Yinka Adebayo's books depict streetwise black kids in Blytonesque adventures. Elaine Williams discovers how he makes reading relevant to urban youth.
Imagine a tale of pirate treasure buried for hundreds of years, a magic quill that makes predictions come true, and a group of five friends on the trail of Captain Death's booty, scouring Devonshire coves during the school holidays.
Sounds familiar? It's the good, old-fashioned kind of adventure that Enid Blyton would have been proud of - a ripping yarn in which the baddies get their come-uppance. But there the similarity ends. This "Famous Five" have no dog - and they're all black. They're cool kids from a city comprehensive, and their creator is a Nigerian writer.
Yinka Adebayo's Drummond Hill Crew books are becoming a literacy phenomenon, creating readers where readers did not exist before. The series is unique, focusing as it does on black teenagers, and has become a best-seller for The XPress, the black popular-fiction publisher run by the author's brother. A TV dramatisation of the series is due early next year.
Until two years ago, when he became a full-time writer, Yinka was a primary teacher in the London Borough of Brent. He says the Year 6 pupils he taught seemed lost to reading because they did not feel books were relevant to them. "By 11 the majority of boys are very reluctant readers, and it was becoming harder and harder to pick them up."
He started to write his own stories and read them out in class; stories which his daughter, then 13 and a reluctant reader herself, helped him research. The stories were about the youngsters he taught every day - "bad bwoys" who flick their fingers, walk with a bop, and care about being cool. They use language like "biggin' up his chest" (boasting), "criss" (looking good), and "skank" (pull a fast one). The Drummond Hill books are crammed with adolescent humour and concerns. They are funny and entertaining, but also contain anti-smoking and anti-bullying messages. The purpose is clear - to attract children back to reading and to help them make choices between right and wrong.
Boyz to Men focuses on peer group problems and pressure from the bully boys; Livin' Large is a tale about Junior Brown, a new boy who seems a tough nut, but suffers from sickle-cell anaemia. But Yinka also goes for straightforward gung-ho adventures, taking his urban characters to deepest Devon for holidays and school trips. He chooses his Blytonesque locations for a reason.
"These children like to go on holiday and have exciting things happen just like anybody else, and they like to read about such things. I wanted to send out a message to middle England: black kids also belong in those places."
He wants to write for "poor kids who don't have access to books at home and don't see anything relevant to them in the books they are given to read at school". Black adolescents, he believes, "feel excluded by society. They are excluded by teachers because they have a different way of walking and talking; they leave school and they are excluded by the police. Somebody at some point has to say: 'I understand. I am coming from the same background.' I wanted to make books they could identify with and relate to.
"Harry Potter is all very well, but it's a middle-class thing pushed by the media for middle-class kids because they've got the money and they buy the books."
His writing draws on his own experience as a black man. He knows what it is like to be pulled over constantly by the police when he's driving his car - a Mercedes. "I wanted to show young kids that you don't have to be a drug dealer to have a Mercedes. Teachers can have them too. It's about putting forward positive role models. But the police are always suspicious. When I tell them I'm a teacher, they say, 'You don't look like one'."
The books focus on the lives of five friends: the well-heeled Darren, cock-sure and a bit of a bully; Tyrone, the conscientious son of a struggling single mother; Remi, who likes clothes and boys and wants to be a supermodel; Tenisha, sensible, strong-minded, and a bit of a boffin; and Anton, plump, lovable but a bit of a loser. They all go to Drummond Hill Comprehensive, a predominantly black school.
The English and Media Centre in London, which runs in-service training for English teachers across the country, highly recommends the novels for reluctant pubescent readers, particularly boys, for their liveliness and street cred.
Yinka himself is one of five boys from a wealthy family. His father was a broadcaster who fled political unrest in Nigeria during the 1960s. For a nine-year-old boy, it came as something of a shock to be moved from bedsit to bedsit around London - at one point the boys had to remain hidden in student accommodation where children were forbidden. His father retrained and found work as a physical chemist.
School life in Britain also came as a shock. Yinka and his younger brother Dotun (the future publisher) were the butt of name-calling. "Suddenly we were different, we were 'Sambos'. I hated it, it was so negative. I tried to talk to the teachers but they weren't interested, so I started to stick up for myself and for Dotun, who was fairly pacifist. I gained a reputation as a fighter, a troublemaker."
At home, however, the brothers were ruled with a rod of iron by their father, a Seventh Day Adventist who ensured that his sons kept up with their studies. "My father was more English than the English," says Yinka. "We would have to play piano on Sundays and give talks to the family about books we had read. For me books became a great escape; I found I could lose myself in them and be whoever I wanted to be."
All five brothers went to university. Yinka studied economics at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (he originally wanted to work in the City); Dotun went to Essex, became music editor of the black newspaper The Voice and, in 1992, started up The XPress with Victor Headley's bestseller Yardie; Fola studied at King's College and became a physical chemist (like Junior Brown in Livin' Large, he has sickle-cell anaemia); Tayo went to Bristol and is now a barrister; Diran graduated from Oxford and won the Saga prize for his first novel, Some Kind of Black.
Yinka views writing, like his teaching, as a way of giving something back to society. When he left college, he realised "there was really no way I could take a job in the City".
For the past 20 years he has lived in Harlesden, north-west London, near the infamous Stonebridge Estate, "half a mile from the crack wars". Despite having left full-time education, he still runs a "Saturday school" to help children from the estate through their GCSEs. He also has a busy schedule of school readings; he has already visited more than 200 in the Midlands and London, including Eltham where Stephen Lawrence was murdered. The children get more than a reading session. Yinka was raised in the African oral tradition, and he acts out his books, strutting around, ducking and pointing and charming with his broad grin. I saw 70 Year 7 pupils at Acton High School in west London spellbound by his storytelling, surprised and delighted that he understood their language and behaviour. White pupils also enjoy the performances and books: "They see kids just like themselves with concerns just like theirs," says Yinka.
A Drummond Hill Book Club was recently formed and quickly attracted hundreds of members. He has also received thousands of letters. "I received one from a black girl living in a white area in the North-east," he says. "She said she often lay in bed crying at night about being different, about bullying. She was just thankful that at last somebody was writing about somebody like her."
Children at Acton High obviously feel the same. According to 11-year-old Kayley Keen: "He's funny and exciting and he's writing about kids like us, like kids in this school."
The Drummond Hill Crew books include: 'Livin' Large', 'Boyz to Men', 'Ragga to Riches', 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number' and 'The Big Diss' (The XPress pound;3.99 each). For membership of the Drummond Hill Book Club, write to: The XPress, 6 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NU.