Tag Archives: Benjamin Zephaniah

Love, friendship and nature

It was the flamingoes that convinced me. And I suppose it’s always lovely to read about creatures looking for love. Especially the male gentoo penguin, who woos his chosen partner by offering her a smooth and round stone. This is from Dancing Birds and Singing Apes, How Animals Say I Love You, by Smriti Prasadam-Halls, and illustrations by Florence Weiser.

In Rachel Bright’s little story about The Whale Who Wanted More, with very whaley pictures by Jim Field, we learn that amassing stuff does not make you happy. Happier. If you feel you need something, it’s probably something else. Friendship, maybe. Respect to Crystal who knew how to stop Humphrey the whale’s bad behaviour.

And finally to Benjamin Zephaniah’s Nature Trail, illustrated by Nila Aye, where we follow a bright-eyed little girl through her garden, looking at everything beautiful. When ‘we’ got to the night time garden, sleeping among the petals, I was caught. It’s as if I’d been there before.

Killing the teacher

Benjamin Zephaniah’s Teacher’s Dead is a book well worth revisiting. More than a dozen years old, I’d say none of the problems have gone away. Black people have it as bad as ever, their rights eroded rather than having got a bit better. It was a YA novel I really wanted to read back then, and I was not disappointed, except for how life ends up for too many people.

With hindsight, I find my own review of the book quite lacking, although I seem to recall Benjamin was terribly polite about it. He didn’t do email, so actually spent time and money on sending me a proper card.

Now, I have looked for a better description of the story than mine, and I hope Bookbag won’t hate me for this. It’s so good, and the screen grab below is simply to motivate you to follow the link.

It’s more recent than mine, which just goes to show that this story will move the reader at any time.

‘Children have the right to read rubbish’

Malorie Blackman

The children’s laureate was in Manchester yesterday. If anyone has the right to say something like that about children’s reading, it must be Malorie Blackman. And she was only saying what Patrick Ness said the other evening. I think we can all (well, most of us, anyway) agree that reading everything can only be good.

This was another school event organised by the Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester Children’s Book Festival, and Malorie was talking to Jackie Roy, who is a favourite chair of mine, someone who asks all the right questions. The event was at Z-arts in Hulme, which is a suitable venue for children of immigrant background in particular to find out how far you can get in life, and that it’s got nothing to do with what colour you are.

Malorie Blackman behind fans

The place was packed, and they even Livestreamed the whole thing to interested parties who were unable to attend. Until this year Malorie has also been unable to come, despite being asked by MLF every year, but as they say in Sweden, trägen vinner.

Malorie spoke about how far equality has come, but pointing out there is a long way still to go before fiction is ethnically diverse, with books featuring disabled characters without being disability books, and where people have a place regardless of sex, race, culture, and so on.

She read very little fiction at home, as her father said it wasn’t real and you ‘never learn anything from fiction.’ So Malorie practically lived at her local library from the age of seven until she was 14 and got a job and could buy her own books. She’d take a packed lunch every Saturday and spend the day, returning home with as many books as she could take, hoping they’d last until the following Saturday.

There were no black children in those books, and it might have been this which made Malorie write on, despite receiving 82 rejection letters from publishers. (She said that she almost gave up after no. 60, but vowed to carry on until the 1000th.) She wrote what she would have wanted to read as a child.

Malorie Blackman

While trying not to tell her readers what to think, Malorie presents a dilemma, and then asks questions to make her characters explore the things she herself is wondering about. It could be animal organ transplants as in Pig Heart Boy, or being a whistle blower versus allowing some things ‘for the greater good,’ like in Noble Conflict.

‘Oh my god, I thought that was an enormous spider!’ I’m not sure what she saw, but something almost made our laureate jump out of the sofa and run…

As a child – and still, actually – she loved comics, using her pocket money to buy them. Their use of cliffhangers has influenced the way she writes. Malorie describes how a teacher at school took her comic away from her and tore it to pieces, because it was ‘rubbish.’ The fact that Noughts & Crosses is about to become a graphic novel gives her great pleasure.

