The handover: Julia Donaldson presenting Malorie Blackman with her Laureate medal today in London – terrible picture, as usual, for which the usual apologies
Tom wrote about Malorie Blackman’s appointment as Waterstones Children’s Laureate earlier today, including, in his post, a couple of good links, while I was on a train to Edinburgh. I was very happy to have been at the ceremony, so thought that I would add this postscript.
I’m recently back from the Hay Festival (a report follows). I spent a week in the area with my family on a sort of mix of holiday and work (well, I say “mix”, but the balance wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for…). I have one child (aged 12) who is a bit less interested in books and reading than the other, so I am always particularly willing to take her to Hay Festival events that she’s keen to go to.
In fact, there was just one event she said she really, really wanted to go to: Malorie Blackman’s event in which she spoke about about her new novel, Noble Conflict. My daughter has read many Malorie Blackman novels, but she loves, in particular, the Noughts and Crosses sequence.
Going to the event with my daughter reminded me of what an amazing speaker Malorie is. I have, in my time as a publisher, had the privilege of publishing only one book by her (Tell Me No Lies, published when I was MD at Macmillan), and I hadn’t heard her speak for many years.
Her enthusiasm, her lack of pretension, her frankness and her warmth combined to make a stage presence that was compelling for the whole audience, regardless of age.
That enthusiasm, lack of pretension, frankness and warmth all make her a terrific ambassador for children and their reading.
But here are other things about Malorie that make her potential to make a contribution as Children’s Laureate timely and unique.
At Hay, Malorie talked about her career as a computer programmer. I don’t know, or know of, any other major children’s author who’s been a computer programmer. Talking in her Hay event about the big ideas behind Noughts and Crosses, she spliced video footage of the Little Rock Nine with footage from the Holy Cross Dispute, vividly emphasising, to my child, at least, the continuing presence of segregation and hatred. Today, she read her acceptance speech from an iPad. In a context in which more and more children are reading on screen and, arguably, the definition of literacy is changing, to have someone who embraces and is unafraid of screens and multimedia is exciting.
Malorie is our eighth Children’s Laureate and the first who isn’t white. Tinie Tempah describes her, in Written in the Stars, as “just a writer from the ghetto” like himself. At her Hay event, Malorie spoke – with humour as well as recollected pain – about the abuse she’d suffered as a child (being told to go back to where she came from – “to Clapham?” wondered Malorie) and the anger she’d felt as a teenager. She spoke of her frustration at not seeing herself represented in the books she read as a child, and her commitment to doing what she can to redress that balance. Perhaps a quarter of the UK’s school children are not white, and I hope that this celebration of someone some of whose experiences and whose books may reflect some of their own realities is inspiring and exciting for them. My daughter, though, is white, and Malorie is, of course, writing for her too. My child’s understanding of race is informed primarily by her experience of being a child in ethnically diverse schools in Central London, but it’s been deepened by her reading, and by her reading of Malorie’s books. Today, in her acceptance speech, Malorie said, “Books not only helped me see through the eyes of others, they made my own vision sharper”, and that is, I think, something that she’s brought to my daughter too.
She writes and reads, and is happy to celebrate – a really wide range of genres
At Hay, Malorie talked about overcoming her own resistance to reading genres she’d prejudged as not being for her. She gave the example of a novel that was a Western (I am sorry: I don’t remember the title, though she did mention it, and I am aware of what that says about the degree to which my own mind is closed to Westerns) that she said she’d turned up her nose at initially, but then read and loved. When asked by a teenager in the audience which of her books she’d recommend they read, she said, “Well, it depends what you’re into”, and went through the diverse genres that she writes in. Today, in her acceptance speech, she told a story about having a comic that she was reading snatched out of her hands and torn up in front of her by a teacher who failed to recognise reading a comic as… reading. Malorie said, “Reading comics made my love of stories burn bigger and brighter”.
She’s not from a privileged background, and so experienced herself the unique potential of libraries to introduce children who don’t go to bookshops to books
Julia Donaldson’s work celebrating and campaigning for libraries was a big part of her laureateship, so I know that Malorie’s declaration that she was going to fight for libraries doesn’t represent a change of direction. Both at Hay and in her acceptance speech today, though, Malorie spoke about the importance of Lewisham and Deptford libraries to her as a child. At Hay, she spoke about the way she shuttled her way between these libraries at weekends, checking out as many books as possible. She said today that she hadn’t been into a bookshop until she was a teenager, so it was libraries that made her a reader, and “introduced me to the life-changing world of literature… Books inspired me and taught me to aspire.”
Today, she declared her aim: to get “more children reading more”, by “making books irresistable” and by “widening the reading gaze and horizons of every child”.
Sounds good to me.