In the early 1960s, Beryl Gilroy was asked by the Caribbean branch of Longmans Publishing to create readers specifically for a West Indian audience. Gilroy, born in what was then British Guiana in 1924, had been in the UK by this time for a decade, and had spent some time teaching in London schools when she was requested to write the texts. In some ways she was an obvious choice, as a “colonial” who had done university work in England, and who had taught British children; Longmans could trust her to write texts using the “correct” methods (which, as some of my earlier blogs will attest, involved key word schemes and recognizable characters, among other things). In other ways, however, Gilroy was an unusual choice, not having attended formal schooling until she was past the age that the textbooks she was asked to write were aimed at reaching. She had instead grown up in the bosom of a large extended family, and had learned through experience and also through the storytelling—the passing down of an oral tradition which included the folklore of the Caribbean—of her aunts, uncles, and grandparents.The Blue Water Readers, which first appeared in 1961, in many ways mimicked British readers of the time. The main characters were Joe and Jean, brother and sister, who like their British counterparts Janet and John or Peter and Jane, lived with both parents and their pets in reasonably comfortable circumstances. True, their pets included a goat, and where Peter and Jane in Things We Do (Book 4a of the Ladybird Series) went to the fish shop and the grocers for fish, apples, and cakes, Jean and Joe get their food (fish but coconuts rather than apples) from roadside and market sellers. In the foreword to the Teacher’s Guide, Elsa Waters told the story of a group of West Indian children and their 16-year-old teacher struggling to make sense of a British reading text that, being fairly old, would have been incomprehensible to contemporary British readers let alone those in the West Indies. She adds that “A child learns best when what he learns has meaning and significance for him” (“Foreword” viii; italics in original). It was important to Gilroy that the texts reflected life in the West Indies, but she also pointed out in her Introduction that the “average West Indian child is not fundamentally different in growth or maturational needs form the millions of children who have been tested elsewhere since 1880” (“Introduction” xii). But the world of those average children was changing during the 1960s, and Gilroy’s work reflected these changes. In the late 1960s, Gilroy became the first Black headteacher in England, and also wrote for another Longmans Caribbean reading series, The Green and Gold Readers. That these readers replaced the Blue Water Readers is suggested by the fact that the main characters for this text are also Jean and Joe, and some of the stories are very similar. For example, book two of the Green and Gold series has a story about Jean helping mother. In the Blue Water version, Jean is abruptly told that she must help her mother, and she is told exactly what to do. Jean has no voice and no backstory; she was clearly existing just to sweep for mother. By 1967, however, when Gilroy revised the story for the Green and Gold series, Jean has desires of her own, in this case to play with her friend. While she is still compliant when her mother asks her to help, it is significant that her mother does give her a choice about how she wants to help (even though admittedly, Jean’s choices are all connected with traditional female tasks, including cooking, sweeping and minding the baby). Although British media and scholarly studies often portrayed the West Indies as a very traditional society, Gilroy’s work suggests that changes in Western attitudes toward women were beginning to appear throughout the West Indies as well.
The Green and Gold Readers are also different from their earlier counterparts in the society that is depicted in the West Indies. Whereas Blue Water Jean and Joe live in an almost exclusively Afro-Caribbean society, Green and Gold Jean and Joe are part of a much more multicultural one. They have Indian Caribbean friends and Anglo-Caribbean friends, and all play happily together. They also share the same traditions, and they are a very distinctly West Indian set of traditions. This is best showcased in book three, from 1969. The book starts with multiple stories about Terry, the Anglo-Caribbean boy, and his sister Pam. In one of them, Terry’s mother tells him a story—and not just any story. She tells him an Anansi story, and the illustrations show the trickster figure as an Afro-Caribbean man (rather than in his spider form). Later on in the book, the Indian boy, Lal, reads his friends a story, and his story is also an unexpected choice: Red Riding Hood. By offering stories from African and European traditions up as everyone’s stories, Gilroy again reminds us that children of whatever background learn best through stories, and all stories from any tradition have useful things to teach us.
Anansi is for everyone . . .
Gilroy would go on to write for a very different kind of reading series, Leila Berg’s Nippers series, in the 1970s. Again, her work changed the paradigm of what could be expected in a reading series. The Nippers series was famous for aiming itself at a working-class, rather than middle-class, population, but in books such as New People at Twenty-Four, Gilroy also takes on issues of racism and interracial marriage, which had never before been depicted in a series designed to teach children how to read.
Gilroy, more than most authors of reading series, pushed the boundaries of what was commonly acceptable. She provided an alternate view, not only of what the reader could be, but who the reading subject was and should be.