Few books have had the same impact as Noughts & Crosses. One of the most iconic books in the YA literary canon, this tale of love, loss, and longing creates an alternative history with elements that are not too dissimilar from what we’ve seen in the past, and continue to see. Author Malorie Blackman said that this was the book that she “needed to write,” and it’s easy to see why. While it was written 20 years ago this year, the themes are still relevant, but a new edition, published by The Folio Society, seeks to breathe even more life into this thought-provoking story.
This new edition is a beautifully illustrated hardback, with illustrations by Kingsley Nebechi and a foreword by Benjamin Zephaniah. Within its vibrant covers is the story of Sephy and Callum, who live in the afrofuturist Albion, a reimagining of the United Kingdom. Instead of being a colonising nation, Albion is feeling the legacy of colonisation by the African Empire. Saying that this society is divided would be an understatement. Calum is a ‘nought’, the light-skinned ‘colourless’ underclass that is oppressed by the elite ‘crosses’, the dark-skinned ruling class (of which Sephy is a member) that holds the positions of power in society. Secretly friends since childhood, the pair start to become closer, but society seeks to maintain the status quo. What ensues is a tale of hurt, hope, and hate as two young people navigate a world where change is well overdue.
By highlighting the injustice of Albion, Blackman brings the reader’s attention to how elements of our society mirror those found in this alternate world. Prompted by the death of Stephen Lawrence, the book creatively yet candidly argues that inequalities of race and class have no place in our world. For people who have perhaps stayed away from anti-racist and egalitarian discourse, this book is a great first step if you want to explore these issues further, with the added benefit of quality plot and characters.
This new edition is a wonderful homage to this incredibly powerful book, capturing the gravity of the subject matter
For me, hardbacks are very much special occasion books, which usually come into my hands as gifts, or as copies to get signed by the author at bookish events. While they’re often on the pricer side (such as this one), this is very much represented in the quality of the book, and in regards to this edition, its status as a collectible special edition. In fact, I have a hardback of another of Blackman’s books, Chasing the Stars, signed for me at the Hay Festival when it had just been released. Fourteen-year-old me was very awkward, but Blackman was very nice – she even said that she liked the colour of my braces.
But I digress – This Folio Society edition is one of these special occasion books. Carefully sliding the book from the embossed case as I write this reveals a stunning cover, featuring protagonists Sephy and Callum, in the brilliantly rich colours that are a key feature in Nebechi’s work. This display of quality continues when you turn to the first page, and seven images are interspersed between pages on great-quality paper. It’s not just a pretty book for your shelf, it makes for an immersive reading experience.
There’s often this misconception that illustrated books should be confined to the children’s section, but I’d have to disagree. In YA and adult books, they add that extra something, an illustrator being the mouthpiece through which the author’s words can come to life in the reader’s mind. Nebechi’s designs are multi-dimensional, capturing multiple scenes and thoughts on one page. Speaking to The Boar, he tells me he “wanted the illustrations to capture the emotions, struggles, and reality of the characters in the story”, which he undoubtedly does.
I was curious to hear of the process of illustrating such an iconic book, which he describes as a “dream project”. He begins by “reading the story and sketching really rough thumbnail sketches,” and explore(s) all of the possibilities that come to mind.” He’ll then pick his favourites, and “re-sketch each concept digitally to get a better idea of each illustration.” Once the sketch is approved, he’ll then add colours and finishing touches, and says that out of the whole process “exploring different versions of the artwork is my favourite thing.”
Bold both inside and out, captivating from cover to cover, this is an edition that draws you in without letting go
The book’s point-of-view alternates between our two protagonists, a popular choice for YA dystopian writers. Unlike others I’ve read, however, in Noughts & Crosses, there is a clear distinction between the two voices – two people with very different backgrounds and experiences, united by their love for one another. It’s the characterisation of the key players in this book that means Callum and Sephy will linger with you for long after you’ve turned the final page.
Criticism of this book is few and far between, but one thing that some people note is that the book’s writing style is simplistic at times, making it appear that this book is targeted towards younger readers. Some parts contain quite difficult material, with some feeling that this content contrasts with the writing style. While I see where they’re coming from, I think there is a certain beauty in simplicity – I am far more drawn to books where the writing style melts away to let the characters take centre stage. This lets the themes and messages shine through.
This new edition is a wonderful homage to this incredibly powerful work, capturing the gravity of the subject matter. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye on The Folio Society’s releases, giving further inspiration for the future home library that I’m manifesting. Bold both inside and out, captivating from cover to cover, this is an edition that draws you in without letting go.
The Folio Society edition of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, introduced by by Benjamin Zephaniah and illustrated by Kingsley Nebechi, is available exclusively from www.foliosociety.com