Friday, 4 October 2013

Malorie Blackman's Making Waves; The Poet Laureate 2013 - 2015

If you’ve ever read any of the Noughts and Crosses series, you will know what a compelling children’s author Malorie Blackman is. She’s also an abundant writer with 60 books behind her. She is now making waves as Children’s Laureate.This role was created after Ted Hughes (The Iron Man) and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse, etc) had a conversation about the Laureateship. Since then, there has always been a Children’s Laureate; Quentin Blake Anne Fine, Morpurgo himself, Jacqueline Wilson Michael Rosen, Anthony Browne and Julia Donaldson all took a turn prior to Blackman taking the laurel wreath for the two years from 2013 until 2015.  

In an article in the Sunday Times, she set out her goals, starting with the comments…I bit their hands off…and…I’m stepping into some fairly big shoes - I have some big plans. 

She does think that children’s literature is in good shape at the moment, and I’d agree; books for young adults are also an area that offers hope for those interested in creating literate school-leavers. Blackman cites Philip Pullman, Catherine Johnson and Michael Rosen as being a strong part of that trend, but actually there are 100s of good writers out there, producing great books for young readers.

The Children’s Laureate receives a specially designed and inscribed silver medal and – more importantly – a bursary of £15,000 so that the ‘big plans’ Blackman has can be put into action. She wants to make sure every child at primary school has a library card, which might indeed help to revive the failing state of some of our libraries - if the kids want to go, someone has to take them. 

Blackman recently became the first black woman in the UK to sell over 1 million books and she hopes to highlight cultural diversity in fiction, having set her Noughts and Crosses series in a dystopian future where colour affects everyone’s lives. I was delighted to hear that, having just published a novel for  9-13 year olds recently which features two friends of different ethic origins and themes of slavery and racial attacks. (Tough Luck is now in paperback, by the way). 

Also, important is her wish that books for older children and young adults to move with the times. Her own novels can be gritty but she has a point when she says that children now need stories that are …grittier and meatier than girls in Switzerland at finishing school. I agree. Adults who think children don’t swear or think about sex live in cloud-cuckoo land. Blackman believes that teenaged sex should not ignored as a subject, or hidden behind a veil, but treated with respect and a natural part of fiction where it is called for within the story. She argues that books are a better way to learn about sex than online pornography. I also believe that writing openly (and realistically) about sex is important for teenagers. Philip Pullman agrees. He’s quoted as saying that this is one of the ways we can…challenge the pernicious influence of internet porn

Malorie Blackman has been in the news ever since her Laureateship, with headlines like those above, and with comments on education and learning to read especially. She’s now leading 200 writers and academics who call for Gove’s proposed school reforms to be suspended, asking for less incessant testing of children. 

Rather than testing their socks off, what Blackman would like is for kids to enjoy their reading. Being read to as a kid (even after you can read yourself),  is a way to help a love of books to grow. I can remember reading to my kids before bedtime every night, until they were not there to be read to (out on the town, in other words) and even then, they’d have to listen to me read aloud from the books I was writing.

Blackman wants every young child to be read to in school for at least 10 minutes each day; I was shocked to think that this doesn’t happen already.  And she wants reading technology to act as a springboard to kids using IT creatively. She supports e-readers, and points out that technology...can make reading cool...

Even so I was surprised to find out that Blackman gave up her place at Goldsmiths College to become an English teacher because she’d got hooked on computers and worked for nine years in computing. Finally, she started writing stories. Reassuringly, she says it took...eight or nine books before a publisher said yes, but I’m glad I hung in there...

I don’t think it’s quite that simple - moving from computer manager to Children’s Laureate isn’t just a matter of hanging in there, but Malorie Blackman’s success and the way she’s now passing her love and enthusiasm  of books back to young people is heartening and I do hope that all her aims are realized before she hands the laurel wreath on.

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