Illustrations from Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, Illustrated by Elaine Mills.
Today is my birthday. I mention this because it is so completely normal (I have one every year!). And yet this normal ordinary thing is something that for a long time, at least in books, excluded many children. I think about my childhood reading—I (still!) know when Jo March’s, Anne Shirley’s, and Betsy Ray’s birthdays are. I read about numerous animals having birthdays, including Curious George, Little Bear, and Frances the Badger. Amelia Bedelia and Mister Muster had birthdays. But I never read about an African, an African-American, an American Indian, an Asian American or a Latinx child having a birthday when I was growing up. In fact, everything about birthdays, from cake toppers to birthday cards underscored the normality of being white.
Betsy Ray’s birthday in pictures by Lois Lenski, stories by Maud Hart Lovelace.
This privileging of whiteness that permeates the culture can seem innocuous because it is so apparently normal. But birthdays especially are connected with valuing individuals, celebrating and recognizing a person’s uniqueness and worth through gift-giving and the setting aside of time to honor that person. We take it for granted, but think about what it means to be sung to (really: how often does someone sing to YOU, sing ABOUT you?), fed your favorite foods made by someone just for you, given tributes through words and presents specially selected. Take a moment and think about all of that. Then think what it means to be perennially placed on the sidelines of such a celebration, to never feel like such an honor belongs to you?
Historically, British children’s literature did not really recognize other-than-white people as having birthdays. Sarah Crewe had a giant birthday party at Miss Minchin’s, and even Becky, the child-maid who was one step away from starving in the streets gave her a birthday present. But would anyone find out when Ram Dass’s birthday was? Not in the book, anyway. Often, characters meant to represent Black people (such as the Golliwog—a much more common figure in British children’s literature throughout the first half of the 20th century than actual Black people) were not only NOT being celebrated, they were the entertainment. This “Golly” character from a paperboard shape book (and if anyone can date this for me, I’d be grateful; there are some things that the British Library just does not count as “books”) is the juggler, tightrope walker AND the magician at the Panda’s party—but he still brings a gift as well.
The lack of birthday representation for Black British children was one of the specific absences that Verna Wilkins set out to redress when she created her first books for Tamarind Press in the late 1980s. Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book was designed as an early reader for schools, which originally came with a triangular number puzzle and a set of story sequence cards. But though early literacy and numeracy was important to Wilkins, equally important was presenting Black British children enjoying the same privileges and celebrations as their white British counterparts. In Wilkins’ book, “normal” includes being the birthday princess, but also receiving birthday cards with Black people on them.
A similar ethos guides her later book, Finished Being Four (1992), a trade picture book about four children in a class who share birthdays in the same week and so also share a party. The birthday feast is full of traditional British party food, including cocktail sausages, quiche, jelly, jam tarts and swiss roll—as well as a birthday cake, of course. Some criticized Wilkins for erasing cultural references (in Finished Being Four one of the mothers wears a sari but there are no Indian sweets on the birthday table, and no indication that any culture celebrates birthdays any differently than the British) but for Wilkins, at least when she began, having Black characters experience the same birthday celebrations as white characters was part of the point.
Other British children’s books published during the early nineties similarly used a birthday celebration to emphasize the normality of Black British existence. Interestingly, Lorraine Simeon’s sequel to Marcellus, a book about a boy with dreadlocks who is afraid he’ll be made fun of at school, is Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, where the title character attempts to make his own birthday cake. While Marcellus depicts a potential outsider gaining acceptance despite his difference in appearance, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake does not even hint at Marcellus being an outsider—he has even lost his locks. It is hard to tell if this is what Simeon intended (she did not illustrate either book, and both of my editions were published in America, so perhaps the British editions are different). Nonetheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that Simeon’s birthday book has an almost-studied “normality” about it.
Jennifer Northway’s Lucy books are really Lucy and Alice books, because they tell about the often quarrelsome, often loving relationship between Lucy and her cousin Alice. But the books are titled after Lucy, who has a Black British mother and a white British father, rather than white British Alice. Nonetheless, Lucy’s life as depicted in Lucy’s Quarrel is remarkably similar to her cousin’s; both live in middle-class houses, go to ballet class, attend the same school, and go to the fun fair. Lucy’s birthday cake is the sole distinguishing feature about her party that reminds the reader of her Black British heritage. Unlike the plain cakes depicted in all the other Black British books, Lucy has a ballerina cake (I had one of these when I was four too), and the ballerina is brown.
There is a tension in picture books depicting Black British child birthdays; on the one hand, authors are deliberately representing and making central the characters who were formerly either invisible or on the sidelines at birthday parties. On the other hand, other than their brown skin, these characters often have little to mark them out from white British characters. We all should be allowed to have a happy birthday—and see people like us in books doing the same—but do we really all have to have the same kind of birthday to be seen as “normal”?