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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis