Three cheers for new children's laureate Malorie Blackman - an author who likes and trusts children

At a time when creative thought is recast as “dumbing down”, writers like Malorie Blackman are more important than ever. In a digital age it sounds somewhat naff and misty-eyed to claim that “books give us power” but they do.

New children’s laureate Malorie Blackman traces her love of libraries back to her father’s attitude to reading:

“We had a few non-fiction books at home, but my dad was of the opinion that fiction was a complete and utter waste of time because it wasn't real - so what was the point of reading it?

“And so as a consequence, I lived down at my local library. I think he was absolutely wrong because I learnt more about people and relating and communicating with other people through fiction books than I ever did though non-fiction.”

Fiction captures something that non-fiction – riven with imaginative gaps you’re not allowed to fill – never can. The fiction you read as a child is, I think, particularly powerful. At a time when you’ve yet to experience much of real life, you get to try out different experiential pathways and emotions. You learn to analyse and to empathise. You see your own life in story-form. It’s a special kind of magic – special, that is, unless it’s more Thomas the Bloody Tank Engine.

Tempting though it is to romanticise the transformative power of reading, it’s always worth remembering that some children’s books can exert a less than positive influence. For instance, my eldest son turns into a total sod whenever he’s been reading too much Horrid Henry. As for me, the Sweet Valley High brain-rot I devoured in my tweens has a lot to answer for (some small part of me still wants to apologise for not being a blonde, blue-green-eyed cheerleader twin – or failing that, at least a “perfect size six”). So far my youngest child remains unresponsive to Thomas the Tank Engine but like many parents, I fear the “Really Useful Engine” strivers-vs-skivers indoctrination of the later books will get him in the end. The children’s section in Waterstones’ is a minefield. What’s more, you can’t guide your children through it. You have to let them loose and hope they steer clear of the Boisterous Blue Book Of Bollocks For Boys before they reach the relative safety of Lefty-ish Stories Of Which Mummy Approves. Children’s fiction is risky – but that’s what makes it so vital and important. Everyone’s experience is different. No one else gets to see what happens between you and your book.

As children’s laureate Blackman says her overall aim is to “get more children reading more”. I don’t think we should underestimate how powerful this is. In a digital age it sounds somewhat naff and misty-eyed to claim that “books give us power” but they do. Whatever format they come in – and ex-computer programmer Blackman is supportive of innovation and change – books that are read freely and intimately help create individual minds. As the kind of person who’s always taken it for granted that she’ll have books around (my mother was a school librarian) I sometimes think “well, let’s not get carried away”. But then there are other times – for instance, if I’m worrying my children’s future – when I find myself thinking “at least they’re growing up with lots of books around them” (and I do try not to think that in a smug, superficial, middle-class way, contrary to how it sounds). Blackman suggests distributing library cards through schools, to ensure that children whose parents don’t request them will still have the chance to discover books for themselves. This seems to me an excellent idea - as long as no one dares hand them a reading list.

At a time when creative thought is recast as “dumbing down” and the history curriculum is turned into a pale, stale list of facts, the imaginative and moral importance of voices such as Blackman’s – speaking up for both cultural and narrative diversity – should command our attention. Children’s literature – once you get beyond “That’s Not My Train/Monkey/Pirate/Idea of a meaningful existence…” – plays a significant role in forming humane adults. What stands out to me about Blackman and other laureates such as Michael Rosen, Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson is that these are people who like children to begin with. They approach young people not as a market or as subjects to control, but as fellow human beings with an intellectual and imaginative potential that’s there right from the start. And that’s as it should be.

You can’t programme children with the “right” set of facts before they start thinking, analysing, arguing and creating. They set off before you have the chance to stop them. They find the stories that speak to them, those that challenge them, and go on to create more. Now, more than ever, we need writers such as Blackman, who don’t just speak to young people, but trust them, support them and listen. 

Malorie Blackman appearing on the BBC's "Meet the Author" programme in 2010.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge