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Insistence on Existence: Ontology as Mental Health in Children’s Books

“when we are worn out by our lives . . . we will turn to you as we do to our children—to the innocent, the ingenuous, the spontaneous.  We will turn to you as to the childhood of the world.  You are so real in your life—so funny, that is.  Let us run away for a little while from our ritualized, polite civilization and let us relax, bend to those heads, those adorably expressive faces.  In a way, you reconcile us with ourselves” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks 132).

“Lay aside your history, your investigation of the past, and try to feel yourself into our rhythm.  In a society such as ours, industrialized to the highest degree, dominated by scientists, there is no longer any room for your sensitivity.  One must be tough if one is to be allowed to live” (Fanon 132).

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Fanon, from Martinique, concerned himself with the effect of racism on the colonized subject’s identity.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and it is interesting to consider this in conjunction with recent and current events.  News headlines over the past year have often concerned the #MeToo movement; over the past few weeks, at least in Britain, they have focused on the Windrush Generation speaking up over deportations.  Both movements showcase how easy it is for people in power to deny the existence of people without that power.  Powerful people use the strategies of objectification and isolation, as exemplified in the quotations from Fanon above, to enhance and reconcile their own existence at the expense of others, who are not allowed to escape the role assigned to them—or to express their feelings about that role.  In both #MeToo and the Windrush protests, it has been the ability of groups (women or Windrush citizens and their children) to speak out collectively that has won support for individuals.  Mental health is an insistence on existence—both a refusal to be silenced and an ability to access your connections with communities of the past and present.  I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that many people have criticized #MeToo for its focus on white women, emphasizing the what Hazel Carby argues when she writes that “white women stand in a power relation as oppressors of black women” (“White Woman Listen!” 112).  So while #MeToo has resonance with the Windrush protests in terms of their effects on people’s mental health, it is also important to recognize that they are not the same.

It is also important to be alert to how people are often distracted from the silencing and isolating of individuals through society’s acceptable narratives.  The headlines on today’s BBC news demonstrated this nicely; the UK page on their website mentions “Sixty-three Windrush migrants ‘removed’” by the British government, but you must click on the headline to find out more.  Right next to this headline, in larger font and with a picture, is the story that “Markle’s sister hopes dad will go to wedding” (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk; accessed 13:09 EST 5/15/18).  There is a caption under the headline and picture.  The story of Meghan Markle, the new “black princess” is one that is being touted as proof that Britain has moved on from its racist past (https://www.buzzfeed.com/sandirankaduwa/itsamodernmarkle?utm_term=.wcm5P0XGO6#.lkobvK3AXw), but as with any royal wedding, it is also a way to distract the public from serious news—news which includes Windrush deportations and former Grenfell Tower residents, mostly poor and many of color, who are still struggling months after fire caused by unsafe appliances and construction materials destroyed their building.  (But hey, Prince William helped paint their community centre: https://www.aol.com/article/entertainment/2018/05/15/prince-william-helps-paint-community-center-for-grenfell-tower-fire-victims-ahead-of-royal-wedding/23435180/).

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One of the Windrush Generation threatened with deportation, Glenda Caesar points at a picture of her parents’ wedding that took place in 1968 in the UK. Credit: ITV News (http://www.itv.com/news/2018-04-11/windrush-generation-nhs-worker-lost-job-and-faces-deportation-despite-living-in-the-uk-for-more-than-50-years/). 

Even if you accept the royal distraction, the wedding might not have the post-racial effects hoped for by some.  Becoming a “princess” might not protect Markle from being silenced and isolated by British society.  She could look to British children’s literature to find out what it means to be Black British “royalty”.   Two books which highlight the mental health and identity formation of young black girls labelled as royalty are Nina Bawden’s Princess Alice (André Deutsch, 1985) and Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978), and they offer radically alternative visions as to how to survive as a Black British princess.

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Being a Black British princess is not all it’s cracked up to be in Bawden’s Princess Alice.

White British Bawden (best known for her novel about WWII evacuees, Carrie’s War) tells the story of a Black girl named Alice, adopted into the white Maclusky family along with several other children (none of the others are Black, though two are Asian).  The cover illustration by Phillida Gili makes Alice’s place in the family clear; she is looking after the baby while all the other children are playing with toys or pets.  Cinderella-like, she also cleans the house.  Her family are grateful, but not to the extent that they help her.  Despite this, when her biological father turns out to be an African prince, Alice fears “He might kidnap her and lock her up in his palace in Africa” (n.p.).  She prefers to stay and clean house for her adopted family.  Her adopted father tells her, “All my daughters are Princesses to me” (n.p.); by equating his “real” and adopted daughters, Mr. Maclusky erases Alice’s history and need for community; he affirms her place in the family, but at the expense of Alice’s identity formation as a Black person.  She cannot belong to a British family and accept her Africanness.

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Errol Lloyd’s Nini finds being queen a joyful thing, because she is a part of the community.

