Inside the Brain of... Awarding winning author Alex Wheatle part 2

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by Helen Dugdale

Mar 2017

Alex Wheatle Portrait 2 Small

This month we publish the second part of our interview with winner of the Guardian’s 2016 Children’s Fiction Prize writer, Alex Wheatle, aka The Brixton Bard. Writer of Liccle Bit, Crongton Knights and the soon-to-be published Straight Outta Crongton. Read on.

How will you use your title of Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize Winner as a platform for expressing your views and beliefs – how will you use your influence?    

Already I’ve lent my name to trying to save Sutton Coldfield libraries and I’m expecting to do much more of that and much more speaking out about it. It’s ridiculous. Living in London, where my own council, in my formative years, Lambeth Council, are proposing to shut down five libraries out of the ten libraries they have which is scandalous. Especially when you can go into the City of London and you see tall buildings going up almost every day of the week. These corporate, global companies spending millions upon millions of pounds and euros and you can’t even save a library. To me there’s extreme imbalance here. For me they are places of learning. There’s still so many families who don’t have the money to spend on books, things that people might view as luxuries. Several governments have said they have to count how many people use libraries – but you could go in there to read a newspaper or use it as a meeting hub.

How can reading change or save lives?

I try to use my own personal story about how books have helped me out. How reading opened a world for me. Reading books makes you learn empathy. I think that’s so important, especially as children are growing up. Sometimes they live in households where there is no empathy but they can access that through books and that’s a great thing. You hear about these terrible knife crimes and so on in the city, and not just in the city but elsewhere, and I’m convinced that if these young people who are committing these crimes, actually read a great deal I think it would be less likely that they would take up a knife and take someone else’s life. Through reading and learning empathy, you learn the value of life.

The importance of reading for pleasure

That is so important. There’s one of two schools that I have visited and the teachers actually have story time and the end of the day they read for half an hour, even to 13, 14, 15 year olds. Its human nature, kids enjoy being told stories. The school is in Dulwich, one of the Harris Academies, and they read for half an hour and the kids just really enjoy it. Kids are kids, they all need that closeness, they still need time, they still need to interact. I think the education system in this country is missing a trick here. They want students to be involved, they want students to learn empathy, they want students to read and write well - well one of the best ways is by reading to them and making them read for pleasure. If you’ve got a very good English teacher with very good diction, cadence, adding dramatic pauses – it adds so much. It’s much easier to love English if you love the written word and you love stories.

PART Two

Which characters from your own reading have particularly stayed with you?

Growing up, maybe I didn’t read a book, but Oliver Twist was a character who I could really relate to, in fact, all of those kids in Fagin’s den. Adventure stories too, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, but when you get older – 8, 9, 10 – you want to play football and do other stuff rather than read and so reading began again in my late teens. Then I was reading the Harlem Renaissance writers, people like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, The Native Boy had a big impression on me. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison had a massive influence. I’d read anything, even Little Dorrit. I read a lot of Dickens. All these stories are basically working class narratives. Even the new wave of British writing in the 50s, playwrights like John Osborne, had an impact on me. Alan Sillitoe, who wrote Saturday Night, Sunday Morning - these were all made into films - but there was a new wave of angry British working class writing and it had a profound effect on me. Even Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath - it’s set in a dustbowl of America but even then I could relate to those characters. It’s emotions I’m engaging with, emotions surround me in my situation, so living in Brixton with no work, I could relate every little bit to those characters. It’s a wide bag. Anything that I could relate my own circumstances to, I would read. We need more working class narratives now, I think that’s what’s missing today in children’s fiction but it’s getting better. It’s a lot better than it was.

How early did you know language had power?

I guess it’s in songs that stayed with me, not just books. I think very early on, I heard Sam Cooke singing ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ - songs like those stay with you. Later on, reggae filled my head with lots of words, meaning and life affirmations. Marley came into my life, Burning Spear and people like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Films too! Going back even further, I used to love the 8 reel comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. When you look into Charlie Chaplin’s work now, as an adult, you can see that he was writing or performing about his memories living in South London. ‘The Kid’, up to this day, makes me almost weep. It’s about an orphan he’s trying to look after and the social services are trying to take that kid away from him. You could tell that’s from life experience. So I can even get something out of those short stories, I can relate to them, or I can say, ‘Oh right, somebody’s talking or wants to tell a story about my world.’

How did you adapt language to relate to Young Adult readers?

You have to engage children, don’t you? People forget that language changes. I mean, obviously, we do not speak as per a Shakespeare play. Language has moved on. Language has evolved because writers such as Tolkien and writers before him have come up with new words, and slang has come into the mainstream – that’s how language changes. If you’re innovative, young people love that so they buy into it. It’s like music - music evolves doesn’t it? Like Rock ‘N’ Roll turned into British Beat Pop and so on, and then hard rock, progressive rock, so it moves along. Writing does the same thing. Writers coming up with new ideas and innovations and ways to use English language. What I like about it is that it evolves almost every few months. It never stands still and so as a writer it’s very hard to ‘nail it’ – you have to have an ear for it first. Pay attention. It’s really difficult to lock down so I thought it might be easier if I could kind of poach a phrase here, a phrase there and then mix in my own kind of concoctions. That’s what you see in Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights. Rigidness in language, for me, is not a way to engage children in the love of books and story-telling, and that’s what you really want as a lover of books - you want reading for pleasure.