From the Street to the Garden: Nature and Black Britons in Children’s Literature

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In my book, Soon Come Home to This Island (Routledge, 2007) I suggested that it was unfortunate that Black British characters were nearly always shown in urban settings. A reader commented to me that the stereotype of the urban Black Briton was a stereotype because it was true; in other words, it was the reality for Black British children that they were growing up in urban settings, so why would authors depict them any differently? I was reminded of this statement recently when reading the text of a talk by a well-known (white) British author, written in the early 1980s, who said that Britain wasn’t a multi-racial society but a white society with a few pockets of multi-racial communities. This author’s argument (I won’t mention the author’s name because the talks were never published) was that most authors who grew up outside of London, Birmingham, or Liverpool would never have met a Black person, and so wouldn’t be able to write about them. (And shouldn’t have to write about them just to prove they weren’t racist.) The stereotype of a predominantly White Britain—especially outside the cities—was a stereotype because it was true.

But my argument in Soon Come Home was not about population statistics; most Black Britons do live in urban areas, even now. But so do most White Britons. And yet, authors and critics do not argue that children’s books about white kids in Britain should be set in the city; “white” is the norm in the city, the country, at the seaside, at the village fête, on platform 9 ¾, and so nowhere that they might be depicted seems odd or unusual. Even if you take the standpoint that the percentage of BME people living in rural Britain (or seaside Britain, or village fête Britain—and don’t even think about Black people on platform 9 ¾ if the “Black Hermione” backlash is anything to go by) is very low, children’s literature has never sold itself as an exact representation of life as we know it. Rather, it is, or can be, a literature of possibilities. And it is good for kids—Black, White, rural, urban, everything in-between—to see worlds that reflect their own, AND worlds that they might imagine themselves inhabiting.

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To that end, here are a few books that emphasize Black British interaction with the (specifically British) natural world. I’ve chosen these works because the Black British characters are not in the background, but central; and because the works represent a variety of natural settings in Britain. The first, and most recent, is also the least “natural” in one sense; but given the history of British children’s literature set in or featuring gardens (Secret Garden, Child’s Garden of Verses, Tom’s Midnight Garden), it seems fitting to begin in a book about gardening, Mandy Ross’s Dominic Grows Sweetcorn (Frances Lincoln, 2013), with pictures by Alison Bartlett. Although the endpapers of the book suggest the terraced houses that make up many British urban areas, the actual story could be nearly anywhere in Britain. Dominic grows sweetcorn with his grandfather in a garden that, at times, seems to go on forever—although it is made clear that they have neighbors when they are invited to join the feast. There are actually many books now that depict Black and BME kids gardening, but the reason this one is significant is that it is not a random non-white child in the garden. Dominic is there because of his family’s history; the reader discovers that Dominic’s family has grown food for generations, and he and his grandfather are proud of their garden.

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Carty’s book seems to promise a stereotypical Caribbean beach setting.

Black child characters—particularly Afro-Caribbeans—are often depicted on beaches in children’s books, and Lenox Carty’s Making Time to Chat a Rhyme (Bogle L’Ouverture, 2003) seems to promise, from its cover illustration by Maggie Nightingale, a stereotypical view. However, Carty’s poems are not about Caribbean subjects, but Black Britons, as is made clear by his references (to conkers, for example) and by the illustrations. The poem “Summer Days” shows a holiday at the beach—not a Caribbean beach, but a British seaside complete with amusement ride-covered pier. The book’s last poem, “Sun Set”, shows a boy watching fireflies under a tree that looks far more European than Caribbean. The characters in Making Time to Chat a Rhyme are all very comfortable in the natural world around them—the English natural world.

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But the beach in question is actually a typical British seaside. Illustration by Maggie Nightingale.

The last work I’ll mention is a short story in Dorothy Edwards’s Read-me-another-story Book (Methuen, 1976; later published in paperback form as Story Time One, also by Methen). Edwards, who is best-known (especially in my household) for her Naughty Little Sister stories, also worked as a short story editor on several collections. The collections are notable for being inclusive at a time when many short-story collections weren’t; not only do the covers show all kinds of kids listening to the stories, Edwards went out of her way to include a variety of authors and stories. She published several stories by the Surinamese-born, Guyanese and British author Petronella Breinburg throughout her collections. I’m just going to focus on one of these, called “The Thing with Spikes.” It begins in a way that is quite revolutionary for a story about Black Britons in 1976: “It was Sunday. David and Claudette were going through the woods with Dad” (78).

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Babes in the woods: Black children learn about nature from their father in Breinburg’s “The Thing With Spikes.” Illustration by Jenny Williams.

Not only do they go through the woods, they often go through the woods, and while there, they look and listen for animals and wildflowers and other natural items. The titular Thing with Spikes turns out to be a hedgehog, and though the text indicates that the children are initially frightened by it, they are curious too, and want to understand more about it. Their Dad is able to answer their questions, indicating that he—like the children—is comfortable in and knowledgeable about nature. The story is not the best one Breinburg ever wrote, but it is radical for its time. It gives non-white Britons space in nature that is normal and ordinary. It takes Black Britons from the street to the garden.

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