Black British Errol Lloyd’s Nini, on the other hand, is denied neither history nor community.  She wants to join a multiracial carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume and sits alone, crying.  Her friend, dressed as a fairy godmother, does not tell her she has to toughen up or remain outside the carnival community; rather, her friend gives her a costume.  “It was only a piece of cloth, but it fitted Nini perfectly” (n.p.) the text states.  The cloth is not any random piece of cloth, but one resembling Kente cloth, the royal cloth of the Akan people; in it, Nini is able not only to join the community, but because of her costume, becomes Queen of the Carnival.  The last line of the book is telling: “Nini talked about it all the way home” (n.p.).  Her connection to community and history, unlike Bawden’s Alice, gives her a voice; she is not silenced or made to accept her place as less-worthy outsider.

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Benjamin Zephaniah’s Britain includes variety and equality. Illustration by Sarah Symonds.

This emphasis on the Blackness and Britishness of Black Britons is the only way to ensure a unified Britain. Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem, “The British” (Wicked World, Puffin 2000), not only highlights the mixture of people in Britain, but values all their contributions to Britain.  “As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish/ Binding them together with English./ Allow time to be cool” (39).  The poem does not, however, suggest that just mixing people will necessarily result in a nation.  Zephaniah’s poem ends with a warning: “An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all” (39)—from the Empire Windrush to the tower block to the palace.

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“Puerto Rico’s in America”: Children’s Lit and Citizenship of Puerto Ricans

In March, I was talking with a friend about musicals, and I said I liked West Side Story.  “Do you?” my friend asked, clearly surprised.  I do like the music, and the dancing, and I have particularly fond memories of the song “Rumble” which my daughter’s nursery school class used to put on when it was clean-up time, which I always thought was funny (was it some kind of social conditioning to associate in their small minds gang warfare with wanting to clean up the house?).  But I’m pretty sure my friend was thinking of the film, which has faced considerable criticism from its premiere in 1961.  “Well,” I said, “I like Rita Moreno.”

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Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno in the 1961 film West Side Story, reminding viewers that “Puerto Rico’s in America.”

I thought of this last week when BBC Radio 4’s PM programme ran a piece on West Side Story, in which Carolyn Quinn commented that the film version was criticized for having “Americans” play Puerto Ricans (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09zt3k1 about 41 minutes in to the programme).  I immediately thought of the line from the song, “I Want to Live in America” in which the Puerto Rican girls point out, “Puerto Rico’s in America.”  Quinn’s definition of “American” points up the difficult relationship between the United States and its island territory, and also speaks to the definition of “American”; surely the word Quinn was looking for was “white”—she didn’t mean that Sidney Poitier was playing a Puerto Rican.  Americans are white; people of colour are African-American, Latina/o-American, Puerto Rican American.  And Puerto Ricans almost never count as Americans.  We saw this come into sharpest focus following Hurricane Maria, when the president complained about helping Puerto Ricans recover (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/10/03/trump-puerto-rico-survey-hurricane-maria-damage/726352001/) because it was costing too much.  A set of austerity measures has since been put in place by the federal government, which today, 1st May, Puerto Rican unions are protesting in a one-day strike (https://www.npr.org/2018/05/01/607303533/demonstrators-to-march-in-puerto-rico-to-protest-austerity-measures).

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Books such as Ramy Allison White’s Sunny Boy on the Ocean depict happy blonde children frolicking in Puerto Rico while the “natives” seem happy to serve them.

But the fraught relationship between the mainland US and Puerto Rico does not just go back to the 1960s.  It goes back much further, and evidence for this can be found in children’s books.  Puerto (or Porto, as it was once, incorrectly, spelled in American children’s books) Rico began appearing as a setting for children’s books in the US in the very late 19th century because it was ceded by Spain to the United States following the Spanish-American War.  Children’s books have always been a way to encourage imperial exploration, and books such as Young Hunters In Porto Rico (1900) proclaimed the benefits of the island to mainland Americans: “This new island of ours is but little known to the majority of us, but when its picturesqueness, and its mild climate, become a matter of publicity, Porto Rico is bound to become the Mecca for thousands of American tourists in search of health and pleasure” (from the preface by “Captain Ralph Bonehill,” iv; Bonehill was a pseudonym for the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Edward Stratemeyer).  By the 1920s the predicted discovery had come to pass; Ramy Allison White’s Sunny Boy on the Ocean (1925) has its six-year-old protagonist touring around the island, learning facts such as “San Juan was the oldest possession of the United States” (169).  Puerto Rico is a “possession” that “Americans” can use to make money and enjoy the sunshine in temporary trips, according to children’s literature of the time.  Interaction with Puerto Ricans is kept to a minimum, especially since “natives” are generally depicted as lazy and unclean, if not dangerous.  (For more on early depictions, see my article, “The Stratemeyer Chums Have Fun in the Caribbean” in Internationalism in Children’s Series, Palgrave Macmillan 2014: 59-75).

Twins Rommie and Rovie, in Evelyn Canfield’s 1957 novel, see Puerto Rico, but always at an emotional distance from the land both “foreign” and “American”.

