Wheatle, along with several other celebrated BAME authors, was not even shortlisted).  The Carnegie, unlike many of the other children’s book prizes in the UK, is awarded by children’s librarians.

I am certain that individual publishers, authors, and librarians could protest the suggestion of racism in children’s book publishing—but the individual example is an easy way to diffuse a larger argument (no matter what the topic).  I’d like to quote some statistics to prove my points, but the UK, unlike the US, does not publish statistics relating to diversity in children’s books.  So while the UK can be smug about its lack of direct censorship compared to the US, it can also mask its poor efforts in publishing and awarding BAME children’s literature.  The UK needs an organization like the US-based Cooperative Children’s Book Center (https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/default.asp), which publishes yearly statistics on the numbers and types of diverse children’s books published in any given year.

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Publications such as Children’s Book Bulletin and Dragon’s Teeth commented on the good and bad in children’s publishing about BAME people.

Academics, whether focused on education, librarianship, or children’s literature can also play their part in raising the profile of BAME children’s books.  In the 1970s, when literature with Black British characters had a brief moment in the sun (one even won the Kate Greenaway medal, as I’ve discussed on this blog before), it was partly because children’s librarians such as Dorothy Kuya (in her publication Dragon’s Teeth) and Janet Hill (in books like Children are People) actively promoted and discussed BAME children’s literature.  Andrew Mann and Rosemary Stones did the same through the anti-racist anti-sexist Children’s Rights Workshop and its publication Children’s Book Bulletin.  These publications were aimed at an audience of teachers, librarians and parents, in an attempt to educate them about available literature.  Letterbox Library is one of the organizations that works toward these goals now, but there is no journal in the UK devoted to BAME children’s literature that I know of—whether aimed at an academic or non-academic audience.  Perhaps it is time to start one—but in the meantime, may I suggest that we all could participate in anti-censorship activities this week by picking up a book that has been banned in the US—or one that has just been ignored in the UK.

I’ll end with one of Letterbox Library’s tweets from this morning which sums all this up nicely:

Letterbox Library @LetterboxLib 4h4 hours ago

Spot the difference- we requested the book shown in this trade catalogue; this is what we received (we were sent the “UK edition”…):

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Mixed, Not Mixed Up: Mixed Race Families in British children’s and YA lit

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I did what a lot of pregnant literature professors do—look for enough books to fill a library for their future genius.  In my case, along with my own childhood favorites (Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances books, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Dr. Seuss, my favorite fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), I wanted to get books where the characters would look like my child.  But this was not so simple.  In addition to the fact that many picture books have animals rather than people as characters, most of the people characters are white. Those that aren’t are from a single, identifiable racial group.  My child would be mixed race.

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Tony Bradman and Eileen Browne’s books about Jo show a confident, happy, mixed race child–but on book covers, she is all alone.

I went searching anyway, and found a few—not many.  I commented on these in an article I wrote, “Why are People Different? Multiracial Families in Picture Books and the Dialogue of Difference” (Lion and the Unicorn 25.3, September 2001: 412-426), You can read the article yourself (it isn’t too tedious) but the Ladybird version of the article is that I was disappointed in most of the books I did find.  The picture books I looked at then emphasized “difference and a physical space between the racially different parents” (423).  During that same year, Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe wrote, in her essay “Re-Membering ‘Race’: On Gender, ‘Mixed Race’ and Family in the English-African Diaspora,” that it was important that young people had representations they could look to because “neither the exclusionary discourse of White Englishness nor the inclusive discourse of the Black English-African diaspora completely represents their everyday lived realities” (50).  Of course, no one book can carry the burden of completely accurately representing the lived realities of any actual human, and not all the books were all bad.  I was especially fond of Tony Bradman’s and Eileen Browne’s picture books about a little girl named Jo (Through My Window, In a Minute, Wait and See).  And none of us in my family are badgers, but we still enjoyed singing the little songs Russell Hoban’s Frances made up—so books that are not about “race” can still raise a sense of recognition in a reader.

But I did wonder (and worry) what my daughter would have to read as she got older, and books stopped having visual representation of mixed race families—especially as in many of the picture books, the visual representation is all the representation that existed, the text itself could have been about—well, about badgers.  Would my daughter see people who looked like her when books left the character’s description to the imagination?  Or would she see the “normal” (that is, white) hero or heroine as most readers, no matter what their racial background, do?  And would there be any mixed race families for her to read about?

