Tag Archives: Malorie Blackman

“Slight” of Hand: Reading With, and not For, “Race” in Children’s Books

Apologies to those of you who regularly follow my blog; it has been a busy time for me, and indeed, this will be my last blog for a while as I concentrate on other concerns and projects.  But I wanted to conclude this phase of my blog by looking at something I rarely consider in these pages: the “non-issue” book in British children’s literature about people of colour.  In the 2017 Reflecting Realities report, the executive summary highlights the fact that many children’s books with characters of colour are not only about Blackness (or Asianness, or being a minority ethnic member of society in general), they are about the problem of being an ethnic minority in society (national society or global society):

“The fiction titles were categorised according to a set of agreed sub-categories intended to define subject matter. ‘Contemporary Realism’ was a category defined as books set in modern day landscapes/ contexts; these amounted to 91 titles, which accounted for 56% of the fiction submissions. This category therefore featured the highest percentage of BAME character presence. Only 1 of the children’s fiction titles submitted could be classified as comedy, conversely 10% of submitted books featured Social Justice themes. Almost a third of submissions classified as containing social justice issues focused on themes of war and conflict. This very much corresponds with the societal context of recent years and is important to acknowledge, explore and mirror in literature. That said this does however raise some important questions. Do those from minority backgrounds only have a platform when their suffering is being explored? And how does such disproportionate variation of representation skew perspectives of minority groups?” Reflecting Realities 2017 Report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children).

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The 2013 Vintage Classic edition of Arthur Ransome’s 1936 Carnegie Medal-winning Pigeon Post. One of the reasons that the medal matters is that Carnegie winners tend to stay in print for decades.

This is also an issue that has come up with regard to the CILIP Carnegie medal; if a book is not about a Serious Issue, then recently it has rarely been considered for nomination, let alone the award.  Alison Brumwell, chair of this year’s judging panel, commented about the books on the longlist, “The forty books selected by judges offer intimate insights into family life, superb world-building and thoughtful, incisive explorations of complex themes and issues” (https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2019_longlists_announced.html). This award preference for complexity of themes and issues can be found across children’s books—authors such as Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series (the first of which appeared in 2014), rarely appear in nominations, despite wide success with readers, diversity in characters, and a “literary” style (by which I mean, endpaper maps and literary allusions and a twist in the traditional tale-type) that the Carnegie judges have tended to favour.  It was not always thus; in fact, the first winner, Pigeon Post (1936), was one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; Lucy Pearson describes it as “deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history” (https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/pigeon-post/) but certainly not an “issue” book in the same way that Sarah Crossan’s One (the 2016 Carnegie winner) or Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (the 2015 Carnegie winner) are.  The emphasis on issue-based literature, mostly for older readers, and the preference for it from both publishers and award committees encourage authors of colour to write about “issues” in the hope of gaining literary success.

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Tanya Landman’s Carnegie-medal winner announces its Serious Issue on the front cover. Notably, the book is by a white author and set in America rather than Britain; to date no British author of colour has ever won the Carnegie.

Therefore, I want to focus the rest of this blog on two authors who have recently published books which might be considered “slight” by, not just award judges, but reviewers, teachers and librarians as well.  Malorie Blackman and Patrice Lawrence have both written “issue” books for older readers that the Carnegie medal process ignored anyway; Blackman’s 2001 Noughts and Crosses, often considered her most significant book; and Patrice Lawrence’s 2016 Orangeboy, which won the Waterstone’s prize, were not shortlisted.  Both of these books considered questions of racial identity and power structures, among other things.  But their recent books for the publisher Barrington Stoke are very different.  Blackman’s Ellie and the Cat (2019, illustrated by Matt Robertson, originally published in 1994 as Elaine, You’re a Brat by Orchard Books) concerns, according to the back cover list of themes, “Cats, Magic, Friendship”.  Lawrence’s Toad Attack! (2019, illustrated by Becka Moor) lists “Friendship, Toads, Tricks” as its themes.  These themes, combined with book covers that depict smiling children and animals drawn in cartoon-like fashion, indicate right away that these books are not going to deal with “serious” issues or be Carnegie-contenders.