The confusion between Puerto Rico as a foreign land and as a part of America continued in children’s literature throughout the second half of the twentieth century.  Evelyn Canfield’s Rommie and Rovie in the West Indies (1957) discusses the mainland American protagonists’ excitement at “a vacation that was to bring so many foreign scenes, strange foods, and new friends” (14) but points out only a few pages later that “Puerto Rico . . . belonged to the United States, so the natives here are all American citizens” (23).  Most geography texts, such as Michael Burgan’s Puerto Rico (2003), emphasize Puerto Rico’s connection to America (Burgan’s book is in the “From Sea to Shining Sea” series from Children’s Press, which has one book for every part of the United States) but whereas Burgan’s book opens with this relationship, many others do not.  A True Book: Puerto Rico, by Elaine Landau and also from Children’s Press (1999) chooses to begin with asking readers to “Close your eyes and picture a beautiful island with sandy beaches and brightly colored flowers” (5) in a section called “Island of Enchantment”.  It only mentions the political situation some pages later, in the book’s shortest chapter.

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Puerto Ricans writing about Puerto Ricans, such as Sonia Manzano, tell a very different story of connection between the island and the mainstream.

In the late 1990s, Puerto Rican-born New York City librarian Pura Belpré began writing about Puerto Rican experiences in colonial times and advocating for more literature about Puerto Rico to be produced.  The establishment in 1996 of the Pura Belpré award has done a lot to bring to light the complicated relationship between the island and the mainland.  The award, which is “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth” (http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/belpremedal/belpreabout), has brought Latina/Latino children’s literature closer to the mainstream.  Authors like Sonia Manzano (who, like Rita Moreno, I knew from childhood through PBS children’s television—Sesame Street in Manzano’s case and Electric Company in Moreno’s) showcase Puerto Ricans living in both island and mainland.  Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano was a Belpré honor book in 2013.  In it, Evelyn examines her heritage—as American, Puerto Rican, and Nuyorican.  After discussing the various ethnic groups that make up Puerto Rico, Evelyn comments about her own life in New York City: “us kids wanted to call ourselves Nuyoricans so we wouldn’t have to go through the whole speech of, well I was born here but my parents are from Puerto Rico so I’m really Puerto Rican but born in New York, blah, blah, blah, blah, every time somebody asked us what we were” (188).  “Nuyorican” is one way to remind people that Puerto Rico’s in America—and it’s a message that more children need to hear.

Without Windrush: British children’s literature and Windrush children

Although I have been following the story for a couple of weeks now, the news finally caught up with the BBC (http://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-43746746/windrush-migrants-facing-deportation-threat) and other news organizations that some Windrush-generation British Caribbean people were being faced with deportation thanks to stricter immigration rules.  These rules require Britons to prove their status as citizens in order to be able to work, use the NHS, and access other services.  However, even though people arriving legally from the Caribbean to fill labour shortages after 1948 and before 1973 were given permanent right to reside, the Home Office kept no records, and the burden of proof is therefore on the migrant.  Many of these migrants came as children, on their parents’ passports, however, and therefore find it difficult to produce the needed proof.  Although the deportations are under review as of this writing, and Theresa May has apologized to Caribbean nations for any distress caused to them or their citizens (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-43792411), many people find the lack of judgment regarding the deportation of people who helped build up the UK after World War II more than deplorable.

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“I was told I was part of the motherland”: but Floella Benjamin is now speaking out about the UK government’s threat to Windrush generation migrants.

I want to highlight British children’s authors who came from the Caribbean as children in this blog, just to indicate how much richer British children’s literature is with the contributions of the Windrush generation.  These authors are only a small part of the writers who claim Afro- or Indo-Caribbean heritage; many authors came as adults (like Valerie Bloom, John Agard, Grace Nichols and Andrew Salkey); many others were born in Britain of Afro- or Indo-Caribbean parents (including Trish Cooke, Benjamin Zephaniah, Malorie Blackman and Alex Wheatle).  The authors I am highlighting here, by the way, are not in any danger of deportation—as far as I know, they have all the correct paperwork and are British citizens with passports.  But like Paulette Wilson, Anthony Bryan, and others highlighted in this Guardian article (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/15/why-the-children-of-windrush-demand-an-immigration-amnesty), they came as children and grew up thinking of Britain as their home.  Their literary contributions have changed the national understanding of British literature, and it is worth pausing a moment to imagine what the bookshelves would look like without them.

Both Kate Elizabeth Ernest and Floella Benjamin came to Britain from the Caribbean, Ernest from Jamaica and Benjamin from Trinidad.  Both had lived with their grandparents in idyllic circumstances while their parents settled in Britain; both experienced the harsh reality of racism when they at last came to Britain.  But both of them survived the experience and wrote about it.  Ernest’s fictional account, Birds in the Wilderness (1995) tells of bullies who ask the main character, “What was it like living in the bush?” (54) and spit on her (34).  Hope, Ernest’s character, clings to books and education, hoping to become a writer in the future, but the book ends with “A feeling of uneasiness” (158) that the family won’t stay together.

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Floella Benjamin, now Baroness Beckenham, started her work for children in television, on BBC’s Play School.

