The Architecture of Home and Empire in Children’s Books

Last week, I did my blog on migrants, but this week I was prompted by a friend looking at “vernacular architecture” in children’s books about Africa and the Caribbean to do some thinking about the pictures of “home” that appear in children’s books, and why those pictures matter. For many beginning readers, children’s books are a first source of information about what the world looks like beyond their front doors, and so both the text and the pictures that these stories include matter; I would argue that the pictures matter more than text in creating a lasting impression in the mind of the child.

 

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I grew up with illustrations like these from Syd Hoff (from A Book About Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross) where naked natives lived in the woods.

Take this little quiz, for example: In what kind of houses did the indigenous people Christopher Columbus encountered live? When I asked myself this question, I came up with a blank—not poor houses or huts, but no houses at all. I have a collection of Columbus books for children, and started to look through them, and realized how this lack may have been created in my mind. Many children’s books about Columbus show the “natives” on the beach or in the jungle, but never show them where they lived, slept, or ate. Robinson Crusoe, as the Ladybird Read-it-Yourself version from 1978 depicts him, built a house in a matter of days. The man Crusoe rescues has no home and no name—Crusoe gives “Friday” both, and with them come the benefits of civilization.

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Crusoe rebuilds civilization in the Caribbean, complete with English flag, in this depiction from the Ladybird version with pictures by Robert Ayton.

This can lead to a leap of logic that the “natives” didn’t have homes, allowing for the racist narrative of indigenous people as being animal-like, living off the earth in trees or caves, to be easier to accept. In children’s picture books written and illustrated by white Europeans, this image of indigenous people living “nowhere” can extend to any black or brown people in the global south. Jimmy Buffett’s Jolly Mon (Harcourt Brace 1988) is one example of an author whose book depicts the “simplicity” (“Storyteller’s Note”) of the Caribbean and never shows its people near anything other than cabanas. Gillian Oxford’s Anansi the Spider-Man for Heinemann (1999) gives the main character a straw hut with no door or windows to live in.

 

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In this version of Anansi the Spider-Man, the lovely Miss Selina lives in a straw hut without any door. Pictures by Gilly Marklew.

But the modern Caribbean is not at all a collection of grass huts or beach cabanas. And authors/illustrators can get it right; the “My Home” series from the late 1950s depicts Trinidadians living in modern, if rural, settings with houses that have windows and doors. It is true that the architecture in the Caribbean is different than it is in Europe, reflecting not the poverty or lack of civilization of the people, but the climate. Caribbean homes have to be built to withstand flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, so they are often built of cement blocks and placed up on stilts. The verandas that surround many Caribbean houses give a place for people to gather and enjoy the cool breezes at the end of the day. Authors with Caribbean connections depict these “vernacular” architectural features as a matter of course, but non-Caribbean viewers may not see or understand them, just as someone not from Buffalo might misunderstand the need for the three entry doors to my house (every single one is for insulation against the freezing winters, not as some sort of Fort Knox protection).

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Isabel Crombie’s My Home in Trinidad has houses with windows and doors.  You can just see the cement blocks on which the house is resting.

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Houses in Verna Wilkins’ Hurricane (Tamarind 2004) show the verandas common to Caribbean houses.

An understanding of the purposes behind vernacular architecture features also needs to be applied to early Black British literature for children in order to understand it today. Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headmistress in the UK and mother to Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy, deliberately tried to counter some of the racist images of how Caribbean migrants lived when she wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers series in the early 1970s. In Knock at Mrs Herbs’ (1973), Gilroy depicts the communal homes shared by Caribbean migrants when they arrived in Britain; these homes, usually crumbling Victorian mansions, were bought communally and shared amongst several families when they found themselves turned away from white-owned lodging houses. The house where Roy lives shows the ways that community is valued in the notes that neighbors leave each other to tell their whereabouts; it also shows solidarity through the Black Power messages on the wall. In Bubu’s Street (1975), the outside of such homes are shown, and it is the Black residents who are living in fixed-up and newly-painted homes of bright colors. That they did the fixing up is implied by the boarded up and broken-windowed homes in dull brick right next door. Gilroy counters the narrative that Black migrants did not care about their homes and were happy to live in slums by the images she creates in her books.

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Gilroy’s Knock at Mrs Herbs’ creates a sense of community through text and pictures (illustrations by Shyam Varma).

 

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Gilroy’s Bubu’s Street counters stereotypes about Black migrants to Britain and their homes. Pictures by George Him.

Home is a basic concept in children’s books, particularly in picture books for the very young. The architecture of home has traditionally been connected, in books about Black people, with the racist assumptions of empire. We need to ensure that we are sharing books with children that depict “vernacular architecture” accurately, but also with understanding of why and how the architecture came about. Because how we think about ourselves and others, especially for children, is intimately tied up with ideas about home.

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