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Naughts and Crosses (thoughts)

December 15, 2010

Have y’all heard of Malorie Blackman, or her YA novel Naughts & Crosses? I hadn’t, until Claire brought her up on twitter. Which is odd to me, since this has a lot in common with current YA best-sellers: it’s set in an alternate, mildly dystopian world, it’s the first in a trilogy, it’s written in the thriller style (lots of action, short chapters, etc.), and it’s got a strong girl as one of the protagonists. Best of all, all three books have already been published, so no fevered waiting! ;) For those of you who have finished with Patrick Ness and Suzanne Collins, Blackman might be the author to fill the void.

I’m going to be honest: I’m glad that I read this, and I think it’s a marvelous book for younger teens (if I were teaching literature, I’d want to do a unit on this), but while I have a lot of admiration for what the author was doing, I didn’t love the book. For the record, I also didn’t love The Knife of Never Letting Go (haven’t read any Collins). It’s just not my style book: I very rarely take to dystopian novels (I know, this makes me a rarity in the blogosphere!) or plot-driven stories. That’s why I doubt I’ll read the sequels, even though I’d highly, highly recommend this to a different style reader. In fact, I’ll probably be getting a copy for my sister for her birthday (she’s getting The Hunger Games for Christmas). :) (Also, a quick note on titles…while it was originally published as Naughts & Crossesin the US, which is the edition my library carried, apparently it’s been re-published as Black & White. I think that was a horrible decision on the part of the publishers but oh well. Also, the British title is Noughts and Crosses, reflecting different spelling usages.) So with that’s disclaimer, let’s talk more about it, shall we?

Blackman has imagined an alternative England that’s similar to apartheid South Africa: a society divided into two castes based on skin colour, in which the minority rules (I don’t think there’s quite the level of legislative racism in place…for instance, I don’t think it’s actually illegal to marry across colour lines in the book). In this case, though, the ruling elite (known as the Crosses) are black while the discriminated-against majority (the Naughts) are white. Blackman handled this wonderfully, and I imagine readers who have never heard of race privilege will have their eyes opened by the everyday, little ramifications it has as well as the bigger ones. There’s one scene, for instance, in which Sephy (the Cross heroine) asks a Naught girl what happened to her forehead, and points out that the brown-coloured bandage is really obvious. The Naught girl responds that it’s impossible to find pink-toned bandages, since all the ‘flesh’ ones are shades of brown. Ding! (This reminds me of one of the current style trends: ‘nude’ clothing…which means, of course, paler shades in the pink, peach, and beige families.) The first hundred or so pages deal with these more psychological effects of racism, and how the life-long friendship between Sephy and Callum (the son of Sephy’s original nanny, who is one of the few Naughts selected to attend Sephy’s super-privileged school due to the government attempting to avoid economic sanctions) becomes strained as Sephy’s eyes are suddenly opened to the racism she lives in and benefits from (although her life is by no means portrayed as perfect). I really connected with this section of the book, especially Callum’s struggles at the school and Sephy’s frustration when her attempts at being nonracist sometimes fail. I wish Blackman had done a bit better job establishing how Sephy and Callum had become so close and maintained their friendship, but I was willing to accept it as a given so that the book would work.

But then, the narrative focus shifts; there is a Naught resistance organisation, part of which uses ‘terrorist’ activity. Callum’s family becomes involved, and since Sephy’s father is a powerful politician, he too becomes involved. There’s a bombing, and a trial, and the whole thing becomes a thriller. At that point, I felt like characterisation had taken a back seat to the plot, and while Blackman is quite skilled at writing a page-turner, I just couldn’t get into it the way I had the earlier stuff. It felt a bit, well, obvious; I think most readers would agree that apartheid South Africa was bad. But not all readers, especially white ones, are aware of the way that racial privilege continues to operate in Western societies today. It this more subtle, but still powerful, influence that I think needs to be discussed more openly by people of all races, so I was a bit frustrated to see the focus shift. Still, as I mentioned earlier, it remains well-written, and I imagine other readers would have the opposite reaction (that the opening was too slow and that it really started getting good when the action picked up!). And the racist aspects of the justice system get explore, which could lead to some good discussions. For American readers in particular (the US is the only Western country that still has capital punishment), the racial angle seems to often get lost in the more philosophical pro/con death penalty arguments. The last few chapters raised a whole other host of issues, one of which annoyed me greatly, but I can’t get into that without giving away the ending.

I wish I had read this book when I was in middle school (it was only published in 2007, so a bit late for me, hehe): it would have opened my eyes to things I only discovered in college. But it’s not just preachy, or a political tirade; Blackman tells a good story, with memorable characters. It didn’t have enough richness for my current tastes…the writing is more a vehicle than the focus on the book and the plot sometimes felt a bit obvious. But it is subtitled a thriller, so I think Blackman achieved her own goals admirably. I just wish this one would become a mega-best seller! I’d love to see more people talking about it.

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41 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2010 12:00 pm

    Glad you enjoyed it, Eva, but sorry you didn’t love it. I appreciate your reservations though & curious to reread as my memory of the series is vague, except for the impact it made (I haven’t read the last in series but borrowed it from library on back of our chat).