It is family that is crucial to Floella Benjamin as well, in her memoir, Coming to England (1995).  She came to England in 1960, and like Ernest, experienced racism and isolation because of her skin colour, her accent, and her heritage.  But “Dardie had opened our minds to the world with knowledge,” Benjamin wrote about her father, “Marmie had instilled strength, determination, conviction and confidence in us.  Now it was up to me to merge them together and absorb them into my soul.  These were the ground rules on which my new life was to be built.  I had to make something out of it without losing my true identity” (116).  And make something of it she did; not only is Benjamin the author of multiple children’s books, she was a children’s television presenter and is now a member of the House of Lords and patron of many children’s charities, the Baroness of Beckenham.

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De Souza’s Rastamouse is helpful to the police and gets criminals to reform . . .

Two authors who brought the music of the Caribbean to their literary efforts—albeit in very different ways—are Michael de Souza and Linton Kwesi Johnson.  De Souza came from Trinidad at the age of eight in the same year as Floella Benjamin—1960.  He is best known for his Rastamouse books, in which a reggae-playing mouse fights crime and does his best to “make a bad ting good”—all the criminals reform under Rastamouse’s good advice.  De Souza’s cheerful picture books are in stark contrast to the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, who arrived in Britain in 1963 at the age of eleven.  LKJ is not a children’s poet, but he was publishing poetry as a teenager and he continued through his twenties to write about teenagers; he was a British Black Panther and a voice of protest against many of the outrages committed against Black British youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  He was the first of the British dub poets.  On his blog in 2012, LKJ wrote, “I am often asked why I started to write poetry. The answer is that my motivation sprang from a visceral need to creatively articulate the experiences of the black youth of my generation, coming of age in a racist society” (http://www.lintonkwesijohnson.com/2012/04/18/riots-rhymes-and-reason/). Johnson could not make the bad of a racist government into something good just by writing poetry about it.  But he could call attention to it, and in poems like “Dread Beat an’ Blood,” “Sonny’s Lettah” and “Five Nights of Bleeding” he exposed the struggles of young people facing a country that didn’t want them.  Those same youths that Johnson was writing about then are among those the government is targeting now.

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As a young poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson saw the brutality of the police visited on his community, writing about it in poems like “Sonny’s Lettah” and “Forces of Victory”. Photograph by Robert Golden.

Floella Benjamin spoke this week in the House of Lords, reminding the government and the British people that, “I came to this country in 1960 as a British citizen, a Windrush generation child, who was told I was part of the motherland, I would be welcomed.  Luckily I had my own passport . . . otherwise I too would be having to prove my status” (www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-parliaments-43791047).  Britain was forever changed in so many positive ways by the Windrush generation.  Children’s literature in Britain was too.  The nation’s children should not have to imagine a world without Windrush—or without the next generation of writers coming from the current migration into Britain, for that matter.

Repeating or Renewing Island? Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock

Last week I considered a poet, John Agard, who also wrote prose.  Today I’m going to look at two prose writers from Jamaica, who published works for children contemporaneously (between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, more or less) and who occasionally forayed into poetry: Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock.  The two men have many things in common; both were raised in Jamaica (Salkey was born in Panama but his Jamaican parents brought him back to Jamaica for schooling), educated in British colonial schools, went to England as young adults, and attended London University.  Both were interested in the education of young people and specifically in connecting children to their cultural roots.  Sherlock worked in education throughout his career, and eventually became Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.  Salkey was known as a generous spirit who helped many Black writers and publishers through his promotion of them.  He worked for the seminal programme, “Caribbean Voices,” both as a presenter of his own work and seeking out the talent of others, he was an advisor to the Black British publishers Jessica and Eric Huntley, and he taught creative writing in America.

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Anansi as top-hatted spider, illustrated by American artist Marcia Brown.

Both of them published versions of Anansi stories, and it is here that I want to start.  Anansi, half-spider and half-man, is a folklore figure from West Africa, the son of the sky god and a trickster; when Africans were sold into slavery and transported to the Americas by Europeans, Anansi came with them (although he became somewhat more domesticated in the Caribbean than he was in Africa).  Philip Sherlock was one of the first to publish the folk stories of the trickster figure for children through mainstream—that is to say, British and American—publishers.  His Anansi the Spider-Man, published by Macmillan and illustrated by the American illustrator Marcia Brown, first appeared in 1956, and some version of his Anansi tales have remained in print in America and Britain ever since.  I mention this because Sherlock was focused on the education of Jamaican children, but it is likely that more children outside of Jamaica than in it have seen Sherlock’s version of the tales.  Sherlock’s stories are, in keeping with both his (white British) cultural background and his interest in promoting education, in “standard” British English rather than patois.  Sherlock is absolutely to be credited for bringing attention and cultural capital to the folktales of Jamaica, but his depiction is certainly less verbally adventurous than those of Black Jamaican writers, including Andrew Salkey’s.  Compare Sherlock’s (prose) introduction to Anansi in his 1956 collection to Salkey’s poem, “Anancy,” found in Time for Poetry (1988) edited by Nahdjla Carasco Bailey.  Sherlock writes:

WHO WAS ANANSI?  He was a man and he was a spider.

