Malorie Blackman’s ‘dynamic imaginary worlds’ win her the PEN Pinter prize

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<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Noughts & Crosses author Malorie Blackman has become the first children’s and YA writer to be awarded the PEN Pinter prize.

The prize is given by English PEN annually to a writer of “outstanding literary merit” who is based in the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth. The recipient must also, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel prize, cast an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze on the world and show a “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”.

Blackman was chosen by judges Ruth Borthwick, chair of English PEN; writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn; and Margaret Busby, a publisher, editor, writer and broadcaster.

Borthwick said Blackman had “transformed the world of writing for young adults” by never talking down to readers. “Malorie has created dynamic imaginary worlds in which her protagonists are living with and challenging issues of injustice in a way that is totally engaging, as she is above all a wonderful storyteller,” she added.

Related: Malorie Blackman: ‘Hope is the spark’

Busby said that Blackman’s “commitment to the fact that young adult reading, as well as exciting the imagination, can shape a lifelong ethical engagement with issues concerning social and political justice – such as racism and cultural difference – is outstanding”.

Hahn said that “encouraging young people to engage with political and social issues is vital work” and no one had done it better than Blackman.

Blackman, who served as children’s laureate from 2013-2015, has written more than 70 books for children and young people. She is best known for her Noughts & Crosses series, set in a world where dark-skinned Crosses occupy positions of power and privilege and pale-skinned Noughts are there to serve Crosses. The first book was published in 2001 and won the Red House children’s book award. The sixth and final book in the series, Endgame, was published in 2021.

Blackman will receive the Pinter prize in a ceremony in October, where she will deliver an address. The prize will be shared with an International Writer of Courage, who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty. Blackman will choose that winner from a shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN.

The PEN Pinter prize was founded in 2009 and previous recipients include Tsitsi Dangarembga, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. Previous International Writers of Courage include Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a Ugandan novelist who was subjected to torture by the Ugandan government while detained in 2020, and Eritrean poet Amanuel Asrat, who was arrested in September 2001 amid a crackdown on private media and is believed to still be detained in a maximum-security prison.

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