    I forgot that you are not a fan of dystopia fiction. I’m shocked that US publishers have changed the title to Black & White – that is missing the point; I love how “naught” equalling zero value is woven into psychology of personal worth.

    The bandage scene is one that stuck in my mind as it really is a wow-why didn’t I realise that implication moment.

    Definitely an intelligent YA series for the discerning teen who enjoyed The Hunger Games etc.

    • December 17, 2010 3:46 am

      My and my dystopian aversion! It’s weird to me that the US hardcover/first print stayed Naughts & Crosses but now the reissue is changed. So weird! I agree that it was very disappointing.

      I’m looking forward to what you think about the last of the series!

  2. December 15, 2010 12:13 pm

    Argggghhh! Why change the title? I always love at school that to start with the kids assume that the kids assume its about race but aren’t quite sure till a good 5 or 6 chapters in.
    I’ve read the second book but not the rest.
    Have you read I am the Messenger by Markus Zuszak – a great YA novel, that isn’t dystopian.

    • December 17, 2010 3:48 am

      I know: it’s really annoying! I’d like to find one of the earlier published ones for my sister’s birthday. I haven’t read I Am the Messenger, although I loved The Book Thief. :) I’ve definitely read some great YA books, so I’ll have to try to track it down!

  3. December 15, 2010 12:16 pm

    Great review, Eva! I liked very much your comment that you didn’t love the book but would recommend it strongly :)

    On the change of title, that is one of the things I feel really sad about. There is a book called ‘Shopclass and Soulcraft : An inquiry into the value of work’ by Matthew Crawford, which got changed to ‘The Case for Working with your hands : or Why Office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good’ in the British edition. What were the publishers thinking?? There is another book called ‘Every man dies alone’ by Hans Fallada which got changed to ‘Alone in Berlin’ in the British edition. In this case too the first title is better. In both cases, I have the wrong edition in my bookshelf :( Sometimes it is frustrating when publishers change a title which is clearly good to something which is neither here nor there. I don’t know what makes them do that.

    On apartheid in South Africa – it was definitely bad. But it looks like in the last twenty years, a new elite has sprung up which is ruling the country, which seems to regard itself above the law (or the law is bent for the high and the mighty – for example, polygamy was made legal in South Africa because the current president has many wives) and normal people still have the same problems they had earlier. The government is even attempting to muzzle the press now. The cynic in me says that, in some places, all systems are the same and the ruling elite is treated above the law irrespective of the system and the common man’s / woman’s lot doesn’t change much. I hope and pray that, that is not true.

    • December 17, 2010 3:50 am

      That’s sad about the title change, although it makes me feel better that UK publishers do it too. That’s awful, isn’t it? (I’ll have to give Shopclass and Soulcraft a go, btw.)

      Don’t get me started on South Africa’s current president. His response to the HIV/AIDS crisis alone is sickening. But I don’t think that lessens the moral atrocity that was apartheid, if that makes sense.

      • December 17, 2010 8:39 am

        Hope you get to read that, Eva. Would love to hear your thoughts on it :) There is a small correction with respect to the title – it is ‘Shopclass as Soulcraft’, as Emily (Evening All Afternoon) has mentioned it.

  4. December 15, 2010 1:38 pm

    YA dystopian fiction is not really my bag either, Eva, but it does at least sound like Blackman does a good job and brings up some great issues that would be thought-provoking for an early teenager while still providing an interesting story to keep them engaged. Some years down the line I’ll start needing some gift ideas for YA readers, and I’ll keep this one in mind!

    Also, I’m kind of horrified at Vishy’s comment that the British publishers changed the name of Shopclass as Soulcraft changed the name – I LOVE the title of that book! Bah humbug.

    • December 17, 2010 3:51 am

      Publishers should just leave well enough alone! Definitely keep it in mind as gifts; a great introduction to issues of race privilege, imo. :)

  5. December 15, 2010 1:40 pm

    Makes me think it has a trace of Atwood as well!

    • December 17, 2010 3:51 am

      Hmmmm….there’s not really the same focus on gender issues as Atwood has. And Atwood’s writing is head and shoulders above Blackman’s. :)

  6. December 15, 2010 2:19 pm

    I don’t like the new title of it at all, I don’t understand why they do that. I bought this a while back but I have yet to read it. I love dystopian novels so I can’t wait to read it.

    • December 17, 2010 3:52 am

      I don’t like it either, although as Jenny pointed out, it might be because of the Tic Tac Toe thing. Can’t wait to see your thoughts on this one!

  7. December 15, 2010 2:58 pm

    I’m so glad you’ve blogged about this! I read noughts and crosses while working as a children’s bookseller and was so pleased to be able to recommend this to teenagers. It is actually used in most UK schools, I think for SATS level (age 14ish) English, and several teachers raved to me about it and how well received it was by the kids. The rest of the series is also good, though focusing on different characters. Its a shame you didn’t love it, but a great review nonetheless. Thanks Eva ;)

    • December 17, 2010 3:52 am

      That’s good that it’s so widespread in the UK! Wish it would become more popular on this side of the pond. And I’m glad you liked my review, despite my lack of love. Definitely an important book.