When things went well he was a man, but when he was in great danger he                         became a spider, safe in his web high up on the ceiling. . . .

Anansi’s home was in the villages and forests of West Africa.  From there long                  years ago thousands of men and women came to the islands of the Caribbean.                      They brought with them the stories that they loved, the stories about clever Br’er                Anansi, and his friends Tiger and Crow and Moos-Moos and Kisander the cat. (1)

Sherlock’s description puts Africa (and Anansi, for that matter) in the past, and connects Anansi’s spider form with fear; but Salkey’s poem suggests otherwise.  The first stanza and the last stanza are connected by Anansi’s ability to constantly change—not out of fear, but out of preference.  “Anancy is a spider;/ Anancy is a man;/ Anancy’s West Indian/ And West African” Salkey writes in the first stanza.  In the last, he adds, “And always,/ Anancy changes/ From a spider into a man/ And from a man into a spider/ And back again/ At the drop of a sleepy eyelid” (87).  Salkey’s Anancy is present and always changing; Sherlock’s Anansi belongs to the fixed past.

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Sherlock’s poem in Nahdjla Carasco Bailey’s Time for Poetry, a collection of poems for secondary students in the Caribbean.

This distinction is not merely a prose/poetry difference.  Another topic both men wrote about was the fishing communities of Jamaica.  This time, it is Sherlock who writes in poetry and Salkey in prose.  Sherlock’s “Jamaican Fisherman” (also collected in Time for Poetry) depicts an outsider viewing a lone fisherman on the beach.  Sherlock’s frequent use of the term “black” as a descriptor and his negative adjectives (wretched, broken) puts the poet in a position of privilege with regard to the fisherman.  Sherlock’s repetition of the fisherman’s “ancient” connections puts the fisherman’s wealth and status firmly in the past.

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Cover illustration by Gerry Craig for Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Salkey, on the other hand, describes a very different fishing scene in his 1969 novel Jonah Simpson.

Jonah left the house very early Thursday morning and went down to the jetty to watch the fishing-boats coming in from the long night’s haul.  The fishermen looked tired but satisfied with their catch.  They were all younger than the men who had been in the Co-op shed the night before.  They were strong, muscular, stripped to the waist, and very confident in the way they stood and handled their small craft, bullying them into the shallow water near the jetty, and afterwards dragging them high up on to the beach.  Jonah kept out of the way, as the men began unloading the fish across a large sheet of canvas spread over the end of the jetty.  The women arrived soon afterwards with their basket and deep metal containers.  They chatted with the men and teased them about the very big fish they hadn’t had the luck to catch. (16)

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Not a lonely fisherman in poverty, but a vibrant community; Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Here is not a lonely, broken, wretched black fisherman without any fish, but a community of fisher-folk, all busy, all strong, all working and laughing together.  The community, in Salkey’s case, is more crucial than the color of their skin.  Sherlock’s Jamaica is a place fixed in the past, in poverty, in fear and loneliness; Salkey’s is communal, of the present, strong and always changing.  These are just two examples of each man’s writing, and an exhaustive study would likely show more nuance in their views of their island home.  As depicted here, however, Sherlock’s Jamaica is a repeating island, characterized by (as Antonio Benítez-Rojo writes, in The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective) “its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity” (1).  Salkey’s Jamaica, on the other hand, holds the possibility for change, and makes the island part of the future rather than the past.

Letters for Lettie and Words for Shona: John Agard’s chapter books

It’s April, which means poetry month; but this year I thought I’d do something a little different with the blog, which is to look at poets who write in prose and vice versa.  I’ll start with someone known almost exclusively for his poetry.  When I think of John Agard, I picture him introducing the world to John Blanke, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the many unknown Black British people who have come face-to-face with white British curiosity, hostility or confusion.  His early poem, “Listen Mister Oxford Don” (1967) focuses on the English language in its many variations—from the “Oxford” version to patois.  Agard has, with Grace Nichols, produced collections of nursery rhymes that twist the “standard” English version with a Caribbean spin as well.  His attention to language makes Agard a great poet, even better when you can hear him speak it in his Guyanese lilt.

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Errol Lloyd’s illustrations for John Agard’s Letters for Lettie capture middle-class Georgetown, Guyana in the 1970s.

But Agard started out publishing in Britain with something quite different.  His first children’s book, published by Bodley Head in 1979, was a middle grade chapter book about an eight-year-old girl in Georgetown, Guyana, who loves writing letters and delivering the post.  Letters for Lettie takes the reader all around Georgetown, from Lettie’s home to school to a Christmas-time carnival.  “If a day passed without Lettie writing a letter, then something was wrong” (7), Agard writes.  The book is important because it gave readers—both those who had a home connection to Guyana and those who didn’t even know it existed—a sense of the modern Caribbean.  The illustrations by Errol Lloyd present a picture of middle-class Georgetown, with single-family homes and children riding bikes.  This may seem unimportant, except that the British Caribbean community in 1979 was often seen as connected with urban tower blocks and poverty, unable to succeed in the British education system, and Lloyd’s illustrations and Agard’s text remind readers that many Caribbean people came from educated backgrounds.  This is underscored in Letters for Lettie because the main character does not just write letters to people.  She has a poet’s mind, and writes letters to inanimate objects and even abstract concepts. Lettie writes a letter to blue and then one to green, calling the latter “the most beesybody colour I’ve ever seen” (56).  Agard’s book in many ways acts as a companion to Agard’s partner (and fellow poet) Grace Nichols’ early novel, Leslyn in London, which describes a young girl’s bewilderment upon arriving in cold, gray London after living her childhood in warm and colourful Georgetown.  Both Lettie and Leslyn are in love with words—Lettie writes letters and Leslyn compares language in Georgetown and London.  The manuscripts (in several versions!) of both these novels have just been added to the archived collections at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and I’m looking forward to examining their collections more closely.

