Using fiction to explore identity and diversity issues at KS3

The books in this article have been recommended by a group of teachers who meet regularly to discuss the fiction available for exploring global issues

These are powerful books exploring a range of 'difficult’ issues such as community tension, racism, displacement, bullying and conflict.  We have found, however, that fiction provides a 'safe context' for exploring these themes, allowing critical discussion of the characters and their motives.

Alongside a description of each book we have included a link to the author’s website to enable exploration of the context in which the book was written.

Debra Myhill in Reading the world: Using children’s literature to explore controversial issues reminds us that “texts are artefacts, not embodiments of truth, and that effective readers can interrogate texts critically”.  So just as we might question a photograph – Who took it? Why was it taken? What would it look like in 5 years time and so on, so we should question books – Why did the author choose the theme? What values or assumptions are they making? In what context was it written? What is missing? 

The texts selected here have been chosen in the context of discussions about community cohesion.  They enable students to

  • Understand the wider global and historical context to local issues.
  • Recognise the commonality of experiences that exist in diverse communities around the world.
  • Explore perspectives through characters from beyond their own experience.

When discussing teaching approaches to be used alongside these texts, we have invariably come back to drama, role play and speaking & listening techniques.   Activities such as Freeze Framing and Hot Seating, allow students to take on a character, step into their shoes and explore perspectives.

For further ideas and support see the links below:

  • Using drama - a selection of eight useful approaches
  • Using story – an article giving an overview of ideas and approaches using story

Some of these texts, for example, Caught in the crossfire and The other side of truth are particularly useful for exploring the role of the media.  How are communities portrayed?  What role does it play when tensions arise?

“Some of the stories are very powerful and students need space to react to them.  How do we let them have that space?”  Book group member

Recommended Texts

Scroll down for further information or click on a title below:

Caught in the Crossfire Alan Gibbons, set in the northeast, a compelling book about racial tension, following the 9/11 attacks.
Jupiter Williams, S I Martin
Story of a Sierra Leonean boy fighting for survival in London, in 1800.

Noughts and Crosses Malorie Blackman
Turns preconceived ideas of racial prejudice, upside down.

Skin Deep Edited by Tony Bradman
Anthology of short stories set in different parts of the world, on the theme of racism.

Surprising Joy, Valerie Bloom
Joy’s experiences of leaving Jamaica and coming to with her mother in London.

The Other Side of Truth and Web of Lies, Beverley Naidoo
A Nigerian family’s experience of being refugees in England.

Walking a Tightrope Edited by Rehana Ahmed
Anthology of short stories from Asian writers.

Caught in the Crossfire

“Reading this in the current context, it feels like a book we should do something with….it feels urgent. It’s not just about race but about all young people”.  Book group member

Inspired by the Oldham riots this is set in Oakfield in the North of England, shortly after 9/11.  The book opens by introducing the main characters in short, fast-paced sections - Rabia is nervous and thinks she is being followed, Mike is day dreaming about the dark-eyed girl he has just met, Creed smiles as he watches two youths following a young Asian girl on his way to The Patriotic League meeting, and so on.

Gibbons sets out to show how hatred and racism can creep up and “have a way of strolling in by the back door”.  Events have consequences and the characters become embroiled in situations that soon become out of control.  As one teacher from the group said, “the ‘baddie’ is dangerously reasonable.”

We felt that page 221 encapsulated the whole book:

“…Where there is fear there is danger.  The usual ways of doing things fracture.  The social fabric tears, soon people will start to lash out, desperate to protect themselves, shaken so far loose from their usual habits that they could turn on anyone who is different, anyone they can label, or maybe just anyone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time….”

Alan Gibbons, Orion Children’s Books,

Jupiter Williams

Set in London in 1800, Jupiter is a young boy living at the African Academy in Clapham with other boys from wealthy Sierra Leonean families.  His younger brother disappears into a world where education and background mean nothing and skin colour alone determines fate … and Jupiter follows.  The story follows the brothers as they pit their wits against the gangs and thugs that control the streets of London, fighting for survival and against the threat of slavery.

As well as raising discussion about slavery, the book lends itself to an exploration of life in London in the 1800s and the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the capital.  The African Academy did exist and a web search will bring up images and stories about the place, some of which contradict the picture portrayed in the book.  This will lead to discussion about the accuracy of the information – in the book and on the web.

