Just imagine! There I was in a classroom sitting next to Linda Newbery, with Frank Cottrell Boyce and Beverley Naidoo rushing in late (and without a reservation, I believe), sitting down at what they soon named the ‘naughty table’. In fact, Frank continued looking slightly naughty throughout the session with our ‘teacher’ Bali Rai. Our workshop had the fancy name ‘The Importance of Identity and Race in Young People’s Fiction’, but Bali called it Diversity. I’d like to think that our room was so crowded, because it was the best of the workshops.
I was somewhat dubiously placed, sitting right underneath a photo of the recently departed President Bush, but then Obama was there, too, and Yeltsin was nearby with Gorbachev. I’m full of admiration for Bali’s powers. When the session began it started raining fairly heavily. Before long we had a full-blown storm with thunder and lightning and rain cascading down from the gutters outside the window. Very dramatic. It ended when the workshop was over.
As so many people on Saturday said, Bali reckons he wouldn’t be where he is now without the library. Books were a precious thing for someone growing up in a one-parent family with little money. If he’d asked for pocket money he would have had to go without food instead.
Bali feels that to get ‘minorities’ to read you have to start by putting them in the books. When he talks about minorities he doesn’t just mean poor immigrants; it covers anyone who is different in some way. One of his most favourite books recently was The Curious Incident, so he and I are clearly on the same Aspie wavelength.
His local library in Oadby, Leicester, is ‘brilliant’, and seems to do all that Bali wants from a library. He tells of the father who comes in to use the computer, and whose daughter learns to look at books while her dad goes on the internet. So in effect the girl becomes a reader simply because they don’t have a computer at home. The reverse can also be the case; with library staff putting adult books near parents who bring their children in for various child sessions. It’s a case of catching people where you find them.
Libraries need to shout ‘we are here!’, so prospective users can find them.
Another thing Bali has noticed is that as soon as you have a book about a single parent, they are immediately labelled ‘issue novels’. He himself has a book on a recommended reads list for schools, which he is pleased about, but also annoyed, as it comes under ‘reading about other cultures’, when Bali has written about life in Britain. So if it’s about people with another skin colour it automatically turns into ‘other cultures’.
He also mentions schools which shadow the Carnegie, where books on the shortlist can be too inaccessible for keen but less able readers. There needs to be alternate lists of books.
Bali’s most recent novel is a mirror image story, about a white boy who is in minority, and is bullied by a group of coloured boys. His next one is about non-white British soldiers in World War I, something that comes as a surprise to people who think that British soldiers always are white.
Publishers need to adapt and publish more ‘minority’ books or they will soon not have any readers left. And it could be a good idea for bookshops not to treat prospective customers as hooligans just because they are young, male and non-white. They might just still want to read, and even buy, a book. Or two.