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Alan Gibbons: How can authors be ambassadors of love and respect?

Screen shot 2013-06-01 at 18.38.53Alan Gibbons is a children's author. He has won the Blue Peter 'Book I Couldn't Put Down' award and twelve other awards.

A recent article entitled ‘How can councils defeat the merchants of hate?’ appeared on this website. As part of the author’s peroration, he launched an attack on my novel The Edge, labelling it ‘unpleasant.’ Well, fair enough, I suppose. He has a right to his opinion, though over a hundred thousand people have bought this award-winning book and many more, through their library, have enjoyed it. It is a recommended read on the Key Stage 3 list.

The author’s objection to the novel is that it emphasises division and promotes racial antagonism. Really? How specifically does it do that, I wonder? The main protagonist Danny has a black dad and a white mum, though they are separated. At the opening of the novel it is clear that Danny lives in a harmonious, integrated community. He has friends from various ethnic backgrounds. So far, so problematic for the allegation of divisiveness.

Danny and his mother Cathy flee from her new partner Chris, an abusive and violent man. They move in with Danny’s grandparents in an unnamed northern town. It is predominantly white.  The issue of race occurs twice. While Danny’s grandmother is comfortable with his mixed heritage, his grandfather is finding it hard to shed the racist attitudes he inherited. Does this mean the novel alleges that white people are racist? Hardly. It shows the grandfather’s struggle to come to terms with his own vestigial attitudes. By the end of the book, he and Danny are reconciled. This, I would suggest, is a symbol of hope and reconciliation.

The other incidence of racism in a novel mainly concerned with domestic violence and identity is a small gang of racist bullies. Again, the context makes it clear that they are a minority influenced by far right ideas. There is a White Power slogan spraycanned to a wall. Do I infer that white people are racist? Again, read the novel. Danny forms a relationship with a girl in his class. Guess what? Yes, she is white. In other words, the whole book is built on the notion that we all belong to one race, the human race.

To state that the message of the book is that ethnic minority teenagers should know white people don’t like them is inaccurate and unsubstantiated by the text of the novel. Did I exaggerate racism? Well, look at the figures for racist attacks. Consider the racist murders such as the attack on Stephen Lawrence. Look at the contorted faces of BNP and EDL extremists.

The final point I would like to make is this. There is an insidious message in the article somehow linking books like mine to the "merchants of hate". I find this offensive. I visit 180 schools a year promoting the message that we should concentrate on the 99 per cent we have in common, not the one per cent of difference. We should celebrate our common humanity.


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