Malorie Blackman has written over fifty books and is acknowledged as one of today’s most imaginative and convincing writers for young readers.
She has been awarded numerous prizes for her work, including the Red House Children’s Book Award and the Fantastic Fiction Award. Malorie has also been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. In 2005 she was honoured with the Eleanor Farjeon Award in recognition of her contribution to children’s books, and in 2008 she received an OBE for her services to children’s literature. She has been described by The Times as ‘a national treasure’.
Malorie is the Children’s Laureate 2013–15.
What does it mean to be the Children’s Laureate?
It’s such an honour to have been asked to be the 8th Children’s Laureate. The wonderful thing about this role is that each appointed author or illustrator can make it their own. But I must admit, there are times when I have to discreetly pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming!
What do you want to achieve in your two years in the role?
I really want to be a voice for children’s books, stories and for reading. Reading is so vital. It’s a skill that enriches and enables. Reading allows you to be informed and it gives you life choices. My aim for the next two years is simple – ‘more children, reading more.’ And I believe that one of the fundamental ways of doing this is to encourage children to read for pleasure.
How do you think you’ll be different to previous Children’s Laureates?
The wonderful thing about being the Children’s Laureate is that each author or illustrator can make it their own. We have each brought our own experiences, passions and personalities to the role. My goal is to convince as many children and young adults as possible that reading is simply irresistible. And I will be concentrating on spreading the reading word to upper junior school aged children and in particular, young adults.
Will you still have new books coming out?
I really hope so! Writing keeps me sane! The first couple of months as Children’s Laureate have been a bit manic but I’m sure that it will settle down. I’m hopeful that I can organize my time better, and maybe get back to writing – at least part-time!
What was your favourite book as a child?
‘The Silver Chair’ by C.S. Lewis, followed closely by a book of Worldwide Myths and Legends.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read recently?
Can I have two?! ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness and ‘Sawbones’ by Catherine R. Johnson.
Which of your own books was your favourite to write?
My books are like my babies so you’re asking me to choose a favourite one! I suppose, if I have to pick just one, then it has to be ‘Noughts & Crosses’. It was a challenging, painful, cathartic and ultimately very satisfying book to write.
Which of your characters do you think you’re most similar to?
Well, my books are fiction, as are all my characters, but of all the characters I’ve created, Callum’s personality from ‘Noughts and Crosses’ is probably closest to my own, at least when I was a teenager.
What inspired you to become a writer?
A love of stories and reading. ‘Let’s pretend’ games are an integral part of children’s play – or should be. I spent most Saturdays during my early years at the library, drinking in fairy stories, myths and legends, classics, contemporary stories, fantasy, science-fiction and anything else I could lay my hands on. I also wrote stories and poems for my own amusement but it never, ever occurred to me as a child or teenager that I could become a published writer. But in my mid 20s, after a few years in computing, I decided that I would make strenuous efforts to become an author. I think trying and failing is far better than never having the guts to try at all.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
I guess there’s a parallel universe somewhere in which I still commute into the City of London every day and beat my brains out in the Financial Sector. And then there’s another universe in which I ended up as an English Teacher somewhere. In this universe, I like to think that I’d still be involved in the world of literature in some way, maybe as an editor or as an agent or bookseller – something to do with books.
What would your top tips be for anyone who wanted to be a writer?
Read, read and then read some more. After that write, write and then write some more! I don’t believe you can be a writer unless you have a feel for the way words play together on the page. And the way you get that is to read – voraciously! Try reading books from different genres, even genres you’re not so keen on. You may be pleasantly surprised. Give it a try. Try to analyse what you like and what you don’t like in each book you read, to help you in your own writing. Develop your own style, don’t copy anyone. And don’t give up.
What inspired you to write ‘Noughts & Crosses’?
