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.

Picture: Stavros Damos
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Mark Strong Q&A: “I suspected playing a barrister was more fun than being one”

The actor talks David Bowie, studying law, and his favourite Simpsons episode.

What is your earliest memory?

Sitting in a pram in the sunshine in Myddelton Square, north London, waving at passers-by. My mum used to put me out in the street to keep me occupied, and she and various neighbours would lean on the windowsill and keep an eye on me.

Which politician, past or present, do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela stands head and shoulders above the crowd for his tolerance in the face of extreme suffering and his ability to unite a nation against all the odds.

Who was your childhood hero? And who is your adult hero?

David Bowie. His music and style were unique and he was the first to make me think about individuality and creativity. As an adult, Muhammad Ali, for the same reason – to thine own self be true.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

My theatre knowledge is pretty good, and I particularly love the plays of Arthur Miller – but I suspect it would probably be Arsenal Football Club.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

When Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson were writing and performing their plays and the “Vagabond Act” of 1572 viewed travelling Elizabethan actors as such a threat that regulations were imposed. Sounds like a fun time.

What TV show could you not live without?

The Simpsons. A favourite episode has Homer at the annual Springfield Chilli Cook-Off, where he eats super-spicy chilli made with a dangerous Guatemalan pepper grown by mental patients. The pepper has a powerful hallucinogenic effect and Homer wanders off into the strangest regions of his mind to find his soulmate, accompanied by a spirit guide voiced by Johnny Cash.

Who would paint your portrait?

Lucian Freud for the warts-and-all harsh reality, or Caravaggio for the dark beauty and intensity of his style.

What’s your theme tune?

For sheer drama and danger, Montagues and Capulets from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Put it on your headphones and walk down the street and you’ll see what I mean.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

A very special man named Sydney Stolerman once told me not to become an actor, as it was unlikely it would work out. He jokes to this day that it’s a good job I didn’t follow his advice.

What’s currently bugging you?

Injustice, greed, envy and intolerance. So-called leaders interested only in themselves. People unwilling to observe the social contract.

What single thing would make your life better?

Not being able to be contacted instantly anywhere in the world through modern technology.

When were you happiest?

I was pretty content at university. I had few responsibilities and was learning something I loved and partying with people I still love. But most of all at the birth of my children. An unbeatable feeling.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?

I studied law so perhaps I might have made it to the Bar, though I gave up that idea when I suspected playing a barrister was probably much more fun than being one.

Are we all doomed?

Unless everyone gets serious about climate change and we stop electing world leaders who behave like paranoid teenagers, then undoubtedly. 

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

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