This is London? The ABCs of Diversity

In the last few years, a number of picture books have appeared that purport to give an introduction to the city of London. London is both a global and a very local city; a city of vast wealth and incredible poverty; a tourist city and a place that many groups with their origins elsewhere call home. I was interested in the ways that picture books did, or did not, capture the diversity of London—and what kind of city they presented to children.

I started thinking about London’s image when preparing a lecture on alphabet books for my children’s literature students. Elsewhere I have written about imperialist alphabet books for children from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, books such as Mrs. Ernest Ames’ An ABC for Baby Patriots (1899–but it was republished in 2010) which depicts African kings “subdued” by Britain “because they’d been naughty.” It was because of that book that I purchased a copy of Christopher Brown’s An Alphabet of London (2012) recently. The book is a dual audience book, which in this case means “design majors” and “children of university professors,” because it is not a children’s ABC book in the traditional sense. It comes with a foreword (about living in London) and an afterword (about creating linocuts) that are almost as long as the alphabet itself. Still, the back cover blurb made the bold claim of “more than 200 superb images showing every aspect of London past and present” so I thought it might prove an antidote to the alphabets of imperialist Britain.

As a children’s literature professor, it was pleasant to see the letter P and find both Paddington and Poppins (as in Mary) represented, but another P, Peter Pan, was nowhere to be seen. I mention this because An Alphabet of London could never live up to its back cover blurb, of course. Still, I must say it was disappointing to find that “every aspect of London past and present” did not include a single Black face. I checked under W for West Indian, N for Notting Hill Carnival, O for Olaudah Equiano, even K for Lord Kitchener, calypso-ing off the Empire Windrush, all to no avail.

Ice skating Indian and "the Jewish community" in the corner of Brown's Alphabet.

Ice skating Indian and “the Jewish community” in the corner of Brown’s Alphabet.

To be fair, there is some diversity represented in An Alphabet of London. The letter I has an (inexplicably) ice skating Indian and J represents the “Jewish community” by a gentleman who looks vaguely like a Turkish sultan. Both of these are corner illustrations and they are far from depicting diversity as normal or non-exoticized. The letter M is the only one to give the main illustration to a diverse group; it shows the East London Mosque with some Muslims outside of it. But given that according to the 2011 census, just over 13% of Londoners identified themselves as Black ( their absence in Brown’s book is surprising.

Or perhaps not. London has been represented as populated by white people only for a long time. The Ladybird Book of London (1961) has few clearly visible people, as its focus is mainly on the massiveness of British monuments and technology. But St. James Park, the British Museum, and the zoo are not visited by non-white tourists or school groups. In Roxie Munro’s The Inside Outside Book of London (1989), buses, trains, and the crowds around the Queen’s parade show no diversity either. Both the 1960s and 1980s were time periods when the Black British population was growing and very much in the news, and yet popular forms of culture tended to ignore them.

The Ladybird version of London (illustrator John Berry)

The Ladybird version of London (illustrator John Berry)

Roxie Munro's insider London

Roxie Munro’s insider London

Yet there are exceptions in picture books about London where diversity is present as an ordinary aspect of everyday London. In the early days of the Windrush generation, it took an outsider to see Black British people (at least in mainstream picture books offering a tourist vision of the city). Czech-born illustrator Miroslav Sasek published This is London in 1959, the year after the Notting Hill Riot. His book, like the others discussed here, had all the expected tourist destinations. But it also showed London as vibrant and diverse, with non-white people living and working happily in the city. More recently, Salvatore Rubbino, who lives in the city, published an equally diverse introduction, A Walk in London (2011); this book is the first of the genre that I’ve seen to show a Black Londoner in suit-and-tie, on a cell phone and presumably on the way to the office. These depictions are very different from Brown’s, who even in his few instances of diverse illustration emphasizes the exotic rather than the ordinary.

London from Sasek’s outsider perspective.

Rubbino's Black Britons are just part of the scenery

Rubbino’s Black Briton is just part of the scenery

How London looks matters to Brits and non-Brits alike. Cultural production helps people understand what the people of that place value and want to embrace. Just within the last two weeks in London, the television soap “Eastenders” has been criticized—again—for not representing the ethnic diversity of the city, and students at UCL and LSE have wondered “Why is my curriculum white?” ( The critics of all-white London cultural production point out that by leaving out minority groups, whiteness becomes ever more normalized. The more representations people—children—get of an all-white London, the more likely they are to believe that’s the way that London was, is, and ever shall be. People who don’t fit the vision of a “normal Briton” feel invisible and unwelcome in society. Christopher Brown’s An Alphabet of London cannot be responsible for representing every member of society. But picture books, which are often a child’s first encompassing vision of a place or group of people, deliver critical messages about diversity. As adults, we should care which London our children see.

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