Tag Archives: Alex Wheatle

Criminal Minds? Alex Wheatle’s Kerb Stain Boys and Crime in British Children’s Books

I was once in a second-hand bookstore with my older brother, looking for books for my collection of Black British children’s literature.  One title and spine stuck out to me, and I said to my brother, “This book has a Black British child in it.”  He looked at me, confused.  “Do you know the book?  Or the author?”  “No,” I said, “I’ve never seen it before, and I don’t recognize the author.  But I guarantee you it is a British book and has a Black British child in it, probably on the cover.”  He looked at me doubtfully, so I pulled the book off the shelf.  There, on the cover of John Escott’s Burglar Bells (1983), were two boys looking at a third person breaking into a house.  One of the two boys was black.


John Escott’s Burglar Bells could have had all white British children–but it didn’t. Illustration by Maureen Bradley.

It wasn’t really a magic trick that I performed.  Two things told me all I needed to know.  First, the spine, and the fact that it was hardbacked but paperback-sized, let me know it was from Hamish Hamilton—their books are easy to recognize.  But second, the title had something about robbery in it.  In preparation for writing this blog, I went to my middle grade shelves of books from the 1960s to the 1980s, and easily pulled off half a dozen books with robbery, thieving, burglary, or rioting in the title—all of them with Black British characters.  Because of the time in which they were written, most of these books have a white focalizing character who somehow befriends a black child or family. John Escott’s Burglar Bells is one of the few that have the relationship between the white and black children already established; Bernie (white) and Lee (black) go to the same school and are already friends when the book starts.  They are joined in their quest to foil a robbery by another classmate, Rosemary (also white).  There really isn’t anything in the story to suggest that Lee had any kind of different background from Bernie or Rosemary in terms of language (no patois or slang), culture or homelife (in fact we never see Lee at home throughout the story), so the story could reasonably be reillustrated with all white (or all black) children.  But I don’t think it was an accident that this book included a Black British character, as this plot was common during the post-Windrush era.

book cover of Robbers in the Night

An early example is Christine Pullein-Thompson’s Robbers in the Night (Hamish Hamilton, 1967).  In this book, the main character, Paul, has come to Britain from Jamaica, and he remembers “the blazing sun, the dust, the hot sea” (7) with fondness.  But although his family is hardworking and kind, Paul gets caught up with a white boy gang who want him to help them rob houses.  At first, Paul is attracted by the boys and their easy money; when his sister tells him to stay away from them because “we have to be better than other people because we are immigrants” (47), Paul retorts that, “We can’t be immigrants for ever.  One day we will be like everyone else . . . I don’t want to be different” (47).  Paul ends up aiding and abetting the white gang to rob a country house, crawling through a window and opening a door for them when the gang leader threatens him with a knife.  When he at last confesses to the police, they do not arrest him as he had feared, but tell him, “You’re a law-abiding citizen.  Those miserable youths were trying to corrupt you.  Hurry home and get some sleep.  You need it” (115).


Nina Bawden’s The Robbers does not have any Black Britons on the cover, but nonetheless, Black British Addie plays a pivotal role in the novel.

This idea of being Black British, hardworking and kind, but mixed up in crime nonetheless is repeated in Nina Bawden’s The Robbers (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard 1979).  The book focuses on two white boys, the wealthy Philip Holbein and the poor Darcy Green.  Philip becomes interested in Darcy and his family when he moves to London to live with his father.  He meets Darcy when he sees him on Philip’s family’s estate and thinks he is a robber.  In the course of the book, Darcy’s brother is actually convicted of robbery, although he doesn’t knowingly do anything wrong.  Darcy and Philip try to earn money for Darcy’s brother’s wife, Addie, who is pregnant and has been sacked by her employer because of her husband’s conviction.  Addie is “a tall, handsome black woman” (36), “like a queen” (36).  She suffers most from the alleged robbery, but she has done nothing.  Like Lee in Burglar Bells, we learn nothing about Addie’s background, and there’s no clear reason for Bawden to have made her character black rather than white. And like all the characters in these stories, the Black British character is not the guilty one, but is led into an association with crime by white British people.


Stuart Hall et al argue that the mugging “epidemic” of the 1970s was a “moral panic” stirred up by the police and media.

