Imagine a school system designed to separate the elite from the 'ordinary'. Where from the age of 14, you sit a test that determines the rest of your life- a test that takes away your freedom to choose the job you always dreamed of.
Well, this is the plot of Charlene Shaw's new novel 'Fall in Line'. It is a dystopian tale that follows Jaiyana, the mixed raced protagonist who is determined to stop this from happening. Jaiyana and friends go head to head with the newly appointed Head of Education, Fabian Clarke, to break down the corrupted education system and give teenagers back their freedom to make their own decisions.
Even though the novel is set 30 years from now, there are many similarities to today's education system. With the introduction of Michael Gove's new and tougher 9-1 GCSE system, many students are left not knowing what their future holds. Less academic students, or students who are EAL and find it hard to access the British curriculum, are left out in the cold and known as the "standard" passers or as "sub-standard", while the more academic students, the "strong" passers, are given an array of opportunities once they leave school.
As a teacher for the past five years, Shaw wanted to confront this issue head on in her book. Like me, she has seen first hand the effects of the changes on both students and teachers. It's interesting how Shaw conveys the unease felt by both groups in her novel, as they come together to form a rebellion group to take down Fabian Clarke's administration.
Shaw also skilfully encapsulates teenage life: the stresses of school, ideas of friendship and identity, first crushes, and family love, are all depicted through the protagonist Jaiyana.
"I'm hoping people can relate to Jaiyana. I read it with my Year 8 class. I kept stop starting and asking how many of them could relate to what's happening, and they all could relate to it in some way- just being a teenager."
- Charlene Shaw
It was also important for Shaw to make the main character from a mixed heritage. In 2016, the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that only 22% of children's books were written by or were about a person of colour. Teaching in inner city London, the majority of my students were BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnics). Many of my students didn't enjoy reading or couldn't find a text they enjoyed. This may have been a result of not having any books they could relate to.
With a curriculum changed to teach more 'British values', and focused on teaching British texts, only further isolates ethnic minority students from wanting to read. How can they engage with a character like Sherlock Holmes? A white, middle class, British male who saw POC characters like Tonga in 'The Sign of Four' as a 'savage, distorted creature' with a face that 'was enough to give a man a sleepless night'.
Not only does it detach students from reading, but gives negative impressions of anyone seen as different, thus creating fear of the unknown.
I'm all about teaching British values, but failing to realise how British values have changed with diversification only serves to create issues with identity for young people. They need to be able to see characters that look like them, characters that relate to them; characters that empower them. American author William Feather said, "Books open your mind, broaden your mind, and strengthen you as nothing else can." Therefore, in order to support the development of young people and create a positive sense of identity is to offer more novels like 'Fall in Line'.
Jaiyana is a great character. Not only does her name mean strength in Arabic, but Shaw's portrayal of Jaiyana makes her a character all students, regardless of race, want to aspire to be. She is determined, has an indomitable spirit and is proud of her heritage:
For years, she couldn’t master how to manage her curls, resulting in pulling it back into a ponytail most days... It was her dad who had told her not to hide it. He’d found her crying after realising that some of the meaner girls in her year group had sniggered at her frizzy hair. It was that same day that he told her that her identity was only partly to do with her appearance. It was this same day that she decided to leave it loose whenever possible. It was this defining feature that set her apart from her peers. She had grown to love her frizzy curls, even if she was the only one in the year who looked that way. “There’s nothing wrong with being different.”
'Fall in Line' is a fantastic novel for teenagers and adults alike. I honestly couldn't put it down. Shaw creates suspense throughout, tackling the subject matter skilfully and sensitively. You believe wholeheartedly in her characters, routing for the heroes and detesting the villains. It's definitely a book that NEEDS to be on your reading list for 2018.
Shaw is currently writing book number 2, and I cannot wait!
To hear more about the book, check out my conversation with Charlene Shaw on my Youtube channel (Educated Minds with Miss Cole).
Also, head over to Amazon now to buy the book (in paperback or kindle).