Malorie Blackman: “Children’s books still have a long way to go before they are truly diverse.”
“I once had a bookseller tell me, ‘Your books are just for black children and we don’t have that many black children in this area,'” Malorie Blackman says.
She’s serious. It’s serious. We’re silent; then she laughs, quickly. “I haven’t had this said to me in quite some time,” she says, “but we still have a way to go in this country to diversify books. And that isn’t just for books, that’s films and TV, too.”
How wrong can a bookseller be? Malorie gets it: her books are scary, funny, disgusting and romantic and the teenagers in them match that; they are courageous, self-doubting, funny, stupid people, as real and complex as anyone you meet in real life. They’re people you’d quite like to become.
So how do you become Malorie Blackman? She thinks. “There is a saying: ‘the child is parent to the adult’, which means whatever happens to you as a child or teenager affects the adult you become. You are forged in your history. And fiction is an incredibly important force in shaping children and that’s why fiction needs to be diverse.”
We’re chatting on the eve of her talk about human rights and identity in fiction at the Edinburgh international books festival, a discussion (with the Guardian’s Book Doctor, Julia Eccleshare) sponsored by Amnesty International. This isn’t some hashed together speech; as Malorie puts it, she “has been going on about this for 24 years”.
“Books allows you to see the world through the eyes of others,” she says. “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while. So this is not about writing certain books for certain people, they should be read by everybody.”
So what did she read that shaped her? “How long have you got?” she laughs before listing the Narnia books, Heidi and Little Women as early favourites. “I loved seeing the world through other cultures, other religions, other colours.”
Later on she dabbled in westerns and eventually found science fiction, through John Wyndham’s book Chocky. “By then I had worked my way through the children’s library,” she says (she was 11),”so the librarian gave me Jane Eyre and Rebecca, then all of Agatha Christie.”
Eventually Malorie bypassed the librarian and went into the adult section herself. “I read a lot of highly unsuitable books for an 11-year-old,” she chuckles. “I was desperate to read as widely as possible. I thought, ‘There are so many places I am never going to get the chance to visit, but I can if I read them.’ And I did. I could go anywhere in the world – and off it – by reading.”
The first time she went into a bookshop, she was 14 years old. “I was always at my local libraries,” she says, “and if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be talking right now. There is no way I would be a writer without libraries.”
After various careers, her first book was published in 1990 and she kept going, writing multiple children’s books a year. But her most famous series, dystopian teen thriller
Noughts and Crosses, was an idea burning in the back of her mind for almost a decade, after the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in south London.
“I remember feeling so angry about how the Lawrence family had been treated and I had to deal with things that happened in my childhood. I wanted to write a book specifically about the legacy of slavery and racism. But I thought, ‘How can I do this so people can come to it and not know what is going to happen before they’ve even read a word?’
Noughts and Crosses came out in 2001, full of all the science fiction and mythology Malorie read as a child. As humans evolve with Pangea still intact, Africa enslaves the Europeans, leading to an alternate Britain where black people rule the white minority.
Regardless of its setting, the books sell all around the world. “What I love is when people in Ireland write to me, saying ‘Oh, you’re talking about Protestants and Catholics’. People in Israel ask me, ‘Are you talking about Jewish people and the Palestinians?’ I find that so flattering, that people are taking what they need from it and applying it to their own lives.”
“Growing up, I was told I didn’t belong, that I should go back to where I came from, when I was born in Clapham – Callum tackles this for me,” she says, naming the white protagonist of the series. “But the book had to be about real people. There were so many things I wanted to put in but I had to make sure it didn’t seem like I was having a thinly disguised say,” she says, putting emphasis on the final world as if it is dirty. “First and foremost it had to be a proper story.”
Malorie mention a friend, who is wheelchair-bound. “All people see is the wheelchair. Fiction needs to tackle that: having stories with people in wheelchairs, where the wheelchair has nothing to do with the story. I wanted to write books about black children where race had nothing to do with the story – just doing all the things white children did in stories I read as a child.”
Looking at YA bookshelves, it doesn’t seem like Malorie is alone in diversifying stories. Teen author heavyweights like David Levithan and Patrick Ness write about gay protagonists. John Green’s popular The Fault in Our Stars deals with sick and disabled teens. Female leads are kicking stereotypes up the proverbial. Doesn’t she think teens today have it okay?
“No,” she says immediately. “We have a long way to go. There are more now than there were 24 years ago when I started writing, but if you were to ask me for a title of a book that features a Chinese British or Japanese British protagonist, I would struggle.”
“There is still an attitude among some editors and booksellers that they can only sell a book to the people they decide a book is aimed at,” she says, her voice rising. “But being British means a lot of things and especially at the moment, people need to feel they have a stake in society. A brilliant way to do that is through books.”
Will she be doing that again in her own books soon? She laughs at the thinly veiled attempt for a scoop. “It has taken a bit of a backseat while I am children’s laureate but I am hoping it will be out next year,” she says, kindly. What’s that sound? It’s a sigh of relief from YA readers, all around the world.