Simon & Schuster, 2005
(Originally published as Noughts & Crosses by Random House UK in 2001)
By all measures, Sephy and Callum should not be friends -- and they definitely should not be in love. Sephy is a black Cross, the daughter of a powerful politician, and Callum is a white Naught, son of Sephy's former maid. When a violent attack shakes the country and Callum's family is implicated, everything changes, and the survival of Sephy and Callum's friendship becomes every day less certain.
Naughts & Crosses had the potential to be a Very Important Book. Ms. Blackman's premise is chilling, mostly because of its frightening familiarity. Sephy and Callum live in a dystopic modern version of Britain in which racism is rampant and overt, penetrating all levels of society, from the day to day -- endemic Naught poverty and unemployment, racial slurs, segregation -- to the political establishment. It is the details that infuse this novel with life: the vocabulary of racial distinction, popular sayings, taken-for-granted elements of everyday life -- for example, when Sephy realizes that all Band-Aids are dark brown, the ideal color of Cross skin. In one particularly moving scene, Callum realizes that important Naughts have essentially been written out of history books, reinforcing Cross dominance. That Ms. Blackman deals with racism head-on, having made it the driving force behind the plot, forces readers to examine the ways in which her dystopic vision is reflected in contemporary realities. Naughts & Crosses, like the classic from this side of the pond, American History X, raises necessary and difficult questions about racism in countries that pride themselves on liberty, diversity, and equality.
Yet you may have noticed that I said that the novel had the potential to be world-shaking. While Naughts & Crosses takes on an undoubtedly important issue, where it fell short for me was the writing itself. The novel bounces back and forth between Sephy and Callum's first person points of view so rapidly that it was often distracting, and some of their internal narration felt heavy-handed. And every plot element of the book was so closely tied to the struggle against racism that sometimes I felt like I was getting hit over the head with the message, "Racism is horrific and definitely not dead" -- I would have preferred more showing, rather than telling, for the plot to show the message, rather than the message being the plot. In short, I wanted to be reading a book that dealt with an issue without being an "issue book".
And I do think that this is possible. Take Harry Potter, for example, a series that openly condemns prejudice and racism with its magical/non-magical hierarchy and epithets without them being the plot. To avoid spoilers I won't provide other examples, but suffice it to say that I think that books for children and teens can convey important messages without them being their raison d'être.
Although I'm probably not going to pick up the rest of the trilogy (An Eye for an Eye, Knife Edge, Checkmate, and Double Cross), I think that Naughts & Crosses is a great book for discussion and for that reason worth reading.
What books have you read that deal with issues but aren't "issue books"? What do you think is necessary to maintain a balance between plot and message?