Welcome to the Oxplore Book Club!

This month we're exploring the story of 'Noughts and Crosses' by Malorie Blackman. Here's a link to two free chapters and here you can find the scripts of the BBC series. Discover our resources below, try out our activity sheet, and register for a live book club discussion. See you there! 

Test your dystopian knowledge!

Meet the author

Find out more about 'Noughts and Crosses' creator, Malorie Blackman, and her experiences and interests which have made her the influential writer she is today...

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Malorie BlackmanMalorie Blackman (pictured) OBE was born in Clapham, London to Barbadian parents in 1962. She is the author of the best-selling television-adapted series Noughts and Crosses. Before she became an author she trained as a computer scientist and worked as a systems programmer. At school she had been discouraged from pursuing her dream to become an English teacher. In 1990 she became an author with her first publication Not So Stupid!, a collection of short stories.

Since then, Blackman has written over fifty titles for children and young adults, ranging from picture books for early-readers to the young adult fiction style of 'Boys Don’t Cry' (2010), 'Tell Me No Lies' (1999), 'Noble Conflict' (2013) and the very successful 'Noughts and Crosses' series (2001–2019). She is a prolific writer and has been widely recognised for her contributions to children’s literature and YA (young adult literature). A critic and interviewer Susanna Rustin comments that Blackman wasn’t openly addressing the question of race for the first decade of her literary career.

It was only with 'Noughts and Crosses' that she began to use her stories to actively speak out against injustice. Prior to this she had passively resisted racial stereotyping and overcome a lot of prejudice. Blackman says she just wanted to see people like her in books for young people. In recent years she has begun to campaign for better representation in children’s books and YA fiction.

From 2013-2015 Blackman was the UK Children’s Laureate. Her books often feature themes of puberty, friendship, self-confidence and learning from one’s mistakes. The way that she addresses these themes shows her respect for the intellectual ability and interests of younger readers.

Her career has spanned over three decades and she has been instrumental in diversifying representation in children’s fiction in Britain. Her picture books for new readers feature children of colour, providing much needed diversity. This means that there were very few children’s books featuring black or brown children for sale when she first began to write, and she has helped to change that.

Front cover to 'Double Cross' novel by Malorie Blackman. A white background with a black painted cross.Blackman’s reputation was well-established by the time she wrote the first of the 'Noughts and Crosses' novels. The publication of these novels has increased her visibility in the public eye. In 2020 the adaptation of the series brought the author into the eye of a media storm. Blackman told the press that she was not trying to incite (suggest or cause) racial conflict with her books, and noted that Callum’s experiences are inspired by her own at school: ‘The things he goes through particularly in school happened to me, like asking my teachers where the black scientists were on the curriculum and being told there weren’t any.’

She worked hard to overcome the trauma of racial prejudice she experienced at school, and did overcome it, becoming one of England most celebrated children and YA authors. She writes about black and brown characters because she remembers feeling a deep pain when she realised at age twenty-three that she had only then read her first novel featuring black characters.

While Blackman is best known for her children’s fiction, she has also had success writing for the screen. Her science fiction novel 'Pig Heart Boy' (1997) explores thirteen-year-old Cameron Joshua Kelsey’s experience of xenotransplantation (animal-to-human organ transplant). This became a BBC children’s television series, for which Blackman also wrote the script, which won a BAFTA for Best Drama and a Royal Television Society Award.

In 2008 Blackman received an OBE for her services to Children’s Literature and in 2013 she won the Black Tentacle at The Kitschies for her ‘outstanding achievement in encouraging and elevating the conversation around genre literature'. Blackman has been described by The Times newspaper as a ‘national treasure’ who has been key in increasing the presence of black and brown writers and characters in children’s and young adult literature in Britain.

Image credits: 

Malorie Blackman - groupthing via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

Double Cross book cover - Aliena via Wikicommons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Sitting down to discuss with Malorie Blackman

Oxford graduate and YouTuber Vee Kativhu discusses American politics, the power of literature, racism, stereotypes and more with 'Noughts and Crosses' author, Malorie Blackman.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VV7d5PCBp24&t=306s

Exploring the themes of 'Noughts and Crosses'

Literary researcher Chelsea Haith (University of Oxford) takes us on a tour of the key themes in the first two chapters of 'Noughts and Crosses' and compares this to the BBC dramatisation of the novel. 

Chelsea Haith

 

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Set in a dystopian world where one race rules over another, black people (Crosses) dominate white people (Noughts), the five novels in the 'Noughts and Crosses' series offer a stark reversal of the long history of racial prejudice against people of colour. Malorie Blackman’s successful 'Noughts and Crosses' novel series is the author’s first and only series of novels in which she explores interracial relationships and the tensions of racial prejudice in Great Britain, thinly veiled (disguised) as ‘Albion’ in the novels. This analysis will use the first two chapters of the first novel, available to read here.