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Writing, listening, capturing words and ideas are all part of being Shona, Word Detective in John Agard’s most recent chapter book (pictures by Michael Broad).

Almost thirty years after he published Letters for Lettie, Agard produced another book about a young girl in love with words, Shona, Word Detective (Barrington Stoke 2018).  Although Shona is of a similar age as Lettie, the book itself is aimed at a different kind of reader.  Agard’s Letters for Lettie has about 100 pages of dense (though not generally complicated) text, with carefully spaced, realistic illustrations; Shona, Word Detective is considerably shorter, about half as long, and with frequent, cartoon-like illustrations (by Michael Broad).  Shona, like all Barrington Stoke titles, is designed to be dyslexic-friendly, and to provide high interest reading for the young person who might otherwise be reluctant to pick up a book.  Despite this, however, Agard does not suggest that reluctance to read might equate to disinterest in literature.  The book centers on a girl who is in love with words—spoken and written.  In many ways, Shona has much in common with “Listen Mister Oxford Don,” as both poem and book examine words and language as flexible, changing, and not the purview of experts but of ordinary people.  Shona sees a news programme about dying languages and begins to think about what it means to keep language alive.  With the help of her teacher, Shona realizes that she can play a role in maintaining and growing a language.  She and her classmates, who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, bring items into school; the names of these things (and their pictures) are added to a Language Tree, a symbol of the living nature of language.  Many of the items that students bring in have names that bring to mind other meanings or other cultures.  For example, one student brings in a Maang Tikka and notes that most of the children might be thinking they were going to get something to eat because of the connection to Chicken Tikka Masala—but this Tikka is a jeweled headdress suitable for a wedding (38).  Another student brings in “the figure of a spiderman” (40), Anansi, the spider trickster.  Although the student who brought in the Anansi has Ghanaian relatives, Anansi is a trickster throughout the parts of the world affected by the transatlantic slave trade, and his name and character changes as he moves from place to place.  The flexibility of language is a key lesson of the book; without flexibility, the language dies just as readily as if the people who speak it die out.

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Shona’s class creates a “Language Tree” to show words that have roots in cultures belonging to the class–and to remind each other that language is a living thing.

Agard’s book also examines the science of language, though in a reasonably simple fashion.  A female scientist—the one that Shona saw on the news report that got her thinking about languages in the first place—has made it her mission to save dying languages, and one of the ways that she does this is through teaching parrots to learn the pronunciations of words.  Professor Crystal-Bloomer has made it her mission to locate and save dying languages.  She will do this scientifically when she can—but she also uses activism of varying kinds, staging protests and having a friend play a narrow-minded “expert” on television arguing that everyone should speak the same language (English) to highlight how dreary the world would be without language variation.  Agard subtly teaches children that not only are there multiple ways to describe a thing, there are multiple ways to stand up for something you believe in.  Agard’s Shona teaches children to care about words because words are powerful.

Although Agard is best known for his poetry, his novels for children embrace a similar sensibility to his poetic work: words matter.  And even if you are only armed “wit human breath” (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=listen+mr+oxford+don&view=detail&mid=16D8BC8D927AEBA9925116D8BC8D927AEBA99251&FORM=VIRE), as Agard says in “Listen Mr Oxford Don,” you can change the world with the words you choose and the stories you tell.

Interplanetary Women’s Day: Black Women Writers and Science Fiction and Fantasy

Next week I am going to be in Antwerp, lecturing to a Twentieth Century British Women’s Writers course.  Because the instructor for the course is the gifted and insightful Vanessa Joosen, the overall book list for the course is varied, ranging from Virginia Woolf to Kate Atkinson, Doris Lessing to Andrea Levy, and covering a wide variety of genres, including poetry, realism and fantasy for both adults and children.  I’ll be speaking about the UK’s Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, Malorie Blackman, and specifically about her novel Noughts and Crosses (Corgi 2001).  Blackman is the only writer on Joosen’s list who has written in so many different styles; she has picture books about talking animals (I Want a Cuddle! Scholastic 2001) and imaginary play (Marty Monster Tamarind 1999), early chapter books including the Girl Wonder and Betsey Biggalow series, poetry (Cloud Busting Doubleday 2004), fiction dealing with the effects of technological advances (most famously, Pig-Heart Boy, Transworld 1999, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal—one of the only books by Black British writers to be so honored) and historical fiction (Blackman edited and contributed to the collection Unheard Voices, Corgi 2007).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses depicts a dystopian world where the racial power hierarchy is flipped but racism still abounds.

