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Q&A with Sharna Jackson, author of High-Rise Mystery

Q&A with Sharna Jackson, author of High-Rise Mystery

By Gabrielle Johnson |

Tell us a little about yourself and your book High-Rise Mystery.

I am an artistic director and author who specialises in developing and delivering socially-engaged digital initiatives for children and young people across culture, publishing and entertainment. I was born and raised in Luton, and currently live in Sheffield and Rotterdam.

I sit on the board of Sheffield Doc/Fest and New Writing North and am a member of BAFTA’s Children’s and Learning and New Talent committees, and the Children’s Media Conference advisory board.

Through the work I do, my goal is to encourage and increase diverse and disengaged audiences’ participation in the arts locally, nationally and globally.

I’ve written two books prior to High-Rise Mystery, the Tate Kids British Art Activity Book and the Tate Kids Modern Art Activity Book.

High-Rise Mystery is my debut novel published by Knights Of, and features a sibling detective duo everyone’s dying to meet. Set on an estate in South East London – during a heatwave – Nik and Norva have to solve the murder of fellow resident and art teacher Hugo Knightley-Webb, before someone they love gets pulled into the frame.

What inspired you to write High-Rise Mystery?

My mum was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett only, thank you) so I had early exposure to the genre. The twists and turns, chicanery and all-out scammery of murder mysteries are thrilling. The thought of transposing those conventions to new contexts and types of writing, and re-appropriating Edwardian world or hard-boiled tropes into contemporary contexts was at the heart of the concept.

As a pretentious student, I would experiment with writing stories in untraditional formats – written as till receipts, wills, job application forms – often ephemeral pieces of paperwork that can reveal a narrative in a new way. This has some synergy with evidence and clues in a murder mystery – what you can tell about a person from the paper they leave behind. Murder mysteries are basically a game that can be played and written in new ways.

The recent CLPE report showed that only 4 per cent of the 9,115 children’s books published featured BAME characters. Tell us a little about why it is vital that children have access to books that feature characters who look like them.

All children need to see themselves and others reflected in culture – representation leads to empathy. That visibility is extremely important, but so is moving away from stereotypes and one-note, ‘prop’ characters. I don’t just want to read about black children in ‘issue-based’ narratives. Why can’t black children exist in ‘white’ genres? Why can’t they see themselves being clever, creative and having fun?

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What is the impact of representation in literature, and what do you hope to see in the future in terms of diversity in publishing and children’s books?

In publishing, #readtheonepercent is a fantastic campaign led by Knights Of, but it’s sad that, in 2019, it needs to exist. Diversity across media should be a given, not an initiative.

The perception is that publishing favours people from privileged, connected backgrounds who can afford to work for very little in junior roles. Then, there are ‘diversity drives’ which can feel disingenuous and tokenistic.

There must be changes to the insular nature of the publishing industry and fears allayed around what’s commercial. Black kids can appear in any genre – let them in.

What was your experience of writing High-Rise Mystery?

I didn’t know it would be so emotionally draining and so rewarding. I loved every minute of it, even the times when I would stay up all night writing the same sentence over and over again.

What are your plans moving forwards – are there any other books in the works?

That depends on Knights Of! I’m working out the plot for the next one and have a good idea about books three and four. I hope Nik and Norva will be back!

Sharna Jackson is the Artistic Director of Site Gallery in Sheffield, an arts space specialising in moving image, new media and performance. She has written three books, High-Rise Mystery, the Tate Kids British Art Activity Book and the Tate Kids Modern Art Activity Book. You can find out more about her by visiting her Twitter and website.

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