Her careers teacher told Malorie that blacks don’t become teachers, and that she would not pass her English A-level. She laughed as she described walking away from that advice session thinking ‘I’ll show you, you old cow!’

The young Malorie got hooked on computers instead and her first novel was Hacker, which Transworld took on, despite ‘all of it’ needing re-writing. This taught her how to plan, so she wouldn’t waste time writing, and it won her an award, which turned into a wonderful holiday to Barbados.

Malorie Blackman

‘Is that water for me, or has it been here for a long time?’ Malorie pointed to the water next to her when her throat felt dry. (It was for her…)

She’s currently writing her 61st book, and hopes to go on until at least her 100th. And if she didn’t write, she’d have some other book related job. Or maybe she’d be an English teacher. She laughed at that.

When asked if she’d be willing to become the next children’s laureate, her gut reaction was to ask if they had the right person. They were very big shoes to fill, with so many great authors who had done it before her. But she knew she wanted to do it, and it’s an honour to be able to spread her passion for books and reading.

Her mother would be very upset if she didn’t say she supports Arsenal, but to tell the truth she is not a football fan. She has rarely been recognised when out, except for one stalker incident in Sainsbury’s which was ‘well creepy.’

This lovely children’s laureate got the audience to sing Happy Birthday, when a girl asked if she could wish her friend a happy birthday. Our laureate also admitted to having carried around a leotard and tights and a utility belt for a couple of years in secondary school, just in case she ever needed to turn into a super hero in a school kidnapping scenario…

Malorie Blackman

Every book is like opening a new door to somewhere. Malorie loves crime and Jane Austen and can quote most of the first Narnia book. She admires many writers, including Benjamin Zephaniah, Melvin Burgess, Anne Fine, Patrick Ness, Jacqueline Wilson and Jackies Kay and Roy.

The character she feels is mostly her is Callum, and much of what happens to him in Noughts & Crosses has happened to Malorie in real life. As a teenager she was once told to go back to where she came from, so she asked for the bus fare back to Clapham.

Spookily, the launch for Checkmate was on 7/7 seven years ago, and she was having her hair done in central London, when the whole city shut down, and Malorie felt as if she was almost inside one of her own books. She doesn’t condone terrorism, but she can see why people become terrorists. Because of the book connection, she was interviewed on television that time, and there were even people who wanted to ban her book.

Malorie Blackman and Jackie Roy

I’d say that by now Malorie has shown that ‘cow’ a thing or two. The fact that there were two black women on that sofa yesterday made me very happy. One of them is a university lecturer and the other is the children’s laureate.

As I was waiting to go in to the event (gobbling down sandwiches again, having been driven there by the Resident IT Consultant, and trying not to drown in the incredibly deep sofa we hid in) I noticed Malorie disappearing off in the company of a young lady. I was introduced to Sophie (that’s her name) a few minutes later, and she turned out to want to interview me. Yikes. First Malorie. Then me. (Good taste, I have to say.)

Malorie Blackman

And now that Malorie has finally been, she promised she’d be back if the MLF would let her have one of their t-shirts. That seems like A Very Good Deal, so please don’t forget to put one in the post!

Malorie Blackman can be our superhero in a literary T-shirt. No leotard necessary.

Black Stars: Benjamin Zephaniah

I mentioned before that there is a series of books about successful black people. It’s depressing that you need a special series, but it’s wonderful to find books which inspire black children. As Malorie Blackman said when we met, they need to know, because it’s not at all as obvious as it may seem to someone who is white.

Here Verna Wilkins tells the story of Benjamin Zephaniah, who had a sad and difficult start to life, but who is now a tremendous role model. He is really ‘very cool’, which is almost at odds with the fact that he is so gentle and down-to-earth.