But Blackman is best known for her science fiction and fantasy, which again spans various types, from technological futurism (Robot Girl Barrington Stoke 2015) to horror (The Stuff of Nightmares Corgi 2012), ghost stories (the gentle Grandma Gertie’s Haunted Handbag, Heinemann 1996, is for younger readers, but she does ghost stories for older readers as well), magical creature fantasy (Whizziwig Galaxy 1998), and transformation fantasy (the human characters in Animal Avengers, Mammoth 1999, can turn into any animal they want).  She has interplanetary science fiction with her Chasing the Stars (Doubleday 2016) and, her most famous series, the dystopian Noughts and Crosses.  Most of her main characters are Black (British).  She has spent much of her career trying to write Black children into books, but unlike some writers, she doesn’t usually focus on race as the main aspect of the book: “I wanted to write books about black children where race had nothing to do with the story – just doing all the things white children did in stories I read as a child” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/23/malorie-blackman-teen-young-adult-fiction-diversity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014).  Why shouldn’t Black boys have alien friends from another planet, and why shouldn’t Black girls pilot a spaceship, when white children did these things in books all the time?

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The first book in Virginia Hamilton’s series, with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Blackman is definitely the most voluminous producer of Black British science fiction and fantasy for children, but she is not the first to write protagonists of African descent into children’s non-realistic literature.  The American author Virginia Hamilton, who is today perhaps best known for The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Knopf 1986) with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, published a science fiction series beginning in 1978 with Justice and her Brothers.  Hamilton’s series, which includes Dustland (1980) and The Gathering (1981) was “the first science fiction series written with African American protagonists by an African American” (Back in the Spaceship Again, Sands and Frank, 115) for young people.  Hamilton’s protagonist, Justice, travels into the future and uses extrasensory perception to communicate with her brothers.  Like Blackman, Hamilton felt it was important that young people see themselves in books; according to her website, she viewed her writing as “Liberation Literature” (http://www.virginiahamilton.com/biography/) for young people.  The label recalls the Black Panther party, whose Liberation Schools tried to free the minds of young African Americans from the oppressive domination of white/European institutions.  Both Hamilton and Blackman provide readers, through their fantasy and science fiction, with alternative ways of seeing the world around them—ways of seeing themselves as active agents in that world, and even leaders.

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Zetta Elliott’s fantasy for middle grade readers about American children meeting ghosts in the UK.

Hamilton and Blackman aren’t the only writers of African descent producing science fiction and fantasy for children; as Zetta Elliott pointed out in her School Library Journal article from 2011, “Magical things can happen to anyone, anywhere” (“A Storied Past” https://www.slj.com/2011/01/industry-news/a-storied-past-the-best-tales-are-often-found-right-inside-your-own-front-door/#_). Her recently updated list of speculative fiction by US-based authors can be found on her blog (http://www.zettaelliott.com/african-american-speculative-fiction-for-kids/), and it shows that the numbers of writers focusing on characters of African descent is increasing in science fiction and fantasy. Zetta herself writes fantasy with African-American characters, including the transatlantic The Ghosts in the Castle (CreateSpace 2017) which I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog. But the numbers are still small, especially outside of the US.  In Britain, science fiction and fantasy is still largely dominated by white characters.  Caribbean children’s literature is still a growth area, and although much early post-independence literature was either realistic fiction or folktales, there has been an increase in fantasy and (especially environmentally-based) science fiction; Diane Browne’s time travel fiction (A Tumbling World, A Time of Fire Arawak 2002) and Hazel Campbell’s Juice Box and Scandal LMH 1992) are two examples of books that paved the way for more recent authors such as Tracy Baptiste (The Jumbies 2015).  Nigerian American award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor writes science fiction fantasy for all ages based in Nigeria (Akata Witch, Speak 2017, is about a twelve-year-old girl).

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Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor expands the world of fantasy to include Africa.

Often, however, science fiction and fantasy with Black characters is seen as being only pertinent to Black readers.  As Darren Chetty and I wrote in our Books for Keeps article in January of this year, “While BAME readers need books in which they can see themselves, it’s also important to challenge the idea that books with BAME characters are only for BAME readers. All children deserve to have literature that opens up the world in all its complexity” (http://content.yudu.com/web/1mjdv/0A1mjdx/BFK228Jan2018/html/print/BfK%20228%20hi%20res%20single%20pages-rgb%20DPDF.pdf).  That article discusses the ways that Black authors often use canonical fantasy by white authors to broaden their audience.  In similar fashion, tomorrow also marks the opening of a film based on a canonical American science fiction fantasy novel, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1960).  The novel, written by a white author, is being produced as a film by Ava DuVernay with a multiracial cast including Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid playing Meg Murry. Reviews so far have been mixed—I’ll see it this weekend—but DuVernay’s efforts in opening up the universe to children of color in such a high profile effort may help publishers to be less reluctant about publishing authors who want to do the same.  So if you’re celebrating International Women’s Day today, why not make it Interplanetary Women’s Day, and open up your own universe to one of these authors.