  8. December 15, 2010 4:21 pm

    I really enjoy YA dystopias, but I hadn’t heard of Naughts and Crosses, so I am very glad to come across this review! The book sounds really interesting, and I’m putting it on my wish list right now. And good on you for being able to write a good (by which I mean helpful) review about a book you yourself didn’t love; I always imagine that must be fairly tough.

    • December 17, 2010 3:53 am

      Thanks Ashley! It wasn’t too tough in this case, because I could tell that I wasn’t Blackman’s intended audience, so it was easy for me to see the good points. But in other instances, I’ve definitely struggled with how to talk about books I didn’t love! And I hope you give the book a go!

  9. December 15, 2010 5:35 pm

    I could never read Ness because of the communication between humans and animals. I just cannot sustain a reasonable suspension of disbelief when it comes to communicating animals.

    • December 17, 2010 3:54 am

      I’m not big on communicating animals either…except Aslan, of course! ;)

  10. December 15, 2010 7:56 pm

    Blacks & Whites? Really? Can you be more obvious? How depressing that people always assume (and are usually proven right) that Americans require things to kick them in the face to understand.

    If you think this book is too teen-melodramatic-dystopic for you, I have a feeling it will be for me, too, as I can’t really continue on with The Hunger Games trilogy. DRAMA drives me insane.

    • December 17, 2010 3:56 am

      I was cranky about that too, until Jenny pointed out they might have been worried abt different usages in British v American English. I’m comforting myself with that at least!

      I’m good with gothic kind of drama, lol. Just not a book that’s so focused on plot!

  11. December 15, 2010 8:06 pm

    This does sound like a really interesting series. I like YA, so might enjoy it :)

    • December 17, 2010 3:56 am

      I’d love to see you talk about this Amy!

  12. December 15, 2010 9:51 pm

    I’m a youth librarian so feel obligated to read dystopian fiction, though it’s not my favorite. I’m intrigued by this title because it seems like something that will get kids to think. Thanks for writing about it!

    • December 17, 2010 3:57 am

      Go you for reading it anyway! I’m happy I could bring this one to your attention. :)

  13. December 15, 2010 10:09 pm

    I expect they changed the title because the meaning doesn’t translate — we call it Tic Tac Toe here. I still think it’s stupid to change it! But I bet that’s why. I agree with you, though, about the book. I like a plot-driven book, but I want to have a sense of the characters, and I didn’t with Blackman’s characters. I enjoyed Noughts and Crosses, and the second and third books slightly less, but I haven’t reread them since the first go-through.

    Having said that, I kind of want to reread them. I have been reading a bunch of brief (a few pages each) biographies of anti-apartheid figures, and I’m curious to see if my reaction to Noughts and Crosses will be any different now that I know a bit more about apartheid.

    • December 17, 2010 3:58 am

      That’s such a good point Jenny! It hadn’t even occurred to me. I’m glad you had a similar reaction to Blackman, so I’m not entirely alone. :)

  14. December 16, 2010 2:44 am

    I’ve heard of this but haven’t read it. I think I’d love it though, I’m one of the dystopian YA fans!

  15. December 16, 2010 2:53 am

    I have a hit and miss ratio with dystopian novels, but I usually like YA dystopian novels. I do like the premise of this book though, will keep this series in mind.

    • December 17, 2010 3:59 am

      Sounds like it’ll be more your style then Viola!

  16. December 16, 2010 4:10 am

    I have been considering this sooo many times but never gotten round to reading it. I will add your recommendation to the list and move it up on my TBR :-)

  17. December 16, 2010 7:57 am

    But Naughts and Crosses is a great title! Man. This sounds like a great though exercise for mid-grade to YA readers who haven’t examined their racial privilege yet.

    • December 17, 2010 3:59 am

      I know: doesn’t it make you want to read it?! Far more than Black and White. *sighs*

  18. December 16, 2010 9:19 am

    Nice touch about the pink-toned bandages. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band-aid that was not for Caucasian skin… and never realized it either! Sound like a good book for a junior bookclub.

    The dumbing-down of titles is one of my pet-peeves and I’m not even American! Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone indeed!

    • December 17, 2010 4:01 am

      Definitely a good junior bookclub choice!

  19. December 17, 2010 4:38 pm

    Yaaay, my library has this! And it has a copy titled Naughts and Crosses, NOT Black and White! Go library! I’m just the type of reader this would appeal to, since I loved to pieces The Knife of Never Letting Go.

  20. December 20, 2010 5:34 pm

    I’m not a huge fan of YA dystopian fiction so this one probably wouldn’t land at the top of my list to read in the near future. That being said, I would probably enjoy this one based on your review.

  21. December 27, 2010 10:01 pm

    I just started reading this a couple hours ago–your review made me really interested in it. And, even though I’m not very far into it, I’m already having a hard time imagining the roles of black and white changed. I feel like that’s something that I should be able to change in my mind’s pictures as I read through, but the inferior black/superior white image is so ingrained in my mind that I can’t picture it very well :( It makes me sad that it’s taking me such effort to imagine something that could have easily been the real past/future.

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