Author Patrice Lawrence, writing for ITV News on the day of the British Book Awards, explains how she came to update a children's series she deliberately avoided as a child.
It was impossible to avoid Enid Blyton when I was a child. I was Famous Five more than Secret Seven, Wishing Chair more than Faraway Tree. But I was never, ever boarding school be it Malory Towers or St Clare’s.
I don’t think it was a conscious decision. Enid Blyton was certainly prolific enough with her other series to keep my imagination fuelled. Yet, something about the boarding school series pushed me away.
I spent my first few years living with a family on a council estate in Whitehawk, underneath the shadow of Brighton Racecourse. Sometimes I used to pass the imposing and daunting-looking Roedean girls’ school on the bus. It felt so distant from my very happy reality and killed any enthusiasm for stories about boarding schools perched on the edge of cliffs. There were so many other books calling for my attention.
Secondly, and more far-reaching, it wasn’t until I started school that I learned that I was black – and that black wasn’t a good thing to be. I had always been vaguely aware that my skin was darker than virtually everyone else I knew, except my parents and Floella Benjamin on Play School. I had absolutely no idea that this could matter. On my first day of primary school, I was soon disavailed of that notion by a boy with a limited but effective repertoire of racist epithets. And throughout my school days, there was always at least one kid who worked exceedingly hard to remain up to date on the latest insults and relished the opportunity to practise them on me.
So why would I want to read about school when I could visit the Slipperies on a winged chair or foil smugglers (again) with the Famous Five?
Come the teenage years, come the literary greats – Stephen King, Jilly Cooper and James Herbert. I mean this with all sincerity. They taught me how to draw readers in with a hook and a good story. (And Jilly Cooper and James Herbert taught me – um – so much more.) Blyton was easily forgotten.
Forgotten, until last year. Hachette, who publish my novels for teenagers, asked me if I wanted to write a story set in the Malory Towers universe. So at the ripe old age of 50, I read them. And I loved them.
The core of the book is female friendships. Even now, these friendships are fundamental to my life but I was recently reminded how they shaped my 13-year-old self. A couple of years ago, my younger brother found my teenage diary. It is mortifying, especially as he WhatsApped the juicier pages and sent them to me as a preview. My diary is page after page of cursive script, some in real old school ink pen. There are lists of Christmas presents (‘a dingly dangly’?), top tunes (David Essex, Oh What a Circus) and a table recording the dates when the object of my unrequited love looked at me. (It’s titled ‘Happenings’. Nothing did). But mostly it records the ins and out of my friendship group. More than 35 years later, I can read those paragraphs and be back outside the phone box while Jenny works up to phoning the boy she likes. I’m walking to school with Lucy and gossiping about the girls in my registration group who I find it hard to talk to. I’m trying to hold together my breaking heart as my best friend at school becomes friendlier with someone else. There are Halloween parties and netball competitions and English residentials and even the memorable afternoon spent at the Crawley engineering expo. I was particularly enthralled by the fudge-wrapping machine.
The girls of Malory Towers – Darrel, Sally, Mary, Alice, even Gwendoline – are girls I recognise. They are ambitious, selfish, supportive, bad-tempered, resourceful and flawed. But none of them look like me. Throughout most of my life, I’ve done an ‘ethnic hop’ to be able to immerse myself in stories. As that boy on my first day at school taught me, a brown-skinned girl could have very different experiences from their white peers. That’s if that girl was deemed worthy enough to be a main character at all.
So that’s why I enrolled Marietta in Malory Towers. I want young women of colour to know that they can go anywhere. I want them to know that their potential to own their own stories is limitless. Whatever messages they may have received to the contrary, I want them to know that they belong. And if their mum’s a boxer – all the better.