Friday, 1 October 2010

Written in the Stars

Tinie Tempah
It's not often you find children's authors getting a namecheck in a hit song - and its not often that music videos celebrate writing as a pastime.
So hurray for the great Tinie Tempah, currently the UK's number 1 with Written in the Stars, which not only mentions Malorie Blackman ('Look I'm just a writer from the ghetto like Malorie Blackman/Where the hell's all the sanity at, damn/I used to be the kid that no one cared about/That's why you have to keep screaming til they hear you out) but also has a video which shows a beautiful kid (a boy, I think) coping with a troubled life by writing in a notebook. His mother's a prostitute, he's bullied and laughed at, but writing offers an escape and the  hope that one day his voice will be heard (Everyone's a kid that no-one cares about/You just have to keep screaming until they hear you out.) You can see the video here.
Now there's a lot more to Malorie Blackman as a writer than the colour of her skin (her latest, Boys Don't Cry about a teenage father left holding the baby; and his gay brother is out soon and it sounds brilliant) but Tinie's mention shows that colour and ethnicity does matter, that Malorie gives younger black writers a role model and a feeling that someone understands and reflects their experience.
I wrote about my own take on this on Norm Geras's blog recently -  about loving the character Miranda West in Antonia Forest's Marlow books, because she, like me, was English and Jewish. All the other Jewish characters that I read about in children's books were foreign and persecuted, something that made me anxious and annoyed.Strangely enough that hasn't much changed in British children's books (and I'm aware that I've done nothing yet to transform things). If you're looking for contemporary Jewish teenagers in YA fiction they'll most likely be American. Or invisible.
Diversity matters in children's books. Giving a voice to all sorts of people. Giving every young person role models. Showing them their own lives reflected in books. Opening their eyes to the experiences of others. It's how we learn, it's how we show children that everyone matters, it's how -  as Tinie puts it - minorities send 'a message to the main.'
My publishers, Frances Lincoln, have long been supporters of diversity in children's books, and every year they give  new writers a great chance to get published with the Diverse Voices Award, set up in memory of Frances Lincoln to promote diversity in children's literature. The winner gets £1,500 and the chance to be published -  it's an unusual prize in that it supports books which are not yet published. The 2009 winner was Cristy Burne, whose Takeshita Demons  -  first of a trilogy - is a thrilling horror adventure based on Japanese mythology; and in 2010 the winner was Tom Avery whose book Too Much Trouble  is coming out next summer.
So, if you're a children's writer trying to get published with a manuscript that Tinie would approve of, get it in shape for the Diverse Voices competition. The closing date for entries is February 25th 2011; and you can get an entry form and more details here . Your chance to be written in the stars.


  1. Your comment about not having transformed things is interesting - I might argue that you're an excellent role model for Jewish teenagers, even if you have yet to write specifically for them.

    I often feel a disconnect between the sort of books I think should be written and the ones that I actually do. I think part of that may be because those "important" books are much harder to get published - you only have to look at all the controversy over Speak at the moment to see that.

    The other part of that is cultural experience - I feel very white and very impoverished in terms of meaningful cross-cultural contact. And many of the writers I meet are from a similar ethnic and cultural background. Should I be trying to fix that in my own work? Or should I just be content to share the experience of all the white middle class children reading books? Like you, it's something I worry about without being quite sure how to resolve it.

  2. Wow, I had heard about this song. Very cool!

    And a very honest, and thought-provoking comment, Nick. I think as writers we can only write what we know and experience. And we should definitely experience as wide a range of things as possible. But we also have to be true to ourselves.

  3. I think it's important to write about those white middle class kids - after all, by reading about other peoples' lives we understand them better, and our lives get nearer. I certainly gained a lot from reading about people who went to boarding school, learned Latin and went hunting - all helpful when I met people like that.
    But I also think it's perfectly possibly to write about a diverse community without being part of it - and I think it's important to reflect our diverse world, even if it's quite subtly done. In When I Was Joe, the most senior policeman is black, in Almost True, the judge is a woman. No special reason why they should be, no special reason why not.

  4. I can't recall many books about little Scottish redheads, so I'm all for diversity in childrens' fiction.

  5. I think fear of getting it wrong puts people off straying outside their cultural comfort zone. I'd be wary of writing in detail about a second-generation immigrant, for example, for fear I'd make a total bodge of their home life. But I definitely try to make sure that my characters aren't all whitewashed. Not that it's been an issue that often for the stuff I've got in print so far - Rupert Bear is bright yellow and Thomas the Tank Engine is blue, so beat that for diversity(!)

  6. Keren, I LOVE Antonia Forest's books, and Miranda is a brilliant character - spiky, funny, clever, independent.

  7. I know,I always wanted to be just like her...of course I was nothing like her at all..