New Children's Laureate is announced

7th June 2013 at 01:00
Malorie Blackman is relishing opportunity to spark curiosity

Malorie Blackman did not become a writer just to make things up. She wanted to write about a real world, one that included black children like her who instead of "being black" got to become spies or time-travelling adventurers, just like white characters.

"All those thousands of books I read as a child, I didn't read a single book that featured a black child," she says. "I fell in love with the world of literature but I was invisible within it. I wanted to write mysteries, thrillers, whodunnits, which happened to feature black characters, because I'd missed that as a child.

"That's what got me through those rejections. I was not going to give up, that was my driving force."

Blackman, 51, is today one of the UK's most acclaimed and prolific children's authors and screenwriters. She was appointed OBE in 2005 and has received the Eleanor Farjeon children's literature award, along with numerous children's book prizes and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award.

And this week she has been named as the eighth UK Children's Laureate, after the two-year tenure of Julia Donaldson. Blackman describes the honour as incredibly exciting and slightly daunting: other laureates include Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Rosen and Michael Morpurgo.

The post, accompanied by a pound;15,000 bursary, is given in recognition of outstanding achievement, but through the energy of the previous incumbents it has become a way of championing children's interests.

Blackman is keen to promote the return of story time in primary schools (for 5- to 11-year-olds) for 10 minutes a day, every day. She also wants to encourage older students to use stories as a springboard to creative work, not just in their own writing but in art, music and drama, too. And she is keen to take the reins from Donaldson in campaigning for library provision.

Born in London, Blackman is the middle of five children. Her first school was Churchfields Primary School in Beckenham, in the southeast of the city. "I remember at Churchfields we would all gather around and sit on the carpet and the teacher would read us a story," she says. "My love of stories comes from that time when I was read to."

She also started writing. "I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged me and gave me feedback. Once I wrote a poem about the jungle and the teacher said I could read it at parents' evening. So, to rehearse it, she called me up to the front of the class.

"I just stood there saying nothing. `Why aren't you reading it?' she asked. I said, `Because I'm shy.' And the whole class cracked up, laughing. I thought, `That's it. I am never writing another poem.' But I did do it at parents' evening and got a big clap." Blackman still remembers the closing refrain: "and the bright and yellow sungiving life to everyone".

Blackman's parents were born and grew up in Barbados. Her mother, Ruby, was a seamstress in a pyjama factory and her father, Joe, worked as a bus driver. They had books at home - all non-fiction, about animals, nature, space. "Dad was not a great fan of fiction," she says. "He thought it was an utter waste of time because it was not true. Education, for him, was about getting facts into yourself."

But Blackman, resourceful and determined, discovered the local library. "From the time I was about 7, I would live down the library. I'd make myself a packed lunch, shout, `Bye, Mum!' She would reply, `See you later,' and off I'd go. I would read books all day."

As Blackman grew up, education became more complicated. She loved English and science but remembers finding history lessons painful. She asked her teacher why they couldn't learn about black scientists or pioneers. "Because there aren't any" came the answer. It wasn't until she was in her twenties that she discovered this was not the case.

The exchange made it almost verbatim into her best-known book, Noughts amp; Crosses, a page-turner that explores a world in which a black girl, Sephy, who is a member of the power-wielding elite known as Crosses, falls in love with Callum, a white-skinned, and thus second-class, Nought boy.

Blackman is quick to praise the many teachers who inspired her - so much so that she long held a dream of joining them and becoming an English teacher herself. But her plans were thrown off course when a teacher told her "black people do not become teachers". She started and then dropped out of a business studies course and got a job working with computers instead.

"I just loved technology. It was exciting and moving very quickly. Every year there was a new innovation. I loved writing code and seeing it translated into whatever program you wanted."

But despite advancing in her career, the excitement wore off and writing became increasingly important. She wrote eight or nine books before finding a publisher for Not So Stupid!, a collection of science-fiction stories, in 1990. Then Blackman and her Scottish husband, Neil, decided that she would take a year off to see if she could make it as a writer.

She made it. Amanda Craig, writing in The Times, said of Noughts amp; Crosses: "Filled with love, sorrow, suffering and stinging satire on injustice it is a quite remarkable novel, not least in tackling the subject of race with brilliant simplicity . children's fiction has long been a repository of great satirical writing, but Blackman's trilogy takes it to levels unseen since (George) Orwell's 1984."

The books - there are four following the characters through the generations, plus a short story written for World Book Day - are now recommended reading in many schools and Blackman is on the English national curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds. "Students write to me and I think, `I'm very sorry,'" she says, laughing. "`I didn't mean for my book to become your homework.'"

It is the first time that the post of Children's Laureate has gone to a young adult author - a genre currently riding high thanks to the success of the Twilight and Hunger Games series.

Blackman will be visiting schools and has a simple goal to get children reading more. And she wants that reading to spark their curiosity. "If people are looking for answers, they won't find them in my books," she says. "I've never pretended to have all the answers but I do want to ask those questions and present the topics and look for the answers."

It sounds as if she would have been the perfect teacher.


Born: 1962, in London.

Books: More than 60, including Not So Stupid!, Hacker, Pig-Heart Boy, the Noughts amp; Crosses series and Noble Conflict.

Awards and appointments:

2000: Best children's drama Bafta for adaptation of Pig-Heart Boy.

2002: Red House Children's Book Award for Noughts amp; Crosses.

2005: Eleanor Farjeon Award for contribution to children's books.

2008: OBE for services to children's literature.

2013-15: Children's Laureate.

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