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The plots of these books bear out the promise of the covers.  Ellie and the Cat is set in contemporary times, but it is a fairytale-like story with a wise woman (Ellie’s grandmother) who teaches “the rudest, most disagreeable child I have ever met” (12)—her granddaughter, Ellie—to behave through the use of a transformation, a quest, and the help of magical, talking animals.  Lawrence’s toads, on the other hand, do not talk, but they cause havoc for protagonists Leo and Rosa, who must discover both how to stop the hundreds of giant toads from destroying local gardens, and how to stop the destruction of the toads themselves by angry mobs.  Typical for Barrington Stoke books, these two are short (both resolve in under 75 pages), with relatively simple vocabulary and high readability.  The stories follow in the tradition of humorous, magical or hyperbolic books with mildly-delivered messages about good behavior or living in society, such as Gillian Cross’s Jason Banks and the Pumpkin of Doom (also Barrington Stoke, 2018) or even older stories by authors like Dorothy Edwards or Dick King-Smith.

The difference is that Blackman’s and Lawrence’s books have protagonists of colour.  Ellie and Leo are (at least partly—Leo has a white mother and grandfather) Black British heritage, and Rosa is British Asian.  But in many ways, that is the ONLY difference.  These books are not about “being” Black or Asian, and they certainly are not about the problem of being an ethnic minority.  It is not a new phenomenon to include British children of colour in stories such as these (Gillian Cross had a school series first published in the early 1980s that included Clipper, a Black British girl), but they have typically featured as parts of a gang, or sidekicks.  What Lawrence and Blackman do in these books is foreground the protagonists of colour, and the illustrators follow suit by keeping them prominent and central in the illustrations throughout.  Readers are not reading about the problem of being Black or Asian British, but they are reading about being Black or Asian British.  Lawrence and Blackman give readers the opportunity to see characters of colour in leading roles, part of humorous situations and allowed to problem-solve in a way that does not focus on identity.  These books may appear slight, but they perform an important role: they make being Black and Asian part of being British, in contrast with a publishing and awards industry that want to make them only Black British or only British Asian.  And this is a change, a sleight-of-hand if you will, which, over the long term, could have more impact than any individual medal-winning book.

Brown Bombers? What Readers Expect, and What Viewers Get

This week, the comics publisher Abrams withdrew plans to publish a graphic version of a short story by Jack Gantos, “A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library.”  The story was originally published in 2016 by Walker Books, in a collection entitled Here I Stand: Stories that Speak for Freedom.  The collection of short stories was edited by Amnesty International, in order to encourage readers to think about their human rights.  Nicky Parker, the education director for Amnesty International UK, wrote in an afterword to the collection, “This book is inspired by the fact that human rights can be denied or abused even in countries like the UK or the USA, and we need to defend them constantly.  Stories and poetry are a wonderful way of making us think, helping us understand the world and other people.  More than that, they can inspire our empathy—which we need if we’re to overcome prejudice” (Here I Stand 310).

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Abrams Publishing pulled the graphic novel version of this story after protestors objected to the illustrations.

I quote Parker at length because the original story written by Gantos did not, to my knowledge, raise the same kind of protest that the graphic version has done, and I think it’s important to understand why.  Gantos’s short story begins with the simple sentence, “He is a boy and he is bored” (100).  A reader will learn over the course of the eight-page story that the boy is young, and that he cannot read, and that he is part of some religious or faith-based group that believes that those who have different faiths should be destroyed.  He lives in a place that has libraries, and “place[s] of worship” (101) and markets.  We are not told what the boy looks like, other than that he is wearing a red jacket and he is “little” (103).  We are not told where the town is. The reader may make assumptions about the suicide bomber, but the textual evidence will not support a definitive racial, ethnic or national origin for the boy.  In fact, if anything, the author’s own note at the end of the story problematizes any assumptions that readers might have: Gantos indicates that the inspiration for his story was the French Enlightenment philosopher, Denis Diderot.  Diderot, who Gantos suggests, “wrote a good bit on religious fanaticism” (108) was concerned with white, European, Catholic fanaticism.  In his writings, Diderot discusses the logical inconsistencies within Christianity, and the ways that these inconsistencies are used to inflict pain on other humans.  Gantos’s note reminds the reader that his story could take place anywhere—“even in countries like the UK or the USA,” where indeed, white boys commit terrorist acts against schools, synagogues, and anti-racism protests with alarming frequency.  By failing to give the suicide bomber a definitive identity, Gantos gives readers the opportunity to question or consider their prejudices about who might be a suicide bomber and why.

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The unillustrated version of Gantos’s story originally appeared in this collection produced by Amnesty International.

