Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses is a young-adult novel set in a parallel world in which the native people of Africa (Cafrique in the novel) colonized the rest of the world. Crosses (dark-skinned descendants of people from Cafrique) are socially and economically dominant, while noughts (light-skinned descendants of people from Europe) had formerly been enslaved and while recently freed, are still subject to restrictions similar to the Jim Crow era of the 20th-century United States. Persephone “Sephy” Hadley, a wealthy Cross, and Callum McGregor, a nought, struggle to navigate this racially charged atmosphere while growing up and falling in love.
Blackman alternates chapters between Sephy and Callum’s first-person points of view, first as they attend Heathcroft High School as 13- and 15-year-olds, respectively. Callum is one of the first four noughts allowed to attend Sephy’s school, and the racism and violence they experience is eye-opening for both of them. Callum’s family becomes involved in the Liberation Militia, a nought interest group with a tendency toward violence to gain political leverage; eventually, Callum’s father is convicted of a terrorist bombing that killed seven people. Callum and Sephy’s experiences push them apart, but their deep friendship keeps them together, until Callum’s father is killed, Callum is left completely adrift, and Sephy goes away to boarding school. After a two-and-a-half-year time skip, Callum and Sephy reunite at very different points in their lives. Callum is a high-ranking member of the L.M., and Sephy is a well-educated, socially conscious young woman. Their love for each other persists, however, even after Callum takes part in a plot to kidnap Sephy, and they end up having sex. Sephy becomes pregnant, and Callum is arrested and eventually hanged on false charges of raping a Cross. Sephy refuses to get an abortion and proudly gives birth to a half-nought, half-Cross daughter, Callie Rose McGregor, after Callum’s death.
Published in the U.K. in 2001, Noughts & Crosses is considered one of Malorie Blackman’s most influential works. The title refers to the game of tic-tac-toe, which Blackman describes as “one of those games that nobody ever plays after childhood, because nobody ever wins it.” The book was also released under the titles Black & White and Naughts & Crosses.
The Guardian ranked the novel as one of the best 100 books of the 21st century, and it was adapted into a television show called Noughts + Crosses by the BBC. Noughts & Crosses is the first in a series of six novels, all of which feature complex moral, ethical, and social dilemmas, which Blackman believes every person, regardless of age, can and should ponder.