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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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