S I Martin, Hodder Children’s Books,

Noughts and Crosses

Most of the books on this list are likely to stay with you long after you have finished them – and none more so than Noughts and Crosses.

Here Malorie Blackman turns history and society on its head.  The Noughts are the white underclass and the Crosses the black ruling class.   This is essentially a love story across the cultural divide.  The story invites readers to step into the shoes of others and to explore their perspectives.

Malorie Blackman, Corgi Books,

Skin Deep ~ stories that cut to the bone

This is a fabulous anthology of short stories set in many different parts of the world - Britain, Ireland, Australia, Brazil, Japan, the USA and India – all connected by the theme of “something that has stained human history since before records began – racism”.  The collection works well because the theme is explored in such a variety of ways.

The story that has stood out for us from this collection is The Blokes by Alan Gibbons. It explores similar issues, tensions and conflict to those found in Caught in the Crossfire – on a different scale.  An exploration of this short story, set in school, before reading the longer text will enable learners to grasp the issues and recognise that what takes place in the playground community, can often represent society beyond the school gates.

“Direct and essential no-frills writing have produced strong feelings and stimulated high quality discussions in several classes. Considerable issues mileage with meaningful literacy outcomes.” Roland Clark

Ed by Tony Bradman, Puffin Books

Surprising Joy

Joy is brought up in Jamaica by her grandmother but longs to be with her mother in London.  When the time finally comes for her to leave she can hardly contain her excitement.  This is a “vividly evocative and picturesque” story.  Joy is clear about who she is, where she comes from, her family, her friends, until she comes to London.

The story lends itself to discussions about identity and how we create identities in different situations "Sometimes you get tired of fighting.  And then it’s easier to fit in" [pg 94].  It also enables discussion about arriving in an unknown place whether a different country, town or school, without the threat of conflict and bullying that are themes in some of the other texts.

Valerie Bloom, Macmillan,

The Other Side of Truth and the sequel Web of lies

Femi and Sade become refugees overnight.  Their father, an outspoken journalist, has been sailing close to the wind and the family are in danger.  Their mother is killed and now the children and later their father, must leave their beloved Nigeria.  In a scenario reminiscent of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy, the children end up alone in London and find themselves in the hands of Social Services.  Later in Web of Lies the family are waiting to hear whether they will be granted asylum but the story focuses on Sade and Femi’s experiences at school and Femi’s involvement with a gang of older boys.

These are contemporary books – fast-paced, relevant and accessible.

The Teachit website has useful teaching materials to support The Other Side of Truth.

“ A good range of activity types that will inspire and support teachers to open up issues and share the reigns with pupils”.  Roland Clark

Beverley Naidoo, Puffin Books,

Walking a Tightrope ~ New writing from Asian Britain

“These are stories about young people carving out their own identity in modern society”  Book group member

Another exciting and diverse anthology of short stories from familiar and new writers, that give fresh perspectives on the lives of Asian teenagers in modern Britain.

Jubilee Dreams is a very well written and amusing story giving us an insight into the dilemmas facing children born in Britain from Asian parents, desperately trying to fit in.  “The other day I heard him telling my mum that they had to keep up with the Jonesis?” [sic] [Pg 9].  The questions it raised for us were, How do you build mutual respect with parents if you feel you know more about the society you are living in than they do?  Where does that leave mum and dad? How can they gain the respect of their children?

There are lots of parallels with East is East and Bend it like Beckham.

Ed by Rehana Ahmed, Pan Macmillan

Background Reading

The resources mentioned here give practical advice and activities for raising controversial issues in the classroom.

Reading the world: Using children’s literature to explore controversial issues
Found in The challenge of Teaching Controversial Issues
Ed. by Hilary Claire and Cathie Holden
Trentham Books

What do we tell the children? Confusion, conflict and complexity
Angela Gluck Wood
Trentham Books,

Three Faiths Forum
Teaching about the current conflict in Gaza and Israel

Book Group

  • Roland Clark, Adviser; Ethnic Minority Achievement, Staffordshire
  • Claire Finkel, Teacher, Glenmead Primary School, Birmingham
  • Angela Horton , Teacher, Erdington Hall Primary School, Birmingham
  • Gillian Twaite, Artistic Director, Open Stage Productions
  • Rosie Wilson, Teacher, formerly Golden Hillock School, Birmingham now Third Side Media
  • Jackie Zammit, Tide~ global learning