Celebrating Vision: Faith Ringgold and Radical Black Art for Children

This weekend marks President’s Day in the US.  My undergraduate children’s literature students are spending the weekend finding a children’s book that details a US president’s interaction with people of color, because I wanted them to see what and who we do and don’t celebrate in this country.  However, I thought I would give the theme of presidents a miss this year; this weekend also marks the birthdays of two radical Black women visionaries, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, so I thought I’d celebrate them by looking at a Black woman artist who, like Morrison and Lorde, asked us to change the way that we see the world.

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Faith Ringgold’s “For the Women’s House” from 1971.

I began thinking about this because on Friday, Buffalo’s art museum, the Albright-Knox, had a free opening evening for their new exhibit, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985” (https://www.albrightknox.org/art/exhibitions/we-wanted-revolution-black-radical-women).   I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, but for me, seeing Faith Ringgold’s activism and art contextualized put a new spin on how I understood her work for children.  A highlight of the exhibition is Ringgold’s 1971 mural, For the Women’s House.  The mural, which was painted for the women’s correctional facility on Riker’s Island in New York City, strikes the viewer long before she knows the story behind it.  A set of triangular panels formed into a square (similar to a quilt block, for which kind of art Ringgold is also known) show women of all races and ages working, creating, teaching and supporting one another.  Although the women mostly look directly out at the viewer, the mural is not confrontational; the women appear strong and calm.  According to the explanatory panel, the lack of confrontation is purposeful.  “In an April 1972 interview with her daughter, writer Michele Wallace, Ringgold described her goals for the piece: ‘If I hadn’t done it for the Women’s House then it probably would have been more political; but these women have been rejected by society; they are the blood guilt of society, so if this is what I give them, then maybe that is what we should all have.’”  The canvas may not have been aggressive—given that it was painted in 1971, Ringgold could have focused on many of the difficult political moments of the prior five years in the US—but it was (and is) political.  The idea that all women should have satisfying work that gives them the financial support and time to be creative and look after (and be looked after by) a family is what we all should have.

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Ringgold’s protagonist flies around the city, seeing people in unexpected ways.

Ringgold’s comments about what she creates for whom put her children’s books into a new context for me.  Seeing differently is always Ringgold’s aim.  For women prisoners, she painted a mural focused on the life that they could, and indeed should, have.  For children, she also creates visions of imagined worlds.  These visions often include fantasy: Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, involve her protagonist, Cassie, flying through time and space to see the world around them and how history has affected them.

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Ringgold’s cover illustration begs the question: how can someone this arresting be invisible?

But Ringgold’s books also encourage readers to think about seeing the world around them—as it is, and as it could be.  In her fairytale set in the American south during slavery, The Invisible Princess, the reader (viewer) is instantly arrested by the cover illustration of the princess, with her large eyes and fantastic, halo-like cornrows.  But in the story, only the plantation owner’s blind daughter can see the invisible, but very real, princess.

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See what you don’t expect is what happens when you open your eyes: Ringgold’s illustration for “Eldora, Who is Rich”.

Ringgold did not write all the books she illustrated, but even the ones for which she did not provide the text have a focus on what can, and perhaps should, be seen if young people open their eyes to the world around them.  In 2006, Ringgold celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book of children’s poetry by re-illustrating it, literally re-visioning it.  Gwendolyn Brooks’s Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a children’s book follow-up to her first adult collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), chronicled the lives of children in a working-class area of Chicago that had grown up as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north of the US in the decades following emancipation.  The poems in Bronzeville Boys and Girls do not seem on the surface highly radical; they are about ordinary things that most children experience—like, for example, what you can get away with doing when company comes over and your parents aren’t paying attention to you.  But I would argue that this is one of the reasons why Ringgold chose to re-illustrate it, fifty years later.  So many children’s books in the US about African-Americans resolutely ignore the ordinariness of African-American childhoods.  Brooks in 1956 and Ringgold in 2006 asked readers to see the invisible.  This part of Brooks’ and Ringgold’s vision may have been aimed primarily at adult buyers of the book; but there are specific poems that urge child readers to see the world, to look up and out, to re-vision.  Perhaps one of the most obvious of these is in the poem, “Eldora, Who is Rich.”  The poem opens with an expectation of what a rich girl looks like, someone with “a golden head” (Bronzeville Boys and Girls, n.p.).  But Eldora, in the illustration by Ringgold, looks so much like the other children that until a reader completes the poem, it is not clear if the rich girl of the title is in it.  Eldora, of course, is African-American and not white (or golden-headed) as the children expect.  Change your expectations, Brooks and Ringgold argue.  See differently.  See new.

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Faith Ringgold and her daughter, the writer Michele Wallace, protesting the lack of Black Women Artists on show at the Whitney in New York, 1971.

Audre Lorde once wrote, “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change” (Black Women Writers at Work).  Faith Ringgold’s art, for all ages, demand that we ask why that joy should not belong to everyone around us as well.