Unsurprisingly, I really, really enjoy engaging with people who are relentlessly, strongly, determinedly optimistic, and it was therefore a joy to hear the author Malorie Blackman in conversation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday. She was talking about her latest book in the Noughts and Crosses series – Crossfire – although she ranged over the rest of her life and career, including why she became an author, how the voices of the characters urge her to write them, and how much pleasure she gains from writing something that matters. (If you haven’t read the Noughts and Crosses series, do – it is a very powerful and incredibly pertinent drama, and I am so pleased that my daughter introduced me to the books.)
Worryingly, Ms Blackman said that she has encountered more racism in the past 3 years than in the past 30, but she is utterly determined in her belief that people can in fact get along with one another, and have to let the past go – this is the woman who is actually grateful to her school careers advisor for refusing to write a university reference for her back in the 1970s (saying – jawdroppingly – that ‘it isn’t for black people’), because this just made her work even harder and commit to never giving up. She became my hero instantly.
Anyway, one of the topics about which Malorie Blackman became very heated was that of libraries. She adored her local libraries (she had 2, equidistant from her home) and, growing up in Clapham, London, in the 60’s and 70’s, she practically lived there. When she had devoured the children’s section, the librarians guided her towards some of the classics, and Jane Eyre remains one of her absolute favourite books to this day. She knows what libraries did for her – giving her a voice, stretching her imagination, teaching her how to express herself and articulate her feelings – and she was crystal clear in her assertion that without libraries, she would not be sitting on stage here in Edinburgh (or anywhere else), and she would not have carved out the career that she has.
Libraries, she insisted, are one of the world’s great equalisers, because they give access to books for all – not just people who can afford to buy them. They enable people to have a voice – a voice that emerges through reading and experiencing the words, thoughts and feelings of others, and learning how to shape words to articulate their own thoughts and feelings. Effective communication is an incredibly important skill for social mobility, and libraries make this possible. On a more sinister note, she mused that cuts to library services – in the guise of general cost-cutting – are in practice taking even more power away from those in society who are already increasingly disenfranchised, as the gap between advantage and disadvantage grows. We should not blithely allow this to happen.
I’m not going to argue with Malorie Blackman – on the contrary, I completely agree with her.
Support your local library.