I’ve been following Knights Of publishers for a while now. Founded by David Stevens and Aimee Felone, they specialise in publishing diverse and inclusive children’s fiction. What’s not to like about that? Children’s books should be diverse and inclusive. Children need to see not only themselves represented in the books they read, but they also need to see as many different races, religions, abilities, genders etc represented in books to learn about and accept the whole wonderful spectrum that exists in the human race.
And yet, Knights Of and their authors come in for criticism for publishing the books they do. Can you believe that? Unfortunately, I can. Because when people are faced with something they don’t understand or something that is unfamiliar or unknown to them, their initial reaction is caution, fear, defence and/or aggression in varying amounts. This is actually quite a natural reaction if you think about how we have evolved. Humans wouldn’t have lasted quite so long on this earth if, when faced with a lion for the first time, we’d walked up and patted it on the head! However, we’ve come a long way since then. This is the 21st century and we should be able to rationalise these instincts and face the things we don’t understand with curiosity and an open mind.
Last September the CLPE’s follow-up report on ethnic representation in children’s literature found that there had been a slight increase from their previous report. But the figures are still terrible. Whilst BAME pupils make up 33.1% of the school population, only 7% of children’s books feature BAME characters and only 4% feature a BAME main character. They also discovered that BAME characters are often still drawn (both in illustrations and their written depictions) in a very stereotyped way and the characters are often tokenistic. As a white writer, this is something I often find difficult myself, but I’m determined to educate myself and do better at this. Knights Of is certainly determined to redress the balance.
So, on to High Rise Mystery. Written in the first person, the main character is Sharna Jackson’s middle grade novel (8-12 year group) is 11-year-old Anika ‘Nik’ Alexander. Together with her older sister Norva, they find themselves investigating a murder after they discover the body of a neighbour in a rubbish skip in the refuse area of their tower block ‘The Tri’. The book opens on “the hottest day of the year so far” and the weather doesn’t break until the end of the book, a popular device in film, theatre and books to convey rising tension. Sharna Jackson does a great job of making the reader feel the heat too. I started reading it on a particularly hot day, but even on cooler days I could almost feel the sweat trickling down my back and smell the stench of the stairwell and refuse area!
Nik and Norva make perfect detective partners, playing off each other as well as Holmes and Watson, Wells and Wong or Tommy and Tuppence. Nik is scientific, liking cold, hard facts and logical deduction. Norva goes by instinct and flies by the seat of her pants more. The girls don’t always see eye-to-eye; their characters clash and the tension is high as they try to not only solve the murder but also clear their father’s name. I don’t know if Sharna Jackson has a sister, but as the younger of two sisters myself, I thought their roles were painted excellently.
The plot rattles along with never a dull moment and includes twists and turns to keep the reader hooked. The secondary characters are all as well-rounded as Nik and Norva. Sharna Jackson’s handling of race and racism was also a great lesson for me. Any references to racism were experienced through the character’s eyes and the characters are just, well, themselves. There are black characters, Asian characters, an Eastern European character and white characters. But these characters are not defined by their races or racial stereotypes. They aren’t present in a tokenistic way. They simply reflect the diverse nature of Nik and Norva’s community. The book isn’t about race and racism, it’s about a girl and her sister solving a murder. And it’s very very good. As an aspiring writer, it’s one of those books you read and think, ‘Damn, I’m not sure I can ever write as well as that. There’s no hope for me!’
High Rise Mystery is available from Round Table Books, a bookshop set up by Knights Of, and of course all good book stores. I was not paid to write this review and I bought my own copy of High Rise Mystery. I am not affiliated to Knights Of or Round Table Books.