Malorie Blackman calls for more diversity in publishing

I was startled to read a tweet today saying Malorie Blackman had closed her Twitter account after a deluge of racist messages.

Here’s what happened.

The Edinburgh International Books Festival was held last weekend and in her capacity as children’s laureate Malorie Blackman did the media rounds talking up UK books, but also highlighting the lack of ethnic diversity in children’s publishing.

She told Sky News that a lack of diversity in books can discourage children of colour from reading and make them feel excluded:

“I think there is a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading.

“I think it is saying ‘well, you may be here, but do you really belong?”

Sky headline1

A sub editor at Sky decided to title the story with the provocative and inaccurate headline: Children’s Books ‘Have Too Many White Faces’ says Malorie Blackman, which was all the invitation the internet trolls needed.

Sky retweet

Malorie received an avalanche of racist criticism on her Twitter feed.

Malorie delete

And responses to the story on Sky’s website vacillated between nasty and ignorant:

Comment2Comment 1Comment 3

Malorie complained to Sky News and they changed the headline to reflect her actual comments, but the damage was done.

Malorie misquote
Sky apology
Malorie leaves

It’s remarkable the number of people who took that first headline at face-value, didn’t bother to read the story and decided that an expansion of ethnic diversity in publishing would somehow mean the marginalization of white characters and authors.

The ignorant commentators aren’t the real issue, neither is Sky News’ clumsy attempts at sensationalism. All of that simply distracted us from Malorie’s key point, that children’s publishing in the UK is overwhelmingly white and does not reflect the population.

“There is still an attitude among some editors and booksellers that they can only sell a book to the people they decide a book is aimed at,” Malorie told the Guardian newspaper last week. “But being British means a lot of things and especially at the moment, people need to feel they have a stake in society. A brilliant way to do that is through books.”

Such sound logic. Particularly now, when it seems the entire world is fighting over ideologies and we could all do to walk in our neighbour’s shoes and see a different perspective. Publishers will say that black books don’t sell, that black children don’t read, that white children aren’t attracted to books with characters that don’t look like them on the cover.

Utter rubbish! Children will read anything with a good story. Malorie’s Noughts and Crosses has sold millions across the globe proving the point. Children will read outside of colour lines, gender lines, religious lines if we teach them to. And they’ll carry that open-minedness into adulthood. But they need variety on the bookshelves to develop those habits and that means authors, commissioning editors, illustrators, marketing teams, booksellers and parents need to be intentional about creating a publishing industry that reflects the diversity of the world we live in.

I hope Malorie will eventually come back to Twitter. We need her voice to keep speaking up about the dangers of a single story.

10 things you never knew about rock star author Malorie Blackman

Malorie BlackmanMalorie Blackman has written over  60 books, was appointed Rock Star of All Things Bookish – ie Children’s Laureate – in June 2013, and has now added a little icing to all that cake by being named the most influential black person in Britain. 

Pour yourself a cuppa, get comfortable in that chair and let’s learn a little more about this literary powerhouse.

One: She was first published by The Women’s Press

It took two years and a staggering 82 rejections before Malorie got her first book deal. It was with the feminist publisher, The Women’s Press and she submitted a collection of short stories for teenagers that blended horror and science fiction. The collection was published in 1990 and called Not So Stupid. Alas, the same can’t be said about all those publishers who originally passed on her.

Two: She read her first black book at 23

Malorie has said that it never crossed her mind to be a writer until her mid-20s when she read The Colour Purple. The Alice Walker novel was the first book she’d read that exclusively featured black characters and after reading it she realised black people could be authors too.

Three: She went to grammar school

Malorie attended Honor Oak Grammar School in Peckham, south east London. As the child of immigrant parents, her success in the UK literary establishment could be used as proof that grammar schools grease the wheels of social mobility. However, Malorie’s descriptions of demoralizing teachers who quashed her then dreams of working in education by informing her that black people didn’t teach, suggest she succeeded despite the system.

Four: She’s hosting the UK’s first YA convention

Malorie believes previous Children’s Laureates have focused on serving young children, she plans to use her appointment to encourage a love of literature among teenagers. To this end she’ll be hosting the first UK Young Adult Literature Convention in June 2014.

Five: Noughts and Crosses was inspired by Stephen Lawrence

After the racist murder of black British teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, Malorie decided to make racism the central theme in her next book. She wanted to explore slavery and its legacy in a unique way and so created a dystopian alternative universe where the black Crosses have power and status and the white Noughts are oppressed.

Six: It was a battle to get Noughts and Crosses published in the US

9/11 killed off the possibility of publishing any book explaining why someone might become a terrorist. It is now available in the States under the title, Black and White.

Seven: She’s a book hoarder

In 2009 Malorie admitted to owning well over 15,000 books. We can only imagine what the current count is.

Eight: She’s written a novel in verse

Malorie has said that she loves children’s writing because she can explore many different topics in many different ways. Her novel Cloud Busting is the perfect example. It’s written in narrative verse, aimed at children 8+ and explores an unlikely friendship between two very different boys

Nine: She used to be a systems programmer

Before becoming a fulltime writer Malorie’s precious jobs included: work in BHS and Littlewoods as a Saturday Girl, receptionist and catering assistant roles, and – after earning a HNC in computing, jobs as a Systems Programmer and Software Specialist.

Ten: She’s written for PJ and Duncan

Malorie graduated from the National Film and Television School and has written episodes of the children’s drama Byker Grove, adaptations for her books Whizziwig and Pig-Heart boy.