I first read Noughts & Crosses when I was an actual YA; I borrowed it from my school library, and I remember loving it. I can’t remember if I read all four (we’re talking more than a decade ago, now!) but I’m pretty sure I read at least the first three. I may have left high school before the fourth came out.
Aaaaaanyway, Malorie Blackman is awesome, I have time on my hands (yay job hunting!) and I joined a library. Perfect recipe for childhood re-reads, right? Right! I’ve bunched all four of the books together in this post – not because they don’t deserve individual posts, but because that’s how I read them, one after the other in one fell swoop. They’re all kind of part of the same story – they’re in the same universe and timeline, anyway, so it works.
Brief (spoiler free) summaries of each book, then:
Noughts and Crosses: Sephy and Callum are besties. They’re the same age (ish), and practically grew up together. Nothing could ever come between them – until real life intrudes. Callum is white – a Nought, or blanker (rude word alert). His access to education is limited, his chances of being involved in, affected by, or suspected of crime much higher, and his place in society well below Sephy’s. Sephy is black – a Cross, one of the privileged. Generally acknowledged to be better-looking, better behaved, more intelligent, more attractive and just… better. Loosely based on Romeo & Juliet, Noughts and Crosses is Sephy & Callum’s story in an AU where the UK’s history of racial oppression is reversed. The edition I read also contained An Eye For An Eye, a novella that takes place between Noughts and Crosses and Knife Edge, published for World Book Day 2003.
Knife Edge: Set immediately after the events of Noughts and Crosses, Knife Edge tells us what happens next. I can’t say too much more without spoilers (be warned: the blurb of the book itself contains these spoilers, so if you know nothing about what happens and want to keep it that way, just launch straight into reading without checking the back.) The narrative deals with the aftermath of acts of political activism/terrorism (depending on your viewpoint), and focuses on the personal, individual impact.
Checkmate: Here we move on to the next generation. Fifteen years or so after the end of Noughts and Crosses, the youngest generations of Callum and Sephy’s families (and their friends) are facing their own struggles. The world is slowly changing; laws have been updated so that noughts and crosses must all stay in education until at least sixteen, and integrated schooling is more normal now. However, attitudes are much slower to change, and the Liberation Militia (an activist/terror group we meet in the first book) are still going strong.
Double Cross: In the final installment, we remain with the main characters from Checkmate, but focus more on Tobey – the young nought boy who was more of a side character in Checkmate. There’s a shift in issue focus as well; instead of the narrative and issues being focused on politics and race relations (and terrorism vs. freedom fighting), Blackman explores gang culture – although systemic racism, and police prejudice, are threads through all four books. Tobey has a promising future, despite the disadvantages he faces because of his skin colour and background, but it is all too tempting and easy to make some quick cash…
So, my experience of re-reading. To be honest, I’m really not sure I completely appreciated these when I first read them. I mean, I really enjoyed the writing and the story, I remember that much, but I’m not sure I was aware of the horrible reality in which they are based. I don’t think it really sunk in… so it was a bit more harrowing to read them this time around. Recognising elements of history – like the Holocaust and Apartheid – and elements of current politics – like the hate speech and crimes which have been all over the news because of Brexit and Trump – was chilling, especially considering how old the books are now. Surely, surely we should be better at this by now? Apparently not.
Basically, these books should be taught in schools. In my sheltered, white middle-class upbringing, I had no idea of the kind of micro-aggressions (and not so micro aggressions) faced by black and ethnic minority communities and individuals. I just didn’t see it, and I didn’t know. Not at that age. Perhaps if these books had been taught to me alongside my lessons on WW2 and Macbeth – but they weren’t. And this stuff is important.
Aaaanyway, before I get permanently stuck to my soapbox, here’s the TL;DR version:
- These books are brilliantly written. Blackman’s a genuis.
- They cover really important issues such as racism; political bias and corruption; terrorism/activism and that whole spectrum; police brutality; equal rights to healthcare and education; gang culture et al… as well as being accessible stories about teenage romances, childhood friendships, and first loves.
- Although the topics they cover are not light, they are approached in a way that makes them accessible for young readers.
- Just read them.