Case of the first black teenage girl detectives

With her debut children’s novel, High Rise Mystery, Sharna Jackson says she has created the UK’s first young black female detectives for a murder mystery set in a South London high rise estate during the height of a hot summer,

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 08 May, 2019, 11:06
Sharna Jackson, author of High Rise Mystery

“It’s made for all kinds of children from sections of society who don’t see themselves in children’s books,” explains the director of Site Gallery..

When she made this point in an interview on the BBC News website it caused quite a stir. "When I was young," Jackson was quoted as saying. "It was hard to find role models outside popular culture. When I read, the default in my head was 'white'. Unless the character was black, it wouldn't be stated."

Right-wing commentator Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted: “Author Sharna Jackson complains that ‘white characters are the default in children’s books’. In Britain, yes. But that is not the case in books in Nigeria or Somalia or India or Bangladesh. Hmmmm, now can anyone think of a reason why that might be...?”

That provoked a bit of a Twitterstorm which included some abusive and hurtful tweets. “Things like ‘go back to Nigeria’, but I’m from Luton,” she says with a shake of the head.

“The thing was misconstrued. They seized on the headline: rather than what I actually said.

“At the same time I got some positive ones. People saying it’s brought to my attention something I would now like to read and I even had white authors emailing me for advice on black characters. And it moved up on the Amazon list from 250 to topping certain categories.

High Rise Mystery features two sisters aged 11 and 13 living on The Tri estate in London (for which she had the design of Park Hill in Sheffield in mind).

“My pitch to the publishers was PIs in the Projects. The girls suspect something has happened to their art teacher and then a body is found. They have to solve the case because they cared about the victim and also because their dad is implicated in the crime.

“The girls are are called Nik which is short for Anika and Norva which I took from an artist in the Netherlands. Some people have seen it as a reference to The Thin Man (the Dashiell Hammett series of mysteries from the Thirties featuring Nick and Nora Charles.”

How did the book came about? “I had written a couple of art activity books for the Tate and as a result came into contact with the publisher, Knights Of, who asked asked if I would consider writing a kids’ fiction book?”

She gave them three ideas for potential stories. They chose the one that became High Rise Mystery The book is in the Middle Grade category of children’s fiction which is nine to 12 but she thinks it would be suitable up to 14-year-olds.

“Writing a murder mystery is like a cat and mouse game with imaginary readers,” she has found. “You give clues because you want readers to feel clever but you plant red herrings to keep them guessing.”

“They have commissioned a sequel and I have just been told they want the first draft by June. Don’t they know I have a full-time job, a kid, a life? Luckily I have been thinking about it.”

She doesn’t want to become a full-time writer but sees it as an extension of hedr work.. “All the different jobs I have done were all about how I could make arts and culture more engaging and accessible to audiences who don’t necessarily consider it’s for them. “