It turns out that the generation who grew up at the same time as my daughter expected to find multiracial families in books, and to some extent have got them.  I think that a recent rise in the number of YA and tween books with multiracial families/biracial characters has been advanced by the brilliant crop of BAME British writers who have begun scooping up prizes right and left.  While white Britons (and Americans) may or may not know someone who is of mixed racial heritage, most BAME people know at least someone—if they aren’t part of a multiracial family themselves.  Things have changed in the decade and a half since I wrote my article.

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Both Brahmachari’s Artichoke Hearts and Lawrence’s Indigo Donut show the multiracial couples physically linked.

First, one of the things I discussed in my article was the fact that racially different people were often physically separated in illustrations, even when they had a textually-stated reason to be close (such as being married!).  Book covers are different from picture books, of course—YA authors do not (usually) have any say at all about who does their covers.  Nonetheless, I see the covers of books like Sita Brahmachari’s Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017) to be quite positive advances over the books available to my daughter as a child.  Mira, the Indian- and English-heritage protagonist of Artichoke Hearts, and Bailey, the Afro-Caribbean- and English-heritage main character of Indigo Donut, are not alone on their respective covers—as, for example, Jo is on the cover of all the Bradman and Browne books.  As befits books for the 11+ age group, both Mira and Bailey are depicted with their romantic interests.  But unlike the pictures of married couples in the picture books I reviewed in 2001, the young lovers on these covers are linked physically (as they are in the books).  If you think that this is unremarkable, consider that Sarah Garland’s lovely Billy and Belle (Reinhardt 1992) faced difficulties getting published because the parents, one Black and one white, were shown in bed together.  Garland was told that many countries would censor the book unless she removed the scene. (She didn’t, and it wasn’t published at the time in South Africa, among other places.)

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Garland’s Billy and Belle was controversial because the parents actually slept in the same bed–shock horror!

Second, and perhaps more important, the books being published now no longer emphasize the idea of difference in a negative way.  As with any real child of a biracial marriage, the fact of being “mixed” only comes up occasionally.  Mira’s brother has different colored eyes than her, and her writing teacher describes her as having a “dual history name” (7), but it isn’t something that comes up every day.  Even when Mira goes to India in the sequel, Jasmine Skies, the emphasis is on her learning about her Indian heritage, not about her being “mixed”.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom 2016) announces part of the main character’s mixed heritage in the opening sentence: “My mum told me I was named after her Scottish granddad, Danny McKay” (1); McKay and his brother are also named after famous people of African heritage, Medgar Evers and Robert Nesta Marley.  But both McKay and Mira are part of their neighborhoods and families, not individuals set apart and “different”.  It is true that Lawrence’s Bailey faces teasing over his ginger afro, but he has learned to deal with it.  Rather than keep it short, he grows his hair as big as it will grow, telling Indigo that to cut it would be “telling people like Saskia they’re right” (78) to tease him.  Difference is not a problem to be solved, but one of many aspects to be celebrated.  The young characters in recent books for children may be mixed—but they are far from being mixed up.

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Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights announces the multiracial heritage of McKay from the opening sentence.

At the End of Everything is Something New: Recent Releases in BAME Lit for Children

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The latest from Alex Wheatle and Kiran Millwood Hargrave are very different–and share many similarities as well.

I have been terribly anxious for my term to end in the US–not just for the ordinary reasons (exam time does not exactly reveal anyone at their best, most cheerful self)–but because, nearly as soon as it did, I hopped on a plane for several weeks in the UK.  And I went straight to the bookstore.

One of the curious things about American publishing (not to mention American television, American film stars–I’m talking to you, Samuel L. Jackson–and other elements of the American cultural world) is that, if they recognize that there is such a thing as a BAME British writer (tv star, film star, whatever), they do not think their work is relevant to Americans.  This is similar to the way that white British publishing often acts as though BAME lit is only for BAME readers, despite the phenomenal success of writers such as Zadie Smith or Malorie Blackman (just to name two of many). When I am in the US, I can get the work of BAME writers, but generally by special order from the UK, which is expensive–or slow.  So when I’m in the UK, I stock up.

And I’d been especially impatient to read two recent releases by 2016 award-winning authors, Alex Wheatle’s latest installment in the Crongton series, Straight Outta Crongton (London: Atom Press, 2017) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything (Somerset: Chicken House, 2017).  On the face of it, these books could not be more different.  Alex Wheatle’s series, including this latest, concerns the lives of young urban Britons growing up on a fictional estate plagued by gang warfare aimed at the young adult market.  Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel is a fictional account for older middle grade readers of a real island in the Philippines where people with leprosy were sent in order to try and eradicate the disease.

