An iconic and vital piece of literature, reimagined with stunning artwork to add a layer of visual storytelling, the Folio Society edition of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses is a feast for the eyes for readers of all ages.
Ask many readers what the most successful and notable young adults book series is, and most will answer with Noughts and Crosses.
Reading this book for the first time as an adult, one thing becomes abundantly clear – this is a story that transcends genres. The story of Sephy and Callum and their dramatic, difficult lives, is a narrative that appeals to every age. It’s ripe with social commentary as well as the lure of young, passionate love. It’s a tale that demands to be taken seriously and to be heard, yet also to be enjoyed and immersed into.
Over just a few hundred pages, readers are taken on an explosive, emotionally charged journey that ultimately challenges how they view the world around them. In Blackman’s fictional world, the Crosses rule over the Noughts, displaying a subversion of the racist divides we have seen throughout our own history.
It’s jarring to read about such behaviours as if they were reversed – from microaggressions to more serious disparities among housing and education, it’s clear that every act of segregation and bias has been drawn from real-life experiences. This accelerates the book into powerful new terrority, where Blackman has provided a space to explore the perverse nature of privilege, while also producing a romance story, fuelled by love.
The heartbreaking rollercoaster journey of Sephy and Callum’s relationship pushes the underlying themes of the book, and gives a gripping aspect to the political and social imagery. Drawn together by childhood innocence and naivety, very quickly the pair unravel as they are forced to address the dividing nature of their world. It’s frustrating and emotional to read – while we long for the pair to ignore external factors and realise their love for each other, it’s very obvious that it isn’t going to be that simple. In fact, as the story progresses, we’re not even sure if that’s what we want anymore. There’s a deeper, more important message to address here – both Sephy and Callum have a chance to better the world, and the brief, snatched encounters between the pair are all that fate can afford them.
Blackman has a talent for creating layered characters. In Noughts and Crosses, even the most seemingly ‘evil’ individuals have much more to them. There is more to unearth, beyond their devastating actions that are triggered by a divisive society. Over the course of the novel, we gently learn more about the families and peers of Sephy and Callum, and gradually come to understand that trauma that fuels their livelihoods. In many senses, we too grow and age with the teens – they go from seeing their parents as alienated and hard to understand, to caring for and even sympathising with them. There’s a deep maturity there that Blackman captures so well, and is integral for the ripening of the pair.
One of the most interesting yet heartbreaking characters is Callum’s older sister, Lynette. I absolutely loved her addition in the narrative – her distance from the world around her is somewhat enviable, yet we know this comes from a place of deep pain. She is a glue-like figure for the family, and while she is heavily emotionally protected, we come to realise that it was in fact Lynette who was preventing the family from complete collapse. Even after her departure, her presence stays with us throughout the novel – I couldn’t shake her sinister declarations of insisting she had dark skin, and later, her sudden, catastrophic return to reality.
In Noughts and Crosses, reality isn’t a place that anyone wants to be. Yet, it’s also important to remember that for many, this is reality, at least to some degree. We can come away from the novel feeling relieved that life ‘isn’t really like that’, or we can see it for what it truly is – a rallying cry to do better, to recognise hatred and cruelty, and to use our voices.
In the Folio Society edition, the addition of the modern imagery really helps to instill the currentness of the book. The artwork is fresh, attractive, and emotive. It’s urban and full of eye-catching colour. It would look just at home in a newly penned novel as it does here. It reminds us that Blackman’s issues continue to be ones that need spotlighting, despite initial publication being 20 years ago.
It could have been much simpler for readers to end the book with a sigh of relief and a sense of ‘what could have been’, yet the open-ending of Noughts and Crosses ensures that this isn’t the case. There’s actually little resolution – while Sephy and Callum realise their strengths, using their voices to begin to carve out a space for the future they would like to see, we’re left feeling that the real hard work has only just begun. It’s both a message of hope and a bleak foreshadowing, packaged up in the age-old story of forbidden love.
The Folio Society edition of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, introduced by Benjamin Zephaniah and illustrated by Kingsley Nebechi, is available exclusively from
Malorie Blackman has written over 70 books for children and young adults, including the Noughts & Crosses series, Thief(1995) and a science-fiction thriller, Chasing the Stars (2016). Many of her books have been adapted for stage and television, including a BAFTA-award-winning BBC production of Pig-Heart Boy (1997) and a Pilot Theatre stage adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz of Noughts & Crosses. In 2005 Blackman was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon Award for her distinguished contribution to children’s fiction. In 2008 she received an OBE, and between 2013 and 2015 she was the Children’s Laureate. Blackman has written for the Doctor Who series on BBC One, and Crossfire, the fifth novel in her Noughts & Crosses series, was published in summer 2019. In 2020 BBC One aired a major six-part production of Noughts + Crosses, with a soundtrack curated by Roc Nation.
Kingsley Nebechi is a graphic designer, illustrator and artist based in London. After graduating in 2013, he first worked at design agency ilovedust. His artistic career was publicly launched with his solo exhibition ‘A Soulful Mind’ at the Espacio Gallery, London, in 2017. His corporate clients include Nike, the BBC, Hachette Book Group and Island Records, and among his private clients are the likes of Lauryn Hill, Akala and Stormzy.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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