Tag Archives: Stephen Lawrence

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!

Mixed Messages: The Role of the Multiracial Character in Children’s Literature

In 19th and early 20th century children’s literature, the multiracial character generally evoked one of two responses: fear, or pity. Tom Sawyer’s Injun Joe, for example, was much feared by Tom and his gang, Tom even having nightmares about the character coming to get him. In Caddie Woodlawn, the children of an Indian mother and white father are “half savage” and the recipient of Caddie’s attempts to “civilize” them by paying for new clothes. Other examples can be found in British Empire literature—the “ugly mulatto” being a stock character of fear in books by G.A. Henty, H. Rider Haggard, and others; and the pitiable female “half-breed” or “mulatto” who cannot ultimately be saved by the white hero also figures in the works of these authors.

After World War II, as civil rights in the US and changing immigration patterns in Britain meant increasing, often hostile, interaction between racial groups, the multiracial character in children’s literature nearly disappeared for a time. But a generation later, many things had changed. More and more children were born who had parents of different races, but it was unclear where they would fit in to a post-civil rights society. Both American and British authors produced books dealing with this issue, but for this blog, I’m just going to look at two from Britain: Anthony Masters’ Streetwise (London: Methuen, 1987), and Jacqueline Roy’s Soul Daddy (London: Collins, 1990).

Racial tensions

Brixton Riots 1981

That these two books appeared at roughly the same moment is not an accident. During Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership, race relations between white Britons and a new generation of born-and-bred Britons with Afro- and Indo-Caribbean ancestry were at a low point. Particularly in terms of relations between the (mostly white) London Metropolitan Police, who Thatcher had empowered with the revival of the “sus” laws, and the Black British community, tensions were high. Governmental reports had called for a focus in the schools on “multiculturalism” but most people felt that the emphasis was token at best, and assimilationist at worst. The multiracial character in children’s books at this time was employed—by both Black and White authors—as the receptacle for British fears and hopes about the possibilities of racial harmony in the country.

This is a story about race? Illustration by David Legge.

This is a story about race? Illustration by David Legge.

Streetwise’s author, Anthony Masters, is a white English writer of action-driven fiction for boys. The central character of this book, Sam, is a white English boy who finds out that his policeman father, killed under mysterious circumstances, had another family—with a black woman. This has been kept secret for a long time, because although everyone (including Sam’s grandmother and mother) think that the other woman is a nice person, if it was found out on the force that a white police officer had a child with a black woman, it would “stir up trouble” (23). Sam is uncertain about his new-found multiracial half-brother. Additionally, he is disturbed by dreams of a person he calls “Albino Man,” a local man who owns an old and crumbling cinema. Albino Man’s primary fearful characteristic seems to be his lack of color where color should be. Sam must confront these fears that center on race. Albino Man holds the key to finding his father’s killer. Once the secret comes out, it is Sam and his mother who are in danger, and Sam’s half-brother Winston rescues Sam’s mother from a fire set by the killers. In the rescue process, Sam’s mother’s face became “black—black like Winston” (116). Of course black skin and charred skin are not the same at all, but the implausible plot and descriptions aside, this is a story about fear of not knowing how to categorize someone racially; either they are supposed to be black but look white (or vice versa), or they are a white boy’s brother but they look black. Sam learns that his very survival means accepting people despite how “different” they may look from him.

You've got to have soul to be a whole person.

You’ve got to have soul to be a whole person.

Soul Daddy, written only a few years later, has a multiracial author in Roy and a multiracial main character, a twin named Hannah who (like Sam) finds out that her father had another family with another woman. Hannah has grown up with her white mother, but her black father has returned to the house with his daughter who is only slightly younger than Hannah. Hannah has difficulty reconciling the change in her household, in part because her black half-sister brings disturbing ideas to Hannah’s world. Nicola questions why they have to live in the all-white suburbs, reads books by black authors, and speaks up in class about the need to include black history in the curriculum. Hannah runs away, but ends up in Brixton, where her father’s parents live. She suddenly “felt I belonged” (222) and can return home where to successfully integrate her black and white halves. Like Streetwise, the message of Soul Daddy is that integration is the way forward, although Roy’s version sweeps wider and urges the school systems as well as individual families to change: “Once, they’d spit on you in the street, but now the hostility was taking a less visible, more secret form . . . It was present in an education system which suppressed black history and achievement and denied black ability to learn” (134). Most people, Roy argues, “pretended it [discrimination] didn’t exist and that Britain was a multicultural society” (134). Both her book and Anthony Masters’ book reflect a still-racially divided Britain, and the hope that integration of black and white together (particularly in the form of the multiracial character) could unite and ultimately save Britain and the British people.

The multiracial character in the 1980s and 1990s was invested with responsibility for society’s problems, but also for possible solutions to these problems. Institutions in these books, such as education and law enforcement, are unable to deal with the “other” and only the character with the ability to function in either racial “camp” can hope to bring about harmony. But the emphasis on individual responsibility for racial harmony would be tested as the 1990s continued, and institutions continued to fail the Black British population.  Individuals cannot bring about racial harmony if institutions don’t support them–as Stephen Lawrence and his family found out.

 Stephen Lawrence, murdered by white boys in 1993.