Review: Children's books

2nd February 2001 at 00:00

It's been a long time since Malorie Blackman has been told by bookshop assistants or school librarians at book fairs "your books don't sell as well as normal books". These days booksellers would not risk putting her thrillers and adventure stories, in which the child characters are black as a matter of course, on the "multicultural" shelf rather than under "children's fiction".

She accepts invitations for school book weeks - but not "multicultural weeks" ("I'll talk about books and writing but I'm not there to give everyone the answers on the same old issues") and next week joins Jamila Gavin, whose historical novel Coram Boy won the Whitbread Children's Book Award last week, to address children's publishers on letting black writers out of the multicultural box. Their message will be: been there, done that, let's move on.

But Blackman's latest novel, Noughts amp; Crosses, published this week, breaks the author's own rules by directly challenging racism and making young people the agents of change. Previously the black children in her books have been up against school bullies, real and virtual crooks, oppressive adults and, in 1997's Pig-Heart Boy, public ignorance. But she has avoided setting them adults' problems to solve. Noughts amp; Crosses is pitched at older readers - probably 14-plus - and is, she says, "my most personal and ambitious book". She adds: "It shows that you can do your bit to change things, and that while not everyone can be Martin Luther King, your bit is important."
The novel paints a bleak picture of a racially segregated society - a parallel contemporary UK with glimpses of South Africa under apartheid and the Deep South during the civil rights struggle, in which the ruling Crosses control the underclass noughts.

The opening chapters haul readers kicking and screaming out of their comfort zones, challenging easy assumptions as the framework is set up for an attempt by young lovers to defeat the system. Sephy, daughter of a Cross leader, grows up alongside Callum, a nought and the son of a family servant. It takes longer than they expect to change the world: most of the job remains to be done in the sequel, on which Blackman is working.

While the scenario is extreme, the characters' agonising identity struggles and the hierarchies within the two groups are true to life. Malorie's depiction of the upwardly mobile noughts attached to Sephy's household is modelled on the division between house slaves and field slaves in the plantations of the South. While Callum believes, at first, in "education before liberation", his brother joins a militant resistance group.

Most crucially, Callum's experience when he battles his way into Sephy's good school only to be dismissed as a failure, mirrors Blackman's own. "My father said education was the way forward and gave us extra homework. Then, at grammar school, if I got a good mark I was told I didn't deserve it. I wasn't expected to do well."

An urge to create "the books I had missed when I was a kid" - exciting page-turners, mostly for nine to 13-year-olds, in which the world is not white - drew Blackman to writing after a first career as a database manager. She received 82 rejection letters for various books before she succeeded in publishing Not So Stupid!. Later, she won a battle with a publisher to prevent the children in another early book being illustrated as white.

Jamila Gavin was born in India and came to England for secondary school ("my father was passionately Indian and my mother was passionately English"). She studied at Trinity College of Music, London, then moved to Gloucestershire, where she still lives, to have her family. She noticed the gaps on the bookshelves when her children were growing up in the early Seventies. "I could see no books for younger children that reflected society as it was. I had always written in the way that people have ideas and fill notebooks, but this pushed me into being a writer. My first book, The Magic Orange Tree, was a collection of stories with Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Polish, Pakistani and Caribbean characters."

Coram Boy is the latest in a string of substantial novels for older readers including The Wormholers and an Anglo-Indian trilogy, The Wheel of Surya, The Eye of the Horse and The Track of the Wind. "I would argue that my so-called multicultural stories are totally English. The trilogy is about the end of Empire, and most of the first two books are set in London."

Coram Boy, set in London and Gloucester in the 18th century (it features an early performance of Handel's Messiah), could be said to be about the beginning of Empire as well as about the transforming power of music, divisions between fathers and sons and the brutal treatment of children in this period. The arch-villain is a pedlar who trades in humans. He murders the illegitimate babies whose desperate mothers had paid him to deliver them to Thomas Coram's London hospital for foundlings and, later, also profits from the sale of Coram girls to brothels and from the slave trade (one of the Coram boys in the book, Toby, is born on a slave ship). Even landowners seem powerless against extortion disguised as philanthropy. The lady of the manor's struggle to reform the hell-hole parish orphanage brings to mind the kind of not-in-my-back-yard arguments that surface in today's debates on asylum seekers.

"Having sat on a parish council, I've noticed what gets in the way of even straightforward philanthropy. there's always a `yes, but'," says Gavin.
Malorie Blackman adds: "I long for the day when race is no longer an issue. I would love people to read Noughts amp; Crosses and say they don't know what I'm talking about. I do believe we've moved forward but there's still a long way to go. I was called a jungle bunny recently for the first time in ages by a woman of about 60, so I wonder if we've just got to wait for the older ones to die."

Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin is published by Mammoth pound;5.99
Noughts amp; Crosses by Malorie Blackman is published by Doubleday pound;10.99

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