I have always felt vaguely uncomfortable about these books, because the titles and the Black British characters seemed to connect Black Britons with crime and criminality at a time when the British media was filled with stories of West Indian youths mugging white British people, something that Stuart Hall, in Policing the Crisis (1978) called a “moral panic”: “On the margins of the mugging epidemic, then, there arises its pre-history: the longer and more complex story of the striking deterioration in police-black relations, especially between the police in certain areas of the big cities and sections of black youth. It is only in this context that the innovatory role of the police, in the generation of a moral panic, can be properly assessed and understood” (52).  Although the Black British characters in these books are only marginally connected to crime, the white characters and the reading public feels that they belong in books about burglary.  Institutional racism makes the link between race and crime seem natural.


Therefore, when Alex Wheatle’s latest book, Kerb Stain Boys: The Crongton Broadway Robbery (Barrington Stoke 2018) arrived in my mailbox, I admit to feeling a little nervous about what to expect.  In many ways, the story has similarities to the earlier books about robbery; a white boy (Terry, or Terror as he is known to his friends) leads his Black friend Briggy, into a plot to rob the Crongton Broadway Post Office.  Wheatle himself has written that the book, “is influenced in tone, language and narrative by film noir” (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2018/october/alex-wheatle-what-happens-when-diverse-readers-see-themselves-reflected-in-fiction/), a genre which suggest the likelihood of a grim ending for our anti-heroes.  But unlike Bawden’s The Robbers or Pullein-Thompson’s Robbers in the Night, Wheatle’s book does not focus on the goodness or badness of its characters.  If anything, Briggy and Terror are amoral; they decide it is acceptable to rob the post office because they think that life is not going to offer them anything better.  “I’ll tell you what’s stupidocious,” Terror tells Briggy when he objects to the plan, “Trying to get a job that pays you sweet when we’re done with school.  Stupidocious is putting on a tie and going to interview after pissing interview when you know they’re not gonna give you shit” (38).  Briggy, reflecting on Terror’s words, agrees: “I couldn’t argue.  That’s how it was.” Much of the novel is as much comic heist as film noir—the boys and their femme fatale, Caldonia Lake, plan to rob the post office with repainted toy Star Wars guns—but Wheatle’s message is serious: kids living in a society that continually reminds them they are worthless do not feel any reason to abide by that society’s rules.  Wheatle’s book is revolutionary because it exposes the system that creates criminals, and does not damn the boys for trying to break out of that system.  Although they are punished with time in youth detention, they find an alternative, non-standard route out of poverty while there, and both end the book with success.  Wheatle’s novella is a strong and much-needed reminder that the “criminal” is created by society’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility in all members of society, and not by any in-born “criminal minds.”

A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories


The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.


Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”


Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”


Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”


S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”


Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.


We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.

To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part Two

This week’s blog continues the history of Black and BAME British YA literature.  1981, the year that starts the second half of the timeline, is significant for YA literature.  The end of what scholar Anthony DiGesare calls “the long 1970s”, a period when race was the focus for both Black and white Britons from Enoch Powell to future Guardian prize-winner Alex Wheatle, 1981 saw the Brixton Riots bring institutional racism into the spotlight for the first—but by no means the last—time.


YA novelist Alex Wheatle was among the people who experienced the Brixton Riot of 1981.

1981: The Brixton riots erupt as a response to the perceived racist attitudes of police against the Black British community.  West Indian Children in our Schools, a government report authored by Anthony Rampton, calls for mainstream literature to better represent the increasingly diverse cultures of Britain.  The Rampton report was written in response to increasing tension between the Black and Asian British communities and law enforcement.

1982: The first of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books is held in Islington Town Hall, London, partly due to lack of outlets for BAME books for children.  New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture are major sponsors.


The cover of one of the IRR’s histories of racism. The fourth book, The Fight Against Racism, shows pictures of the Brixton Riots.

1982: The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a series of informational books for older readers on racism, starting with The Roots of Racism.  The four books touch on issues of colonialism, slavery, white privilege, police brutality, protests and riots.

1983: Valerie Bloom’s first UK collection of poems, Touch Mi! Tell Mi! is published by Bogle L’Ouverture, aimed at a young adult audience.  Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea (Heinemann), about an Indian village, wins the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

1984: Geraldine Kaye’s Comfort Herself, about a young Black Briton who goes to live with her father in Ghana, wins the Other Award.  Grace Hallworth’s collection of ghost stories from the Caribbean, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out (Methuen) is published.


Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah was recommended by the Youth Library Group for older readers in the year of the Handsworth riots.

1985: Brixton and Handsworth (in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city) again face clashes between police and Black British youth.  The Youth Libraries Group, in their newly revised list of Multiracial Books for the Classroom, recommend Pen Rhythm, “a lively collection by this well known poet” (100), Benjamin Zephaniah.

