Booker Prize – masterful Scottish working-class story Shuggie Bain wins in most diverse year yet

Douglas Stuart, author of the Booker prize-winning Shuggie Bain.
Clive Smith/Booker

Stevie Marsden, Manchester Metropolitan University

Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain has won the 52nd Booker Prize. The ceremony, normally a glitzy affair with long speeches, readings from shortlisted books and a lavish dinner, was held in a relatively empty Roundhouse Theatre.

The few in attendance included BBC Front Row’s John Wilson, the 2020 Booker Prize Chair of Judges Margaret Busby, last year’s winner Bernadine Evaristo and the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble. The shortlisted authors and guest speakers joined virtually, beamed into the ceremony from their homes.

Whether deliberately or not, this was one of the most politically charged Booker Prize shortlists and winner we’ve ever had. Not only did the ceremony include a video from former President Barack Obama, who wished the shortlisted authors luck and expounded on the importance of reading, but the shortlist and eventual winner also echo the most significant and complex challenges we have faced throughout 2020.

The entire shortlist speaks to our current cultural moment – covering themes such as climate change, existential anxiety, the challenges of familial care, racial micro-aggressions and class prejudice. The winner explores issues of childhood poverty, parental alcoholism and emotional neglect in 1980s Glasgow, issues which remain alarmingly relevant in 2020. The pandemic has highlighted social inequalities throughout the UK, particularly the vulnerability of the 4.2 million children living in relative poverty.

It seems that Shuggie Bain’s relevance in 2020 was clear to the prize judges who reportedly took only an hour to come to the unanimous decision to select the winner. Busby said that Shuggie Bain was “destined to become a classic”.

A diverse longlist

There is no doubt that prize shortlists – whether for literature, film or art – reflect the cultural and political moment in which they exist. This may seem an obvious point since all forms of art are influenced by the context within which they’re created. But it is nonetheless important to remember that prizes are not only celebrations of artistic endeavour; but are a kind of time capsule, capturing the cultural moment in which they were chosen.

This year we’ve sought out art and literature that helps us make sense of the systemic political and social inequities embedded within society. This was seen by the rise of sales of books such as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race in response to the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer. This surge in sales led to Eddo-Lodge becoming the first black British author to top UK book charts.

The 2020 Booker Prize has contributed to this moment too. This year’s longlist was one of the most diverse in the prize’s history. On the shortlist, four of the six books were debut novels and four of the six shortlisted authors are writers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. It was also the most diverse judging panel ever.

During the ceremony, Busby was reluctant to suggest that the diverse selection of books was deliberate. She did, however, acknowledge that publishing still had some way to go “in terms of including people from a different demographic […] people from different classes, different ethnicities, different regions of the country”.

More work to be done

The Booker Prize itself has historically replicated inequities. It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t until 2015 that the judging panel included a black judge, and Bernadine Evaristo was the first black woman to win the prize in 2019 (even then she had to share it with Margaret Atwood).

While the diversity of the authors and stories on the shortlist might suggest that publishing has made demonstrable progress in recent years, the Rethinking Diversity in Publishing report published earlier this year reminds us otherwise. The industry is far from implementing significant changes. Publishers continue to make broad assumptions about their core (white, middle-class) audiences, fail to reach diverse audiences, and undervalue writers and readers from BAME and working-class backgrounds.

Stuart is only the second Scottish author to ever win the award. He follows James Kelman’s 1994 win for How Late It Was, How Late, a novel which also explored poor, working-class life in Glasgow.

So, while we should celebrate the 2020 Booker Prize for its diversity in voice, representation and themes, it has been borne of a specific moment in which we have been forced to examine societal inequities and structural inequalities. And we cannot become complacent about the enduring need to continue this work.The Conversation

Stevie Marsden, Tutor in Publishing, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Marcus Rashford’s book club couldn’t come at a better time – children’s reading is at a 15-year low

It is important that children sees themselves in the books that read.

Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, UCL

England international footballer and child poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford has announced that he is launching a book club. The initiative will distribute books to children, particularly those from vulnerable and underprivileged backgrounds, in order to promote reading and literacy.

Studies have shown us how vital reading – specifically reading for pleasure – is for academic and economic success, as well as for mental health (among other things). Reading, according to the National Literary Trust, encourages children (particularly girls) to dream about the future.

But the number of children reading every day for pleasure is at its lowest since the National Literacy Trust started monitoring it in 2005. In 2019, only 26% of young people (under 18) read every day. Although engagement with books has risen during lockdown, some children have faced greater barriers due to library closures, amongst other things.

Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen has said these findings should act as “a wake-up call for the government”. And we already know that Rashford can cause a stir at Westminster. So his intervention could become a much-needed force for change.