You have to admire the man for what he is. And his poems are fabulous, and even a non-poetry person like me enjoys them. Best served read by Benjamin himself, but the poems in this Tamarind book will serve as a good starting point.

And then you can read his novels about black children and teenagers.

The unwanted children

In my defence I should mention that I think of them often. But then impotence sets in, because I always feel there isn’t much, if anything, we can do about the children who come to Britain seeking asylum. So thank God for people like Beverley Naidoo, who has just been to Yarl’s Wood – where the children are detained like prisoners – on a visit. Then she wrote an article for the Guardian about it.

There is nothing in Beverley’s tale that suggests this isn’t a prison. They can call it whatever they like, but ‘nicer’ words won’t change what it is. But I suppose it’s reassuring they still required Beverley and the accompanying illustrator Karin Littlewood to bring their enhanced CRB forms and proper ID. To search a visiting author for so long that a great chunk of the time intended for the children just disappears is beyond belief.

And were the teachers in uniform with the keys really guards? Would real teachers stand for this kind of thing? (I asked Beverley if she found out in the end, and she reckons they are teachers, but special Serco teachers.)

It can never be easy to come to a new country as an asylum seeker. To be a child and to be treated like a criminal in one of the supposedly good countries of the world, must be totally bewildering. There is a petition you can all sign at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/NoChildDetention/

Please do so now. It’s very quick.

The campaign End Child Detention Now can be found here.

The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo and Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah are two of the strongest ‘asylum’ books for young readers that I know. Not new, but well worth reading if you haven’t already.

It seems it’s laureate week

OK, so this is my second blog this week about laureates. It won’t come as a surprise that today it’s about Carol Ann Duffy, our new Poet Laureate. The papers are full of the news, but bandwagons are there to be jumped on, so why not?

I am as you well know, not into poetry. But I do own a Carol Ann Duffy. And it’s signed. In fact, we have two, because Daughter insisted on a poetry collection when we met this great poet a few years ago. Mine is Another Night Before Christmas, which I suppose is apt for someone named for Christmas.

Carol Ann Duffy probably qualifies as ‘children’s literature’ more than many other adult poets, seeing as you read her for GCSEs, along with people like Benjamin Zephaniah. I quite liked meeting her at the local bookshop, because she was surprisingly unsmiley, which is rare at signing events. (So are you more genuine if you refuse to smile?)

In today’s Guardian Review Carol Ann has chosen poems by other current female poets, and the non-poem-reading witch has to own up to actually possessing a volume of  poems by one of them, Imtiaz Dharker. Also signed. Something about terrorists, which I carried with me on planes a few times, wondering what would happen. (Nothing, is the answer.)

Now that everyone has exclaimed over the choice of a female, and gay, Poet Laureate, to prove how lacking in prejudice we all are, the question is who we can give the bottles of sherry to next time. A Martian?

Teacher’s Dead

This is such an abrupt title, and when you think of it, almost funny. Except it’s not funny, because we have a murdered teacher here. The language is simple, and it flows so well that you think there’s nothing to it. But Benjamin Zephaniah is a poet, and it shows. I can’t quite describe it, but there’s something about this book that sets it apart.

So, we’ve got the poetry. And we’ve got the crime – a schoolboy stabbing a teacher in the school playground. One of the schoolboy witnesses, Jackson Jones, deals with the trauma by starting to investigate. Not who did it, because they all saw the teacher being killed. And the murderer confessed. No problem at all, there.

But Jackson isn’t satisfied and starts digging. I won’t say what he finds, but this book provides a marvellous description of how the people in and near this school live. I’m assuming most of them are black and poor.

I think that if we can all remember what Jackson finds, when we next see or hear of a crime, we’ll all be the better for it. Despite letting the reader meet so many people with deprived lives, Benjamin’s story leaves at least me with some hope. And there’s a great poem at the end.

Everyone should read Teacher’s Dead.