British children's books don't reflect cultural diversity, Laureate says

LONDON Fri Jul 11, 2014 10:09am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - British children's books still don't reflect the cultural diversity of the country's children and would-be authors, Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman said.

Her own best-known books, the Noughts and Crosses trilogy, tackle racism, teenage sex and terrorism - challenging stereotypes by showing white-skinned characters subjected to prejudices and restrictions.

She was criticized in the media for a sympathetic portrayal of a suicide bomber in the final part of the trilogy, "Checkmate", that was released just a month before suicide bomb attacks killed 52 Londoners on public transport on July 7, 2005.

She responds by saying that those who criticized her had not read the books, and if they had, they would realize that the books help people understand motivations, not condone them.

"Very, very few picture books are published in this country that feature children of color," Blackman told Reuters at a cafe in the British Library. "We might have dogs, cats, rabbits, puppies, but when it comes to children, very few (featuring different ethnicities) are published."

Blackman won her two-year term as Laureate, awarded after consultations including librarians, booksellers and children voting online, in 2013. The role champions children's literature and past holders include Julia Donaldson, author of the Gruffalo, and illustrator Quentin Blake.

Blackman wants more new authors from ethnic minorities to get their books published in Britain. "I can reel off the name of about 10 or 15 black and minority ethnic authors in the UK, but I should be able to reel off a hell of a lot more."

She says that when she started writing, she was told that white children wouldn't want to read books that featured black characters.

Even now, a narrow focus on the bottom line by publishers in recent years has made it hard from authors from different ethnic backgrounds to become established, Blackman said.

"When I started 24 years ago, there was more leeway to go with the potential of the author, where they could stick with an author for a two or three book contract. Now your (first) book has to hit the ground running and prove itself, so you have less chance to establish yourself."

Her latest book, "Noble Conflict", was inspired by the leaking of sensitive secret government cables by Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden.

"We're all told not to tell tales, but if you are told (about) something that your society is doing is wrong, do you blow the whistle?" she said.

"I try to ask these questions and ... have teens trying to decide and discuss what they would do."

Blackman wants children to write, too, and is curating the first Young Adult Literature Convention in London on July 12-13, including sessions on writing fantasy and heroes of horror.

(Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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