Rashford says that reading and books are cool. Children who own books are more than twice as likely to agree that reading is cool than those who don’t. But what if you don’t have access to books, like 384,000 children and young people (mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds) in the UK? And, more specifically, what if you don’t have access to books that you can see yourself in?

My own research, along with that of the Reflecting Realities project by the
Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, has also demonstrated how woefully underrepresented people of colour are in children’s books and children’s authorship. A few weeks ago, my new BookTrust Represents report was published in conjunction with the new Centre For Literacy In Primary Education (CLPE) report, which tracks the number of children’s books by and about people of colour published in the UK.

Read more:
Five books to read to children that adults will enjoy

Both reports show progress over the past three years (2017-2019): the number of protagonists of colour increased fivefold, from 1% (2017) to 5% (2019), while the number of authors of colour increased from 5.58% to 8.68%.

It is important to stress that these numbers are still very low, particularly when we consider that 33.5% of school-age children in the UK are from ethnic minority backgrounds. There is a long way to go before representation in children’s books and publishing authentically mirror UK society. And it will take collective action to break down the systemic barriers that cause under- (and mis-) representation.

Reaching a wider audience

This is why initiatives like Rashford’s book club are very welcome. In light of my research, I support the book club’s focus on quality inclusive youth literature: books that are authentically representative of the society that we live in. “No matter where you grow up”, Rashford wrote in a statement, “talent should be recognised and championed”.

Books provide insight into a variety of different lives and cultures. They have an important role in holding up a mirror to the world or offering a window into another. What they reflect impacts how young readers see themselves and the world around them. Inclusive books are important for children of all ethnicities and from all socio-economic backgrounds.

This new book club, with Rashford at the helm, will bring inclusive books into the consciousness of a much wider audience. Rashford has already made strides in tackling inequality in the UK and this initiative will help bridge the cultural and educational divide.

Rashford will also co-author several books, in partnership with MacMillan Children’s Books, beginning with You Are A Champion: Unlock Your Potential, Find Your Voice And Be the Best You Can Be, based on Rashford’s life (May 2021). Two books, aimed at children over six, will follow in 2022. This age group is significant because it covers a critical period in academic development where there is often a decline in children reading for pleasure.

Rashford can now add author and cultural gatekeeper to his list of accolades, and, by centring himself as such, will be a role model to aspiring writers and publishers – something my previous BookTrust Represents report highlighted as an enabler for young people of colour to join the industry.

Don’t forget about existing authors, books, and publishers

While this intervention by Rashford is exciting, it’s important to acknowledge the activists, authors, publishers, and booksellers that have been supporting inclusive youth literature for decades. Bookshops and supermarket bookshelves may be dominated by bestselling and celebrity books, but other books, with smaller marketing budgets abound. Here are five of my favourite books for young people (published in 2020), by British authors of colour, to tide you over until Rashford’s book club begins next year:

  1. The Infinite by Patience Agbabi: A time-travelling mystery and adventure by a much-celebrated poet.

  2. When Secrets Set Sail by Sita Bramachari: Another magical book, on a hidden part of Indian history, by this stalwart author.

  3. The Girl Who Became a Tree: A Story Told in Poems by Joseph Coelho: Ancient legends and modern-day grief merge in this book in verse.

  4. Boy, Everywhere by A M Dassu: A beautifully written debut about the plight of Syrian refugees.

  5. When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten: Another dreamy debut about friendship, loss, and small-town life.The Conversation

Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, Associate Professor of Publishing and Book Cultures, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: how many climate crisis books will it take to save the planet?

Ben White/Unsplash, CC BY

Ian Lowe, Griffith University

It’s that time of the year again. Brochures and emails spruik a bumper crop of new books about the climate crisis.

Book cover: Bill Gates How to Avoid a Climate Disaster


This time there are some really big names: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, Climate Crisis and the Global New Deal by Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, All We Can Save by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, What Can I Do? The Truth About Climate Change and How to Fix It by Jane Fonda, as well as new efforts from David Attenborough and Tim Flannery.

The incoming tide of new books makes me reflect and wonder whether writing still more books about climate change is a waste of precious time. When the UN is calling for governments to act to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, are books just preaching to the converted? My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean publishing, buying or reading more books is the answer to our climate emergency right now.

Read more:
Friday essay: thinking like a planet – environmental crisis and the humanities

Decades of books

In April, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the New York Times told readers this might be the year they finally read about climate change. But many already have.

The earliest titles date back to 1989: The Greenhouse Effect, Living in a Warmer Australia by Ann Henderson-Sellers and Russell Blong; my own contribution, Living in the Greenhouse, and the first book aimed at the US public, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

Book cover: planet earth image. By Al Gore.


