June 28, 2009

Reading the World: Malorie Blackman

I've mentioned her before -- and I know a few YA readers in the U.S. have come across Blackman's Naughts & Crosses novel, (naughts and crosses being what Brits call tic tac toe), which is described kind of like a race-infused Romeo & Juliet. The interviews I've read all describe a determinedly positive and funny person who is rolling with the punches of being a black British writer, and not letting the squeamishness of the publishing industry negatively affect her prodigious output. And I do mean prodigious. Aside from doing some television screenwriting, Malorie Blackman is also the author of seven picture books, four easy-reader chapter books, thirty-four middle grade/tween novels, and five crossover adult/older YA novels. I've perused a few of her books, and right now, the main emotion I'm having is... jealousy.

Now, this isn't a rant, but I find that the characters in Blackman's books are all so uniformly normal that it depresses me. There are "mums" and dads who invent things, like in Blackman's novel Dangerous Reality and Hacker. There are kids who have groundbreaking medical procedures, as in Pig Heart Boy. There are parents accused of breaking into pharmaceutical companies on behalf of environmental terrorist organizations, and then going on the lam, as in A.N.T.I.D.O.T.E.. Just normal kids with normal lives, having...

Okay. So that last bit about the terrorist parent is perhaps not quite so normal. But, what I love about Blackman's books is that the kids get to have "real" fictional...lives, well rounded in all the routine, normal ways. Lives unhampered by race.

(Okay, so maybe this is a rant. But, it's just a teensy one.)

I've just read Dead Gorgeous, and like the title suggests, it's about someone both dead, and... gorgeous. It's a good old-fashioned haunted house story, with a few modern twists.

Nova lives with her weird, hippie parents, and her sister Rainbow in an inn, which is filled with the usual cast of strange people, some of whom are just passing through, and some of whom have been there for quite awhile. One of the longest-running residents is usually invisible -- because he's dead. He's a ghost named Liam who can make himself less ghostly when he's upset, which is pretty often. Liam left the world when he was about 16, after a huge and awful fight with his Dad, and he has a lot of unfinished business.

Nova and Rainbow aren't all daisies and sunshine, either. They're a lot alike in what they want, but they go after it in different ways -- Rainbow does a lot of screeching and poetry writing, and Nova... goes underground with her sorrows. Liam sees in Nova someone familiar, and he truly wants to help her -- like he wasn't able to help himself. But first, he really needs to get one of the residents of the inn to leave. Liam's not the haunting kind of ghost, but for some reason, he's getting antsy. He tells Noval that Mr. Jackman's got to go. Soon.

Ghosts. Sisters bickering. Weird people passing through an inn in a coastal town. Guests who fail to properly flush the community toilets. Just...life. Parents, gainfully employed, mentally present, socially acceptable (accept for the little rant about the non-toilet flushing). Even the ghost is the "regular" kind, not a product of voodoo, nor does Liam produce rolling white-eyed terror and discussion of a "haint." Granted, I'm drawing from American traditions of African American stereotypes rather than British stereotypes (and they exist), but from an American perspective this was almost eerie to read. There was so much that wasn't there.

I love the covers of Malorie Blackman's novels. They feature kids of many shades and features with facial expressions no less, all of them are of African ancestry. Blackman has been told that her books would perhaps "sell better" without these covers, but they were immediately appealing to me, and I can't help but imagine them appealing to all kinds of kids grabbing them at the library. It's hard to put my finger on how novel covers featuring African American characters are different, but there's a difference, all the same. Perhaps British publishers are willing to take greater risks in depicting black kids just being... kids. Maybe there's not so much the concern with being PC? Who knows. Either way, I really enjoyed this book, and I'm a bit envious of Blackman's body of work. People have reviewed A La Carte and have remarked at how "refreshing" it is to see a character with dreams and goals like other, normal teens, even if she IS an African American character (And WHOA am I paraphrasing, but this is my rant, okay?). And I've thought, Wow, have some of us got a long way to go in how we think about people of color.

Last week, Colleen pointed me to Dorie's Doret's post at The HappyNappyBookseller about the final book in the Percy Jackson series, and the fate of the one and only African American character -- he becomes a sacrifice for all the other characters, and then he goes from being a minor character in an eyeblink to one they all universally loved and they noble-ize and eulogize him after death to the point of ridiculousness. Dorie Doret was deeply disappointed, and Jen@Bibliophile had even more to say on the topic.

These are the types of things we had pointed out to us in grad school, in lit crit courses where such things were obvious. Somehow, it's unexpected to catch it in the here-and-now, in modern YA lit. Yet, Lainie is "refreshing" because she's got goals and dreams and wants a career when she grows up.

Boy, have some of us got a long way to go when we think about people of color.

Okay, < /rant >
Buy Dead Gorgeous from an independent bookstore near you!


a. fortis said...

I keep forgetting to look for these! Will have to add them to an actual list somewhere instead of the mental one...

Charlotte said...

Umm (in an agreeing way). I just read Blackman's book, The Thief, and the protaganist was a person of color, which one knew from the cover picture, but not because her skin was a plot device. It was a non-issue, not worth mentioning, because it had nothing to do with this particular story. And I think I found it "refreshing," in as much as it is so rare, yet so reasonable, to have a kid of color on a book jacket, and then to have skin tones never mentioned at all in the text.

tanita davis said...

YES. Exactly. You look at the cover, and you go, "Hm." And you've got a character in your mind's eye. And then, you read their story, and you never really think about it again, except marginally. It's not an Issue. It just... Is.

Doret said...

Alien was on in the break room the other day, and I couldn't help but point out to my co workers that the one Black guy was still living, even after 3 people died. Made me love Alien that much more. Thanks for the mention, but you did an oops on my name.

tanita davis said...

Doret -- SIGH. Fixed. Sorry.

Tockla said...

Hey Tanita - I don't get enough time to read your blog posts, but enjoyed this one. You're right, Malorie writes books about people, not about race (with the exceptions of the Noughts and Crosses books). And when I first met her books, I started trying to think of American titles that did the same thing. Not very many! Well said, and I hope all is well up in Scotland. Coming down south any time?