Socialist Worker

Reading the write thing

YINKA ADEBAYO writes popular children's novels. But you won't find any wizards in his stories. He spoke to Socialist Worker about racism, education and the power of the imagination.

Issue No. 1869

I USED to teach 10 and 11 year olds who were reluctant to leave their computers and read books. To encourage them, I started writing stories about children like them and read them chapters in class. I wanted to give them something they could identify with and they loved it. Harry Potter is written to an old-fashioned formula, like Billy Bunter and the Just William books. It's got the same old public schools and servants.

Kids round here, in Brent and Harlesden, don't live in that world. They have single parents who are sometimes unemployed, they live in high-rise flats, are mixed race, and use language with a different rhythm. I write adventure stories for kids like these. You don't have to go to posh schools or live in big houses to have adventures, face dilemmas and do the right thing. The stories deal with serious issues, too, like bullying. Boyz to Men shows that young people can find their own way of dealing with issues and problems.

I know you can't push messages at children-they have to discover them themselves. In Ragga to Riches, the Drummond Hill Crew go on an adventure to Devon. It's a story about pirates and buried treasure, but it's also about Jamaica and the West Indies and that kind of history. When I suggested the first book to a publishing company I was told that there is no market because black people don't read.

It was so insulting. If the kids I taught go into libraries and book shops, very few books feature characters that look like them. And they face racism. In the 1960s, I was labelled at school because I had an African accent. Teachers reacted to you differently and had different expectations. They loved me when it came to rugby or cricket, but for science or literature, forget it.

I was taunted by racists for weeks and when I struck out it was me who was punished. It hasn't changed much for young black boys today. They face family pressures, get pushed around, become disruptive and then get criminalised. You can get so angry about the racism of the authorities. I was walking in a duffel coat and a meat wagon started driving slowly next to me with all the intimidating truncheons and so on.

It happens once, twice, three times and you get so fed up you argue and, bang, you are arrested and it's a criminal record. I drive a Mercedes and am always being stopped by the police. School exclusions are a huge problem for black pupils. I know teachers can't be social workers, but there are so often social problems at the bottom of the kids' behaviour.

One of the themes in my books is how a young girl copes when her dad loses his job and she has no money. Reading can give kids a sense of hope and self worth. It opens different doors and possibilities. You should see what these kids can do on computers-they are so creative and imaginative. Schools and libraries should have more resources to cater for that. I have visited about 1,000 different schools, almost always in inner cities. I get about 200 letters a month from kids who have read my books.

One mum e-mailed saying her son never read, but after I visited he spent every break reading one of my books. Things like that mean everything to me. White working class kids also really relate to my books because they have the same clothes, music and language. This is universal among inner city working class kids. I hate the fact that my books are stuck in an 'ethnic section' in bookshops.

They relate to all young people who live in inner cities-they should be up there with Harry Potter. Writing is a political exercise for me. During the mid-1970s, I got active in Rock Against Racism, and then the firefighters' strike in the late 1970s and the miners' strike in 1984. I know what it is like to be stepped on and I want people to stand up for themselves. I hope the postal workers win their fight.

Boyz to Men, Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, Livin' Large, The Big Diss, Ragga to Riches and The Glamma Kids are published by X Press, price £3.99.

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Article information

Sat 20 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1869
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