But despite this surface-level contrast, the two books actually have some important things in common.  Most obviously, they are both focalized through female protagonists, and feature mother-daughter relationships as critical elements of their plots. Wheatle’s Mo Baker has a troubled relationship with her mother–or rather, with her mother’s choice of male company.  Things get bad enough that Mo eventually leaves to stay with friends.  Millwood Hargrave’s Amihan Tala adores her mother–or Nanay, the Tagalog word for mother–but she too leaves home, by force, because government officials decide to segregate people with leprosy (Nanay) from people without (Amihan), even if this means separating families.  Each girl experiences an eventual reunion with her mother, but in both cases the reunion is (or in Mo’s case, appears at the end of the book to be) temporary.

During their separation from their mothers, both Mo and Ami get strength from female friends.  Indeed, the importance of the connection between girls is a major theme in both these novels.  Mo’s friends support her by taking her in (even when the adults involve demur, Mo’s friend Elaine insists that she be able to stay with them), by not allowing Mo to accept an apology from her mother’s boyfriend after he physically abused her and instead trying to get her to report him to the police, and by accompanying her on a dangerous mission of revenge.  Ami’s friend Mari also accompanies her on a dangerous mission, to escape the orphanage–and island–where she has been sent and get back to her Nanay.  Neither Mo’s nor Ami’s mission results in an entirely happy conclusion.  But it is their female friends who help them get through their trials alive, and with a deeper understanding of the complicated actions and emotions of the adults around them.

As you may be able to tell from this brief description of the novels, ‘race,’ racism, racial politics are not the focus of the books, though these things are not entirely absent from them either.  Wheatle’s Mo is white, and her boyfriend Sam is Black.  They have known each other since childhood, when even then they had an awareness that race mattered, at least to older people.  They play a trick on a social worker who comes to visit Sam’s mother, telling her that they were “the first black and white twins born in the country” (78).  But at the end of the day, what matters more to Mo and her friends is that they share a common language and experience, united by the good and bad things about Crongton–which in many ways is as much of an isolated island for them as Culion and Coron are for Ami in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s book. The Island at the End of Everything does highlight the difference of skin color: Ami’s friend Mari is “paler than the others, paler than any of us, her hair light and flyaway, making a halo around her head” (94).  Later Ami learns the pale skin comes from Mari’s being half-Spanish.  Mari’s background is not insignificant, but what matters more to her relationship with Ami is that they are both in an orphanage under the thumb of a tyrannical government official.

And this is one more thing that The Island at the End of Everything has in common with Straight Outta Crongton.  Both novels view the government as unhelpful, sometimes unkind, and always untrustworthy.  Mo Baker mistrusts “the feds” enough so that she does not turn to them for help when she really needs it.  Ami Tala experiences the consequences of a well-intentioned government policy (few would argue with the eradication of leprosy as a good goal) that disregards the human cost of separating families.  Both heroines ultimately accept the authority of that government–after they defy the dehumanized government to connect with people they love.

Wheatle and Millwood Hargrave have written novels that are departures from the one(s) that came before.  Wheatle’s earlier Crongton novels are focalized through male protagonists, and Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars is a fantasy. The reason that these authors matter so much right now is patently not because they have one story, “the” BAME story.  These novelists prove that there is no such thing as a single BAME story–no such thing as a single Wheatle story or a single Millwood Hargrave story.  At the end of everything is the start of something new.  And now that I’ve finished these novels, I can’t wait for the next ones.

Carnegies So White: The (Lack of) Progress of a Children’s Book Medal

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BAME authors are still chasing the Carnegie star. Malorie Blackman’s book was nominated, but not longlisted.

The longlist for the Carnegie Medal came out last week. The Medal, offered by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), is the equivalent (for American readers of this blog) of the Newbery Award. CILIP describes it and its partner award for picture books, the Kate Greenaway medal, as “the UK’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards. Often described by authors and illustrators as ‘the one they want to win’, they are the gold standard in children’s literature” (http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/). This year, the Carnegie celebrates its 80th birthday.

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Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights won the Guardian Prize for Children’s Fiction, and was nominated for the Carnegie–but not longlisted.

