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Kids' book depicting blacks as criminal nymphs up for prize

THE CARNEGIE Medal is a British Literary award that recognises new and outstanding books for children and young adults. It’s one of the most prestigious children’s book awards synonymous with quality literature and original ideas. Winners include big names such as Patrick Ness and Sarah Crossnan, so for Mal Peet’s Beck, which is shortlisted this year, a certain level of quality is expected.

However, this novel falls far short. Beck is poorly written and insulting in its representation of black people as over-sexualised criminals.

Set in the 1900’s the young black male protagonist suffers horrific abuse at the hands of Catholic Priests. Characters use racist language and stereotype black people as being a criminal, lazy and untrustworthy - in line with attitudes in the 1900s but, these ideals/problems are not challenged. The issue of abuse remain unresolved and under developed, but what is most offensive is the misrepresentation of black people.

The publication of black and minority ethnic (BAME) authors is problematic. Blackness is under represented in all spheres with a trend of white authors presenting blackness through the white gaze. This is not only prevalent in the Carnegie but also the National Curriculum.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Robin Talley’s The Lies We Tell Ourselves give accurate representations of the state of blackness and is evidence of it working well. Mal Peet’s Beck does not but has been hailed as having the "stoic quality and soul of a Steinbeck tale", according to Publisher's Weekly.

Steinbeck’s sophisticated writing style is highly superior and is no way comparable to the writing style of Beck. One wondered if it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes.

Descriptions of male genitalia is excessive, also with focus also on female breasts. The character Beck only responds to his surname, highlighting unresolved issues of ownership over the black body. He gets involved in gang violence and even kills a man. Grace - the confident leading lady is older and sexually active despite being unmarried. Behaviour not befitting a respectable woman - but in Grace, it’s presented as acceptable. One could argue, because she is not white.

Black characters are found scantily clad around water. The protagonist is placed near a river semi-naked, a lake - fully naked, gets caught out in a thunderstorm so naturally needs get naked to dry off. These kind of scenes saturates this book as well as a scene where our two black characters watch horses copulating - a prequel to a love making scene.

Children’s books have the power to influence lives and therefore author’s have a responsibility to create works of excellence. Accountability for this book must also go to those who presented this for the Carnegie. This book graphically describes genitals, the physical/sexual prowess of black men and women, comparable in context and language to erotic fiction. To present such stereotypes and then do nothing challenge it gives a false impression of a group of people. It is set in the 1900 but written in the 20th century where one would expect more accountability.

The presentation of Beck as good literature, the snub of BAME authors in the Carnegie, as well other good literature to challenge these outdated, stereotypical ideals is shocking, disappointing and insulting - especially in such a high calibre competition as the Carnegie.

One would hope that such a competition would be forging the way ahead, rather than supporting backward ideas of the 1900s.

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