The science was still developing then. We knew human activity was increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Measurable changes to the climate were also clear: more very hot days, fewer very cold nights, changes to rainfall patterns.

The 1985 Villach conference had culminated in an agreed statement warning there could be a link, but cautious scientists were saying more research was needed before we could be confident the changes had a human cause. There were credible alternative theories: the energy from the Sun could be changing, there could be changes in the Earth’s orbit, there might be natural factors we had not recognised.

By the mid-1990s, the debate was essentially over in the scientific community. Today there is barely a handful of credible climate scientists who don’t accept the evidence that human activity has caused the changes we are seeing. The agreed statements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, led to the Kyoto Protocol being adopted in 1997.

And so — as the urgency being felt by the scientists increased — more books were published.

Former US vice president and 2007 Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis was first published in 2008 and has since been issued in 20 editions. There have been more than enough books to furnish a list of the top 100 bestselling titles on the topic, recommended by the likes of Elon Musk and esteemed climate scientists and commentators. The ones I have acquired fill an entire bookcase shelf — dozens of titles describing the problem, making dire predictions, calling for action.

Girl walks through bookshop.
Preaching to the converted might not be such a bad thing.
Becca Tapert/Unsplash, CC BY

Read more:
‘The Earth was dying. Killed by the pursuit of money’ — rereading Ben Elton’s Stark as prophecy

Deeds not words

Does the new batch of books risk spreading more despair? If the previous books didn’t change our climate trajectory then what is the point in making readers feel the cause is hopeless and a bleak future is inevitable?

Book cover: What can I do? by Jane Fonda


No. Writing more books isn’t a waste of time, but they also shouldn’t be a high priority at the moment. The point of writing a book is to summarise what we know about the problem and identify credible ways forward.

Those were my goals when I wrote Living in the Greenhouse in 1989 and Living in the Hothouse in 2005. The main purpose of the first book was to draw attention to a problem that was largely unrecognised, trying to inform and persuade readers that we needed to take action. By the release of the second book, the aim was to counter the tsunami of misinformation unleashed by the fossil fuel industry, conservative institutions and the Murdoch press. Rupert Murdoch spoke at News Corp’s AGM this week, maintaining: “We do not deny climate change, we are not deniers”.

But there are two reasons why I’m not working on a third book right now.

The first is time. If I started writing today, it would be late next year before the book would be in the shops. We can’t afford another year of inaction. More importantly, the inaction of our national government is not a result of a lack of knowledge.

On November 9, United Nations chief António Guterres said the world was still falling well short of the leadership required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050:

Our goal is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Today, we are still headed towards three degrees at least.

Some believe the inaction is explained by the corruption of our politics by fossil fuel industry donations. Others see is a fundamental conflict between the concerted action needed and the dominant ideologies of governing parties. Making decision-makers better informed about the science won’t solve either of these problems.

They might be solved, however, by the evidence that a growing majority of voters want to see action to slow climate change.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has focused, rather than distracted, the community on the risks of climate change. A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group of 3,000 people across eight countries found about 70% of respondents are now more aware of the risks of climate change than they were before the pandemic. Three-quarters say slowing climate change is as important as protecting the community from COVID-19.

The growing awareness and sense of urgency are backed by another recent study looking at internet search behaviour across 20 European countries. Researchers found signs of growing support for a post-COVID recovery program that emphasises sustainability.

Kids climate books on shelf.
Books have also educated young readers on the climate emergency.

Read more:
Why it doesn’t make economic sense to ignore climate change in our recovery from the pandemic

Change is happening, more is needed

Still, preaching to the converted is not necessarily a bad thing. They might need to be reminded why they were persuaded that action is needed, or need help countering the half-truths and barefaced lies being peddled in the public debate. Books can fulfil that mission. So can speaking to community groups, which I do regularly.

I tell audiences the urgent priority now is to turn into action the knowledge we have about the accelerating impacts of climate change and economically viable responses. Our states and territories now have the goal of zero-carbon by 2050, so I am giving presentations spelling out how this can be achieved. We urgently need the Commonwealth government to catch up to the community.

Climate action protest sign above crowd.
Mass protests have called for environmental leadership.
Unsplash/Markus Spiske, CC BY

Change is happening rapidly. More than 2 million Australian households now have solar panels. Solar and wind provided more than half of the electricity used by South Australia last year and that state achieved a world-first on the morning of October 11: for a brief period, its entire electricity demand was met by solar panels.

The urgent task is not to publish more books on the crisis, but to change the political discourse and force our national government to play a positive role.The Conversation

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.