Turning Gantos’s story into a graphic novel, however, removes the potential for the bomber to be an “every boy”.  Dave McKean, who illustrated for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, depicts the suicide bomber as a brown boy, and many assumed that he was not just brown, but Muslim (I have only seen the front cover of the graphic version, so don’t know whether other clues in the illustrations suggested the boy was Muslim).  A thousand people signed a letter to the publisher, written by the Asian Author Alliance, calling for the book to be scrapped, saying the book was “steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/26/a-suicide-bomber-sits-in-the-library-comic-pulled-protests-jack-gantos-dave-mckean).  In pulling the text, the publisher and the illustrator agreed that they had erred in creating a book that reinforced, rather than challenged stereotypes.

The discussion about Gantos’s story and the graphic novel version of it brought to mind another story for young readers about a terrorist which was eventually turned into a graphic novel: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (2001). Like “Suicide Bomber,” Blackman’s story includes a conflicted young terrorist, but there are many differences that complicate Noughts and Crosses.  The terrorist in Blackman’s story is a racial terrorist, reacting to an unequal society rather than a difference in belief systems.  He carries out and succeeds in his terrorist act, and is eventually hanged for it.

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Novelist Malorie Blackman also wrote about a young terrorist involved in a bombing.

The terrorist in Blackman’s novel is also white.

Callum MacGregor, Noughts and Crosses’ male protagonist, is not the bomber in the story–it is actually his father and brother who plant the bomb–but he becomes a part of their terrorist organization.  Although he is white, he is not like those the media in the US and UK refuse to call terrorists (“lone wolf” is often the preferred term): the disaffected white males who attack their own peers in a school or movie theater, or drive cars into peaceful protests, or go on shooting rampages in synagogues or Jewish daycare centers.  He is a member of the oppressed in Noughts and Crosses, a novel set in an alternate universe where Black people are in charge and white people lack access to freedom and power.  Blackman’s novel deliberately makes the point that racism is about power, not innate inferiority/superiority.  By only referring to Callum’s whiteness from time to time in the novel, she also requires the reader to constantly revise assumptions about race.  I have taught this novel several times, and white students as well as Black have told me they had to keep reminding themselves that Callum was white.  Our assumptions about race, power and terrorism are that deeply engrained.  It is this constant revisioning that makes Blackman’s novel so effective.

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The graphic novel version does not force assumptions to be constantly questioned.

It is also, paradoxically, what makes the graphic novel version less successful.  Even though Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s 2015 graphic novel follows Blackman’s story and reproduces its reversed racial hierarchy, the reader no longer needs to repeatedly reconsider what a terrorist looks like, because the pictures show them.  But because Blackman’s novel is set in an alternate world rather than being a version of our contemporary one, the viewer of the graphic novel also can separate these two worlds.  They can think, “Callum is a white terrorist in Blackman’s book, but that is a different world from ours”.  The illustrator’s vision erases the need for the reader to revision.

Jack Gantos concludes his author’s note following “Suicide Bomber” with a quotation from Diderot: “But who shall be the master, the writer or the reader?” (108).  In the best situation, both are master, because the writer presents a range of possibilities and the reader is open to thinking about those possibilities.  The Barthesian failure of both of the graphic novels I discuss here is the closing off of these possibilities, forcing us to accept a world in which suicide bombers come in one color only.

Not Riding the Bus Alone: Doctor Who, Rosa Parks and Malorie Blackman

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Blackman had previously written this Doctor Who story in honor of the 50th anniversary of the series; it featured the seventh doctor.

This past week’s episode of “Doctor Who” was co-written (with Chris Chibnell) by the phenomenally talented Malorie Blackman, author of Noughts and Crosses and British Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, and concerned the 1955 Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, catalyzed by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus and her subsequent arrest.  The episode was of course fantastic, tense and taut in its plotting, horrifying in its historical details, and deeply emotional.  It is good for the audience of “Doctor Who” to be reminded that there was a time, not so long ago, when giving a white lady back her glove could get a Black kid threatened with lynching.  (Now, as nine-year-old Jeremy Harvey knows, it “only” results in the police being called: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/13/black-childs-backpack-brushed-up-against-woman-she-called-report-sexual-assault/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.284fbbbe112d.) In typical “Doctor Who” fashion, the episode contains didactically-delivered history, with the Doctor writing up facts on the wall of a whites-only motel as if it were a schoolroom blackboard and her companion Yas, who is mistaken for a Mexican person in 1955 Montgomery, researches details about the bus boycott in a banker’s lamp-lit library.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m pleased to see the show tackling these historical events.