1986: 13-year-old Bangladeshi Briton Ahmed Iqbal Ullah is murdered by a classmate on the school playground in Manchester.  Ullah’s murder was racially motivated.


Nichols’ poetry collection includes British Asian as well as Black British poets.

1988: Britain introduces a National Curriculum; many complain it does not address the needs of diverse Britain, but instead urges assimilation.  Blackie publishes Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’ collection from Black and Asian poets around the world, Black Poetry (the title was changed to Poetry Jump-Up in the paperback edition).

1993: 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence is killed by a gang of white British youths while he is waiting for a bus.  Lawrence did not know his attackers.  The murder was racially motivated. The official inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson Report (1999), would call for many changes, including revisions to the National Curriculum to include anti-racist and diverse teaching and reading materials.  Meiling Jin, a London-based writer of Guyanese Chinese descent, publishes Thieving Summer (Hamish Hamilton)

1997: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah publishes his collection for older readers, School’s Out: Poems Not for School (AK).


Bali Rai has produced several titles for Barrington Stoke on high interest topics such as football for reluctant readers.

1998: Barrington Stoke, a publisher focused on reluctant and dyslexic children and YA readers, is founded.  They publish books for YA readers by many high-impact BAME authors, including Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, and Sita Brahmachari.

1999: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (http://www.racearchive.org.uk/) is set up in Manchester to honor the 13-year-old killed by his classmate; the trust would publish stories of young refugees and immigrants to Manchester, as well as illustrated biographies of BAME Britons created by young people.  Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel, Face (Bloomsbury), “a story of facial discrimination,” as he calls it, is published.

2000: Black British publisher Tamarind Press publishes the first in its Black Profiles (later renamed Black Stars) series by Verna Wilkins, biographies of living Black Britons of achievement, including author Malorie Blackman.  The Carnegie Medal goes to South African-born white British author Beverley Naidoo for her book about Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).


Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses led to a series of successful novels–and to her becoming the first Black British Children’s Laureate.

2001: Black British author Malorie Blackman’s novel, Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday), detailing an imagined England where Black Britons have all the power positions, is published.  The book would go on to win a number of book awards.

2003: Black British poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah refuses an OBE because of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery.

2004: Guyanese-born poet John Agard publishes Half-Caste (Hodder), a book of poems which encourages readers to “check out” their Black British history.

2009: Publisher Frances Lincoln teams up with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, to offer the Diverse Voices Award.  Poet John Agard’s revision of Dante, The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln), with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, appears and is nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie Medal.

2013: Malorie Blackman is appointed the first Black British Children’s Laureate. Pakistani-born Tariq Mehmood becomes the only non-white author to win the Diverse Voices Award, for his novel You’re Not Proper (Hope Road).  White British author Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury), about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

2014: Seven Stories and Frances Lincoln publish a list of “Diverse Voices: 50 of the Best” books for children and young adults (https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/diverse-voice-top-50).  The BBC and BookTrust collaborate to offer the first BBC Young Writers Award, for short stories by 14-18 year olds.

2015: The Carnegie Medal is awarded to white British author Tanya Landman for her book about post-Civil War African Americans, Buffalo Soldier.  Catherine Johnson’s novel of a poor, Black British woman masquerading as a princess in the early 19th century in order to survive, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, appears from Corgi; it would be shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in 2016.  A graphic novel version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by John Aggs, appears.

2016: White American author Robin Talley wins the first Amnesty CILIP Honour medal for her book about Civil Rights-era America, The Lies We Tell Ourselves.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom) becomes the first story about Black Britons written by a Black British author to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) is shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award; it would win the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the YA Bookseller’s prize in 2017.

2017: The UK’s Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories in Newcastle, hosts “Diverse Voices?” (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/diversevoices/),  a symposium designed to think about ways to better represent BAME voices in children’s books, archives, museums, prizes and publishing on November 24th.  If you are reading this at first publication, you’ll know that this event has not yet happened, but it’s something I’ve been involved with planning over the last year.  YA authors Alex Wheatle, Catherine Johnson, and Patrice Lawrence are among the invited guests (several other authors, including picture book and middle grade authors, are also participating), and author and publisher Verna Wilkins will also be discussing publishing for a BAME audience.  I’ll be getting ready for the symposium next week, but hope to have a blog or two following the event discussing some of the salient points.  Watch this space!