Questioning Normal: Children’s Literature that reminds you what is, and should be, ordinary

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Blackman has long played with the idea of “normal” for Black British children’s books, partly through embracing the genre of science fiction.

Have you ever read a book and had to remind yourself about some aspect of a character because they seemed so “normal”? Oftentimes, though not always, this idea of the normal simply means “this character seemed so much like me that I forgot about *insert attribute that is not like you*”. If the attribute that you insert is about the color of the color of the character’s skin or their ethnicity, the idea of “normal” becomes more than just a curiosity. Often in books (at least those published in the UK and the US), characters are presumed to be white until proven otherwise. Child readers, and many adult readers as well, do not always question the consequences of presuming that characters in books will be white. But assuming whiteness as normal has an effect on individual readers, as well as what gets published, particularly for children.

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How do readers define normal? Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, pictures by Elaine Mills, offers one definition.

My own interest in Black British children’s literature came from a discussion with a Black British friend (now my husband) who said he didn’t read any kids’ books growing up because he wasn’t in them. This is a story that I have come across in my research more than once, not only in terms of what kids read, but what kids write. Both the philosopher Darren Chetty (in multiple articles, which you can find listed here: https://www.tes.com/news/author/darren-chetty) and the publisher Verna Wilkins, have discussed how children’s literature is perceived by child readers to be a “whites only” world. In an article in the Guardian, Wilkins links this realization to her decision to become a publisher: she “explained that she was moved to launch the publisher when her son came home from school with a booklet, on which he had coloured a picture of himself in pink. She offered him a brown crayon to fix it. “It has to be that colour. It’s for a book!” he told her.”I had no choice. I had to become a publisher,” said Wilkins” (article by Alison Flood, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/20/diversity-children-books-colour-young-people). Wilkins wanted to normalize the Black British experience in her books for all readers.

That desire to make the Black British experience normal occasionally brought Wilkins in for some criticism, however. In a review of Wilkins’ first book, Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book (1987), Ama Gueye worries about “the lack of “reference pointers . . . which make any strong statement about Kay’s Afro-Caribbean cultural background” (“Review: Tamarind” Dragon’s Teeth Summer 1987: 22). Wilkins, however, did not want to write/publish books that highlighted otherness; for her, writing Black British characters in situations that readers from many backgrounds (including the dominant one) would also identify with and understand was the best way to make Black British children’s literature “normal”.

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Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Chalk Doll tells the story of a Caribbean birthday–different, but still “normal”? Pictures by Frane Lessac.

Another, almost opposite, way to approach the same question is by introducing experiences of people from outside the dominant (racial/gender/ability/ethnic) group as normal too. Author Chitra Soundar, for example, blogged about the idea of the birthday in children’s picture books, and her search for books that would show birthday experiences that go beyond the British birthday party (http://picturebookden.blogspot.com/2017/01/celebrating-birthdays-from-many-cultures.html; if you know of any that she may have missed, I know she would love for you to comment on the site!). She makes the point in her blog that too many picture books show only one version of normal, and this can alienate children from their cultural background. The downside of this approach is not in the books themselves, but in the way that publishers and booksellers often “exoticize” these alternative normalities, marketing them as only interesting to particular groups or teachers wanting a culturally diverse book collection. The result, as Soundar’s blog points out, is that these books often go out of print quickly, because they are not seen as books for “all” or “normal” (both adjectives which generally are code words for “white”) readers.

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Nina is Not OK–but she’s not “ethnic” either.

For authors who are not white, the idea of “normal” can have an effect on how they think about their own work. Last week, I was very excited to see the longlist for the Jhalak Prize, a new prize exclusively for writers of color in the UK. It follows in the tradition of other prizes, particularly for children’s literature such as the Collins/Fontana Award for Multi-Ethnic Literature (awarded in the 1970s) and the Other Award (from the 1970s to the 1980s), which highlight the achievements of writers and books about characters from outside the dominant group. The Jhalak Prize is not exclusively for children’s books, but their judging panel includes two authors who have written for young people, and considers children’s literature as well as adult literature. Most of the authors longlisted, including YA authors Malorie Blackman (Chasing the Stars), Patrice Lawrence (Orangeboy) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Girl of Ink and Stars) expressed their pleasure at being nominated, but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina is Not OK, asked that her book be withdrawn from consideration. She explained on Twitter that she was flattered, but “my novel is nothing to do with ethnic identity” (for more, see Katherine Cowdrey’s article in The Bookseller, http://www.thebookseller.com/news/shappi-khorsandi-withdraws-book-jhalak-prize-long-list-463586 or listen to Khorsandi’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme from Saturday 7th January). So if a book is about non-ethnic—or normal?—topics, then it cannot, in Khorsandi’s mind, be considered for an award for authors of color. This suggests that the “ethnic” experience is definable, and different, than the experience of the dominant majority. And sometimes it is, as Chitra Soundar’s experience attests—but sometimes it isn’t, as Verna Wilkins tries to show in her books. When I made my list of “50 Books to Diversify your Classroom” for the Times Educational Supplement in October (https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499), I tried to consider multiple types of experiences. Because normal is not a single point on the continuum of children’s literature and experiences, but a range—and as readers, and selectors of books for children, we need to expand our own definition of what constitutes normal.

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