There wasn’t any one thing. It grew out of a lifetime of experiences. Some of the racist incidents in the book were based on real events from my own childhood. And I also wanted to play with the idea that ‘history is luck’ to a certain extent. What if Africans had invented trans-oceanic travel and colonized Europe and America? Or what if the Aztecs and Incas had ‘beaten Cortez to the punch’ and converted the Catholics in Spain and Portugal at the point of a sword? You put all that together and you have the germ of an idea which led to ‘Noughts and Crosses’.
Do you think racism is an issue that needs to be addressed in children’s books more?
Absolutely! And not just in children’s books. I think a lot of racism comes out of ignorance, and we can start to combat it by showing different cultures, races, religions in story contexts. Stories promote empathy, a sense of being able to see through the eyes of others and being able to walk in another person’s shoes. I generally make my major characters black because that’s who and what I am and I’m seeking in part to redress an imbalance regarding ethnic diversity in children’s literature that I felt acutely when I was a child, but the ethnic identity of my characters is never the whole story. I try to make my characters real people who are trying to live their lives and deal with their problems. For example, a black boy who needs a heart transplant is pretty much the same as a white boy who needs a heart transplant (‘Pig Heart Boy’).
How do you think we can keep children and teenagers reading or encourage those who don’t like reading at all?
I believe that we have to get children interested in reading from the time they’re born by showing them how reading opens so many doors. If a child tells me they don’t like reading, I always say, ‘You haven’t found the right books for you yet!’ First of all, our children should be encouraged to read what interests them – comics, football stories, paranormal romances, classics, whatever! Most classics are classics for a reason, because they contain stories that still speak to us, stories that endure. But very few teenagers are going to tackle Dostoyevsky for example, without having read a few lighter, more contemporary novels first. Part of reading for pleasure is letting our children and young adults chose the books they want to read for themselves. We have to engage our children with reading. Then reading Dostoyevsky and Bronte and Dickens and Milton and a host of wonderful others will come.
How many books have you written?
Do you like reading e-books? Do you think they will stop print books being produced?
I must admit I find reading e-books very convenient. I love having over 200 books in my handbag at any one time on one device. I travel a lot, and there is no way I could carry hundreds of paperbacks around with me. But printed books are my reading weapon of choice! I love the smell and the feel of them. I love that crackling noise you get as you rifle through the pages for the first time and I love the way I can touch something tangible and physical. I also love the way I can pass on a physical book to share with others, like members of my family. You can’t really do that with e-books without handing over your whole device.
Do you ever worry that teens might struggle with the complex or gritty issues in your books?
No! We need to stop underestimating our teens. As a teen that kind of attitude used to drive me nuts. The erroneous belief that I couldn’t understand the nuances of certain ‘grown-up’ issues because I was just a teen. If we defer the consideration of ‘gritty issues’ until after the teen years, then we do our teens a huge dis-service. If we want mature, responsible teenagers making good decisions about drugs and sex and other issues, then we have to expose them to the complexity of these subjects early enough to make a difference. And the fact is, if a teen picks up a book and gets nothing from it or feels it’s too old or not right for them, they will either skim read over the parts they don’t care for or put the book down. We really need to get past this idea that teens can’t think for themselves and we adults have to do their thinking for them.
What’s the best thing about being an author, especially in a role like the Children’s Laureate?
I love being my own boss and being able to write on subjects about which I care passionately. My favourite kinds of letters are those from young adults who say that my books have helped them through difficult times or that my books have helped them to develop a love of reading. Those kinds of letters keep me going! The best thing about the Laureate is that I feel I’m giving something back. If I can generate some publicity regarding children’s books, reading and literacy, and contribute to a debate regarding the way our children read then that’s wonderful.
How does it feel to be mentioned in a Tinie Tempah song?
Weird! I got way more excited by that than someone of my *cough* mature years should have!
What do you like doing in your spare time to relax?
I play the piano and the drums (not at the same time). I also read, compose music on my computer and play World of Warcraft! (I’m a level 90 warlock!)
Thanks to the Children’s Laureate team and Malorie Blackman for this interview!