Unfortunately, it will not be celebrating by awarding the medal to a Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic writer for the first time. We can be sure of this, even though the medal will not be awarded for some months, because the longlist does not contain any of the nominees from those communities. Of course, the prize is not awarded to authors, but to books, and the Carnegie defends itself in an article in The Bookseller by Natasha Onwuemezi by saying that while CILIP “acknowledges and respects the concerns expressed,” the nominees were “judged on merit and on an equal playing field” (“CILIP fends off criticism over lack of BAME authors on Carnegie longlist” 16 February 2017). Nick Poole, the CEO of CILIP, added that the books on the longlist were “selected by youth librarians who work with children and young people every day in schools and communities” (“CILIP fends off”). These statements are troubling, as they imply that books by writers such as Alex Wheatle, Malorie Blackman, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and Patrice Lawrence have less merit than those by white writers. By saying this, and arguing that the playing field is “equal,” all writers and all readers suffer. The damage to BAME writers is obvious—their books are not promoted as award-winning, and thus will often fall out of print faster, not to mention any knock to self-confidence in being passed over again. BAME readers do not get to see themselves truly represented in award-winning books. But white readers also are encouraged to think that quality belongs to white authors only, and this will affect the choices they make about books. Their world will be limited that much more. As for white authors—well, I would not want to win the Carnegie this year, as I would always feel that I had won partly because BAME authors were excluded. However, I worry least about white writers—to make a parallel with another cultural industry, Adele may have thought that Beyoncé should have won her Grammy award, but she didn’t refuse it or give it back.

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s book has been longlisted for the Branford Boase–but not the Carnegie.

To take CILIP’s arguments one at a time, we can start with equality. If the playing field were “equal” then by the law of averages, BAME writers would appear on the longlist (at least!) on a regular basis. Britain is 87% white, and even if you take into account the fact that white British are overrepresented in children’s publishing AND children’s librarianship (but don’t forget that the playing field is equal, ahem), they are not 100% of the writers out there. And if BAME writers are never represented, then that suggests that the playing field is not, in fact, equal. The people choosing are not choosing blindly.

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Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy has been shortlisted for the Leeds Book Prize–but it wasn’t longlisted for the Carnegie.

In terms of merit, most of the nominated books have been put up for—and indeed, have won—other children’s book prizes. Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize in November (Blackman’s Chasing the Stars was also nominated). Orangeboy by Lawrence has been nominated for the Costa Book Awards and shortlisted for the Leeds Book Prize. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars has been longlisted for the Branford Boase Award. Hargrave’s book along with Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars and Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy were all nominated for the inaugural Jhalak Prize, which includes adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction from BAME authors. According to the Guardian’s Danuta Kean, “The Jhalak was launched following publication in 2015 of Writing the Future, a damning report from writers’ development agency Spread the Word about BAME representation in UK publishing” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/05/first-british-books-prize-for-bame-authors-unveils-inaugural-longlist). (But the playing field is equal, don’t forget.)

Finally, with regard to Poole’s comment about librarians working with children “every day,” this suggests that somehow librarians choices are partly reflecting what children like and want to read (somewhat muddying the argument about books being selected on “merit”—children like all sorts of books, but what they like and what is good quality literature are not always the same). This again plays upon the “majority rule” argument. Librarians select books for the longlist based on what kids respond to—but if what they respond to is what they are taught to respond to, they will never read out of their comfort zone. They will continue to want books written by white authors from a white perspective, because that is what they are used to. This goes for BAME readers as well as white ones. The BAME readers who want something different often turn away from books altogether if they can’t find ones that, at least sometimes, represent their experiences and perspectives. Librarians need to model the value of being challenged in their reading, and not always reinforcing the status quo. (But the books are judged on merit, just as a reminder.)

Last year, I participated in a Carnegie shadowing group, where we read all the books on the shortlist and discussed their merits (the Carnegie encourages these, but as far as I know they do not take any shadowing group’s opinions into account when judging). One of the books on the shortlist, though written by a white author, had not-white characters in it, and was admired by many in the group—until the sole BAME person in the group mentioned some of the ways that the author missed the mark. Having listened to her, we agreed that it was still a good book, but not one we would award the Carnegie Medal. It is this kind of feedback that is critical in broadening the perspective of award committees. At the end of the day, if the Carnegie Medal going to truly represent the best in British children’s fiction, CILIP needs to listen to the voices of all of Britain.

Guardian’s Galaxy: The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and Black Britain

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.

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David Almond, author of A Song for Ella Grey, was last year’s winner of the Guardian children’s book prize-and one of this year’s 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.

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Thomas’s The Runaways won the Guardian prize in 1988, and had a Black Briton as a major character. (Cover art unattributed on my copy.)

 

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.

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Landman’s Guardian prize nominee is about Britain’s past, not America’s.

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.

chasingthestars

Blackman’s Chasing the Stars, like her earlier Pig-Heart Boy, uses technology to question what makes someone human.

 

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.