But.

The episode makes a generalization (I’ll not call it an error, given that it is impossible to deliver all the history of a single event in the space of fifty minutes) that turns Rosa Parks’ story into a mythic one; and it also fails to connect Parks’ story to other histories—particularly those in Britain itself.

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Funny, I don’t see Doctor Who sitting anywhere . . .

The generalization is that Rosa Parks made her decision not to stand up on the bus by herself.  In my own childhood, Parks was described as being too tired to get up; recent children’s books have done better about correcting that idea.  Rosa Parks: My Story by Parks herself, with the assistance of Jim Haskins (Puffin 1999) states firmly several times that Parks was tired, but not physically.  Even the back cover proclaims, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  The “Doctor Who” episode does not make this error; the depiction of Parks shows a quietly determined woman, not a tired and elderly one.  But the idea that the Doctor and her companions had to make sure that Parks got on that bus, that night, or the racists would win (and, as the time-traveling villain says to the Doctor’s Black companion Ryan, “your kind” will stay in their place) suggests that the bus boycott was down to the actions of a single woman.  I do not wish to take away from Parks’ courage, but just as in “Doctor Who” she had the support of the Doctor and her companions as she took her stand, Parks in real life did not make a random decision that night: she did not ride that bus alone.

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Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus more than half a year before Parks, but at 15 and pregnant, she was far from the “model minority” that the NAACP needed.

Parks was in fact the secretary of the local NAACP chapter; she was an advisor to the chapter’s youth group, whose members included 15-year-old Claudette Colvin.  Colvin had, the previous March, been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, but because she was young, unwed and pregnant, the NAACP did not see her as a suitable person around whom to organize a boycott—something they had long planned.  Parks had been moved to take a stand in part because of the case of Emmett Till, whose murderers had recently been set free; a rally at the Dexter Street Baptist Church (Martin Luther King, Jr’s church) four days prior to Parks’ action had been organized to discuss how to respond to the violence against Black people and specifically discussed Till’s case.  The “Doctor Who” episode mentions both Till and a “movement”, but the specific connections are not made clear.  This is, I think, unfortunate, because community organization was key to many of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

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Stephenson’s story, and that of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963, would make an excellent children’s history book. Or Doctor Who episode.

Also, I think the episode missed an opportunity to connect Parks’ story with the wider African diasporic community.  At the beginning of the episode, Ryan says in response to the question, who was Rosa Parks, “She was the first Black woman to drive a bus”.  When chastised by Yas, he shrugs and says he didn’t pay attention to her story in school because Parks was American.  The episode works to show how “Rosa Parks changed the world” and thus should be important to all viewers—but this doesn’t really address Ryan’s complaint.  At the conclusion of the episode, the Doctor tells them that not only did Parks change the world, she changed the universe; she then shows them an asteroid named after Parks.  I get the science fiction connection, but it might have been more powerful—and more relevant to Ryan—if the Doctor had explained how Parks’ action had, in 1963, inspired Bristol resident and Black Briton Paul Stephenson to organize the Bristol Bus Boycott, protesting the “colour bar” that kept Black Britons from becoming city bus drivers.  Stephenson writes about how, “Seeing what was happening in the USA I decided we should draw more attention to what was happening here with black people, particularly in Bristol.  I then decided to take on the Bristol Bus Company because it was a symbol of all that was wrong with Bristol as it advocated racism, defended racism and was the most notorious racist employer in the city” (Memoirs of a Black Englishman 51).  The boycott, which was successful, led not only to Afro-Caribbean drivers being hired, but Indian and Pakistani drivers (who were also, at the time, considered Black).  In fact, the first driver to be hired was Raghbir Singh, a Punjabi.  Bringing this connection to Parks’ story up could therefore have connected Black British history with Parks’ efforts—and also shown how communities of colour, including the communities that Doctor Who companions Ryan and Yas belong to, worked together for change.

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The Bristol Bus Station has a plaque to the boycott that shows its leaders, as well as Singh, the first bus driver hired after the boycott ended (far right).

As I said, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, and teared up at the end like many other sentimental viewers (https://metro.co.uk/2018/10/21/doctor-who-fans-left-sobbing-and-inspired-by-rosa-parks-episode-i-have-literal-goosebumps-8061149/).  I can only hope Blackman will get more chances to write for “Doctor Who”—and that next time, she will introduce her viewers to some Black British heroes.  Mary Seacole and Claudia Jones, anyone?