The characters in Blackman’s novels are usually black like the author herself, but their stories play out without their race being the major or most impactful aspect of the narrative, a choice that Blackman intentionally made to resist being cast as an exclusively ‘black writer.’ However, this novel is different: the themes and concerns of 'Noughts and Crosses' include interracial relationships, class identity, puberty, and finding yourself in a confusing world. Following the release of the television series adaptation Noughts + Crosses on BBC iPlayer in March 2020, Blackman refused to engage in accusations that she was ‘anti-white’ saying, ‘I’m not even going to dignify your absurd nonsense with a response.’ 

Two hands reaching for each other. Half the background is coloured black and the other half is white.

Dystopian YA

Dystopian fiction often glosses over (ignores) race, choosing instead to focus on the themes of governmental authoritarianism, surveillance (being recorded on cameras), climate disaster and limited freedoms. While these are important themes to discuss, it is also important to remember that our stories must reflect the realities of the world we live in, and that world is diverse. One critic comments that he has felt let down by young adult dystopia because the novels often don’t even feature characters that are black or brown, nevermind having protagonists (main characters) who are people of colour.

Blackman’s 'Noughts and Crosses' addresses this problem head-on, focussing the novel’s tension on the tragic effects of racial segregation (separating races physically or economically) and violent authoritarianism (enforcing citizen’s obedience at the expense of personal freedom). Main characters Callum and Sephy live in a divided and unequal society. Their racial identities define their experiences of the authoritarian state of Aprica which has colonised Albion (England).

The dystopian element of the novel is not the race reversal, but rather the segregation, surveillance, and systemic economic disparity (inequality) that make the racial injustice in the novel a more powerful social criticism of real-world injustices. Blackman uses YA-themes to draw out the effects of dystopia on young people, including inter-racial relationships, struggling with class and family, and the pains of maturity. The television series adaptation is aimed at a slightly older audience than the novels and imagines what would happen if the pair were separated and re-introduced around age 18. In the novel, each chapter is narrated by either Sephy or Callum and they are 13 and 15. 

To find out about the history of dystopian literature, take a look at the Ted-ED animation below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6a6kbU88wu0

Inter-racial relationships and puberty

At the beginning of the novel, Sephy and Callum are just friends, and have been since childhood. Callum’s mum works for Sephy’s family as a housekeeper, and the children have played together since infancy, becoming close despite their differences in economic and racial background. When Callum asks Sephy if he can kiss her on the beach, everything begins to change. The pair go through a funny ‘dance’ of trying to work out which way their heads should tilt, and then kiss. After a few moments, Sephy feels like “someone was tying knots with my insides.” (4) Then she wants to know if he has kissed any other Cross girls, or any other Noughts. This is the first indication of the novel’s racial categories, told through a scene depicting the early blooming of young love as the pair reach puberty and struggle to negotiate their changing feelings.

While Sephy enjoys her family’s private beach, Callum imagines escaping from it all, saying bitterly: “This place is like the whole world and the whole world is like this place. So where could I go?” (5) Here Callum is highlighting how different his experience of living in Albion is from Sephy’s. She can’t imagine running away because her life is charmed, but he feels trapped by the inequality that he can’t escape due to the colour of his skin. She says it’s not so bad. He replies: “Depends on your point of view,” […] “You’re on the inside, Sephy. I’m not.”

Footprints on the beach

This scene is narrated through Sephy’s perspective, and Blackman uses the narration to highlight how privilege can make us blind to the consequences of inequality, even those effects that hurt the ones we love. As the pair’s relationship develops they struggle to understand one another’s worldviews having had such different upbringings despite their closeness, while Callum’s resistance to their dystopian state makes things harder for them.

Class and maturity

As the pair struggle with their feelings, they begin to recognise for the first time how their race has defined their class identities as well. Callum is made to feel stupid because he is white, while Sephy feels special because she is black. In the second chapter of the novel Callum’s narration reveals that his brother is prejudiced against Crosses and he has to struggle to remain calm when Jude cusses Sephy. Callum thinks of Jude: “He’s a really irritating toad,” highlighting the difficult sibling relationship and foreshadowing the danger that Jude’s bitterness threatens.

Arriving home, Callum thinks: “Every time I came back from Sephy’s, I flinched at the sight of the shack that was meant to be my home.” (31) He enters the house and is faced with his anxious mum and angry brother. In the television series, Jude is older and becomes involved in a violent resistance movement, while Callum struggles to be accepted in a military academy usually reserved for Crosses. In both the novel and series, Callum obviously loves his family but must struggle against the assumptions and prejudices they have so that he can decide who he is and what he stands for on his own terms.

In just these first two chapters of the novel, Blackman has used a reversal of race to highlight the absurdity of the ongoing inequalities based on race not only in the UK but around the world. She uses dystopian themes to draw out the absurdity of segregation and economic inequality and in this way makes a criticism of the real world through the terrifying similarities between Albion and England. Dystopia works as a genre to point out and emphasise social problems and anxieties in the real world, and 'Noughts and Crosses' was one of the first in the genre for young adult readers such as yourselves that included questions of race in the mix.

Image credits: 

Artwork of reaching hands - Matheus Viana via Pexels 

Footprints on the beach - Adrianna Calvo via Pexels 

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