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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Buckets of pasta and the radio blaring? It's back to school on Lake Como

The breakfast show on 102.5 FM Sportiva blasts from windows and my friend Lucia sucks her teeth as we wind on foot through the cars. “Che STRESS.”

It’s back-to-school day on Lake Como, and the traffic is demented. The usually sedate town – you don’t come here to party, no matter how many times you may spot George Clooney on a Riva – has been roused from its long, summer slumber by an early Monday start and there’s an irascible jam along the waterfront. The breakfast show on 102.5 FM Sportiva blasts from windows and my friend Lucia sucks her teeth as we wind on foot through the cars. “Che STRESS.”

Hanging a left towards the San Giovanni station, we get a first glimpse of the camp of 300-plus migrants who have been gathering here since July, trying to get into Switzerland by train and move on to Germany. Repeatedly turned back by Swiss border guards, they return to Como and pitch tents and shelters on the slopes outside the station, before trying again – ­although in recent weeks over a hundred have got through.

Everywhere there is music coming from smartphones connected to the camp’s wifi, tuned in to radio stations in Ethiopia and Libya, Eritrea and Gambia. Young men lie out on towels and blankets. The wifi was pretty much the first thing that the local volunteer camp helpers got sorted, one of them tells me, access to radio and YouTube being an essential factor in keeping things relatively calm and optimistic – that and the great cauldrons of pasta.

Nobody here is going hungry, though plans to move everybody out of sight and into shipping containers near the town’s Cimitero Monumentale next week are making people nervous. Luba, 18, won’t tell me where he has travelled from, or how. From the way he says his name – too carelessly – I can tell he has plucked it out of the air.

“I am from Como,” he insists, quite furious, and then laughs suddenly, wanting to distract me, to talk about something lighter. “What colour is your car?” he asks, waving his phone with its radio station tuned to an old hits channel. Next to him, a boy has been rinsing his clothes in a bucket, and as he lays out a pair of wet socks to dry, we all rather awkwardly listen to Bryan Ferry singing “Don’t Stop the Dance”.

The female radio host sighs her appreciation of the crooner. “Che bello. Che stupendo. He looks Italian.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times