Dapo Adeola on his illustration marking Malorie Blackman winning the 2022 PEN Pinter Prize
I’m not going to lie, when I first received the email containing this commission, I was quite nervous. Malorie Blackman has been writing amazing stories that have impacted British culture for over three decades. Over the years, she’s written children’s books for kids of various ages, stage plays, and award-winning television scripts. How was I going to sum up the career of someone like that in one piece of art? Nervous as I was, there was no way I was going to pass on this.
I decided to take a few well-known, key moments in Malorie’s career and pay tribute to them in a piece that captures her playful imagination. This is a breakdown of the key elements that make up the image. There’s a little something for every Malorie Blackman fan.
Floating in a bubble in the top left is 13-year-old Cameron, the protagonist of one of Malorie’s best-known books: Pig-Heart Boy, published in 1999. Cameron has a serious heart condition and urgently needs a transplant. After being declined twice for an operation, he’s chosen for a revolutionary procedure that involves him receiving the heart of a pig. Things become strained when the nature of Cameron’s operation leaks to the media, and chaos ensues in his personal and family life. Pig-Heart Boy was adapted for television, winning several awards, including a BAFTA for Best Children’s Drama. Malorie’s writing turned out to be about two decades ahead of the science; January 2022 saw the first successful case of a human patient receiving a transplanted pig heart. I like to think this is a testament to the genius of Malorie’s imagination.
In the top right, framing the drawing of Callum and Sephy kissing, is Malorie’s laureate medal. In 2013, Malorie made history as the first Black Waterstones UK Children’s laureate. Despite this appointment coming with its share of racially motivated difficulties, she stepped up to her role with grace, knowledge and passion. Along with inspiring children around the country to enjoy reading and feel seen, she ran a nationwide creative writing competition called Project Remix, and helped set up the first Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC). She finished her term in 2015, leaving behind a legacy that helped pave the way for talents like myself to come into the industry years later.
Noughts & crosses
The Noughts & Crosses series is arguably Malorie’s most impactful body of work to date. It’s the story of Sephy and Callum, who live in a world where racial injustice is flipped on its head, with Black people as the dominant social power/class and White people as the oppressed. It’s a masterfully written story about forbidden love and racial issues. To represent this, I’ve drawn a picture of the couple locked in a kiss, and butterflies with a noughts-and-crosses pattern on their wings.
In the far left of my piece is the most well-recognised phone box in history, the Tardis from Dr Who. I love that Malorie is a sci-fi fan. Back in October 2018, the Dr Who episode ‘Rosa’, which she co-wrote with screen writer Chris Chibnall, debuted on the BBC, with Malorie making history as the first non-white writer to contribute to a script for the show. The episode sees the Dr and her companions travel to 1955 Alabama, to stop a time-travelling criminal from preventing Rosa Parks influencing the American Civil rights movement during the Montgomery bus boycott.
We’re going to find the monster
Floating in bubbles just beneath our forbidden lovers are Charlie and Eddie, the protagonists of mine and Malorie’s picture book. There was no way I wasn’t going to include these two in this artwork. The story is a wonderful, imaginative retelling of Malorie’s 1999 book Marty Monster. Published in 2021, We’re Going to Find the Monster follows Charlie and Eddie journeying through magical lands, trying to find a monster before breakfast-time. Working on this book was a highlight of my young career; not only did I get to work with a living legend, I also got to bring to life this wonderful, witty story, which has had an impact on children across the country. Malorie gave me free rein to bring my imagination out to play in the telling of this story, and this led to a small bit of history being made: the first time a protagonist with vitiligo was seen front and centre on the cover of a commercially published children’s book – a book in which the story in no way centred on her skin condition, just her and her brother’s vibrant and wonderful imagination.
Chilling out on her laptop in the bottom-right corner is Vicky, the protagonist of Malorie’s 1991 debut Hacker – the one that started it all. Vicky’s father gets arrested on suspicion of stealing from the bank he works for, and Vicky turns detective in an attempt to clear her dad’s name and find the real thief, before they find her.
Ellie, as a cat
In her cat form, sitting next to our talented hacker Vicky, is Ellie from Ellie and the Cat. Ellie is outwardly rude, angry and unkind, but her demeanour masks her isolation and sadness. Her grandma magically makes Ellie swap bodies with her cat, Jolly, and sets her the challenge of finding her missing wedding ring in 24 hours to break the spell. Ellie and the Cat is a brilliant example of what Malorie so often does with her stories: Black children get to have fantastically written adventures that don’t revolve around their race, or an experience of trauma; representation for Black kids, without that representation being the story.
Dapo Adeola is an illustrator, author and character designer who was awarded Illustrator of the Year at The British Book Awards in 2022. Dapo rocketed into the picture book world with his greatly acclaimed illustrator debut, Look Up!, written by Nathan Bryon and published by Puffin in 2019, which won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2020. Dapo illustrated My Dad is a Grizzly Bear and My Mum Is a Lioness written by award-winning author Swapna Haddow (both published by Macmillan Children’s Books), and collaborated with Malorie Blackman on their picture book We’re Going to Find the Monster!
Dapo made his author debut in 2021 with the Puffin published picture book Hey You!: An Empowering Celebration of Growing Up Black, featuring 18 talented Black British illustrators, which also went on to win Illustrated book of the year at The British Book Awards in 2022.
Illustration: (c) Dapo Adeola
Photo credit: Tim Lane