Tag Archives: Alex Wheatle

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.

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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.