Note: this is a re-run (or updated version) of a post from my previous site/blog, so if it feels a bit déjà vû, it’s not you: it’s me.
I have added to and adapted this slightly since its original run. There is more here for A Level Language in particular.
- Age range: YA (12+)
- Themes: as this is an anthology, these are really varied, but include: love, sexuality, racism, islamophobia, bereavement, refugees, OCD, friendship, punishment, fantasy, time travel, fairness, identity.
- Narrative style and genre: again, varied by the story/poem – pretty much the full possible range is covered, with first and third person perspectives, present and past tense and genres from realism to fantasy; history through contemporary to near-future dystopian.
This book is a superb introduction to a range of BAME writers working in the UK today. In this collection, they all tackle the theme of ‘change’ in short stories and poems for a Young Adult audience. The collection features many well-known authors such as Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence and Nikesh Shukla, but the publishers also held open submission slots for previously unpublished and and unagented writers and the collection thus introduces four new voices: Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Yasmin Rahman and Phoebe Roy. The project demonstrates a serious attempt to tackle the issue of BAME representation in YA writing, and since its publication, the publisher has also announced other proactive measures to increase opportunities for writers in this under-represented area.
The anthology is a showcase of crisp, entertaining writing for young people in a range of styles by today’s top writers from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s great to see the range of ways in which the theme of ‘change’ has been interpreted, some with a political slant, others much more fantastical. For example:
- Tanya Byrne’s story Hackney Moon is a gorgeous lesbian love story with an omniscient, God-like narrator. If you could read the whole story with a class, you could enjoy discussing the narrator’s character and function.
- Catherine Johnson’s story Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances! is a historical story of circus folk dealing with the death of their leader, with a historical note explaining her sources. Again, plenty of opportunity to discuss how writers work with source material there.
- Yasmin Rahman’s Fortune Favours the Bold is the story of a teenage Muslim girl with anxiety getting through the day after a terrorist attack. This story offers plenty of moral discussion opportunities.
- Patrice Lawrence’s story The Clean Sweep is a dystopian tale set in a version of Brighton where young offenders have been sent to be watched by the rest of the country/world as they are washed away (or possibly saved by a vote). Reading this story would allow useful exploration of structure, as the plot points and turning points come thick and fast.
- Aisha Bushby’s Marionette Girl is a diary-style, incredibly detailed journal of a girl with OCD who reaches a turning point in her illness. Lots of chance for empathy-based discussions here, and perhaps to focus on the language we use around mental health and why it’s inappropriate to label behaviours/people ‘OCD/depression’ etc when those labels belong to debilitating conditions.
Obviously, on the whole I am 100% behind this book. As a project to increase representation, it is sorely needed, but it is so much more than that. It wouldn’t work if the stories in it weren’t good and they are GREAT.
GCSE Language practice tasks
Here is a set of GCSE-style questions on one of the story openings. These are based on AQA Eng Lang Paper 1 as that’s what I have most experience of as a fitting paper for a twenty-first century text.
Use the first section of The Clean Sweep (to the second paragraph on p. 148: ‘…could hate us even more’) as the full extract.
1. Read again the first two paragraphs. List four things about the boys’ plan. (4 marks)
2. Look in detail at paragraphs two and three. How does the writer use language here to describe Emo and Daphne?
- You could include the writer’s choice of:
- words and phrases
- language features and techniques
- sentence forms (8 marks)
3. You now need to think about the whole of the source. This text is the opening to a story. How has the writer structured it to interest you as a reader?
- You could write about:
- What the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning
- how and why the writer changes this focus as the source develops
- any other structural features that interest you (8 marks)
4. Focus this part of your answer on the second part of the source, from paragraph 5 to the end.
A student, having read this part, said: “The writer really shows the characters’ desperation in this extract. It comes through in everything from the description of the setting to the narrative voice.’
To what extent do you agree?
In your response, you could:
- write about your own impressions of the characters’ desperation
- evaluate how the writer has created these impressions
- support your opinions with references to the text. (20 marks)
Lesson builder on representation issues (and stealth-recommending the collection to students)
These activities can be selected from for GCSE or KS3 students. Alternatively, the book could be used early in an A level English Language course to introduce the idea of representation at a broader level than linguistic. It might then be interesting (if disheartening) to look at some texts that represent ethnicity differently to this one. For example, a close analysis of the foreword (similarly to below) could be paired with arguments against decolonising the curriculum (or simply introducing Black History into it). Even a small selection of tweets could be used to show the use of e.g. different noun phrases and pronouns and the assumptions behind these – who is in/out, us/them etc.
Starter to highlight the gap in representation: How many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers or characters from fiction can students come up with? In pairs, students could work separately on either characters or authors each, and then pair and share their ideas.
Non-fiction work: the collection features a thoughtful and thought-provoking foreword by Darren Chetty (@rapclassroom – well worth a follow). If you’re considering using this book in the classroom, or having copies in your classroom library, a lesson based on the foreword would be a constructive way to highlight the book to students. This text can be used to open up debate on representation and interventions such as this project. Students could be invited to discuss issues such as:
- the eternal problem of minority writers being expected to record only the minority experience (e.g. gay lit reduced to ‘coming out’ stories, BAME writers being expected to write only about racism)
- the question of privileged writers writing from minority positions (but what about imagination?)
- public perceptions of special collections such as this one
- how/why increased and improved representation is important to minority or less privileged groups
Additional resource: a further text that could supplement this work is Tanya Byrne’s excellent article for the Guardian on the issue of BAME representation and resistance. (There are a couple of examples of strong language in this piece, so you may want to use caution with younger students). Again, this is a great text to open up debate, and it raises the issues particularly clearly. Students could be asked to trace Byrne’s arguments and/or look at how she gathers and presents her evidence in order to convince her audience. Tracking this through the piece via a flow diagram is a useful way of visualising it.
Creative approach: students could be asked to plan and perhaps also produce their own narrative on the theme of change. This may (or may not) be followed by a discussion of the stories and poems in the collection themselves.
I think if I had the space to use this anthology like a set text, I would teach from the foreword as discussed here, then set a creative writing challenge, then explore the stories. In reality, of course, it’s more likely that most of us can only sneak in one extract as a means of ‘teasing’ the book and hopefully encouraging some students to read it. I think both non-fiction and lit-focused tasks have the chance to do that with different classes, depending on their interests.
I do hope somebody out there uses some of this. Please do let me know!