Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Old African(-American): In Memory of Julius Lester

Julius Lester came to children’s literature via Harlem, folksinging, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, by the early 1960s he was in New York City, singing songs of lynching (“See How the Rain Falls”) at rallies for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).  “I wasn’t big for going on demonstrations and being thrown in jail and this-that-and the other, but music was . . . a gift that I had to offer” he says, in a PBS documentary about him (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=julius+lester+folk+singer&&view=detail&mid=668197C7D071911BC204668197C7D071911BC204&rvsmid=07E8F3E12C66EFF8984207E8F3E12C66EFF89842&FORM=VDQVAP).  In 1964, he took his songs to the south (his “freedom songs,” he called them).  In 1965, he returned to look for old blues singers on behalf of the Newport Folk Foundation.  But he didn’t think the photographer who came with him understood what to look for, and Lester began taking his own photographs.

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SNCC asked him to document civil rights movements in the south, and Lester did—although I wonder if SNCC got what they expected.  Lester’s photographs focus on the reality of life in the south, and the people who had to live those realities.  Whereas photographs of sit-ins and marches may have gotten all the attention, I find myself drawn to a photograph Lester took in Selma, Alabama in 1966.  The photograph shows an African-American woman walking past a white Chevrolet with a bumper sticker proclaiming the single word, “WALLACE”.  The bumper sticker, whether purposefully or accidentally, has a rip in it.  (You can see the photograph here: http://www.profotos.com/pros/index.cfm?member=565). Lester wanted people to hear the words and see the lives of African-Americans clearly.

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Lester’s versions of the Brer Rabbit stories used a mix of African-American dialects to give voice to these trickster tales originating from enslaved Americans.

His early work led to him wanting to write about Black History for children, to tell the stories and give voice to the people he met and sang about.  While his first book, To Be A Slave (1968) was historical, he turned to telling the stories he had heard growing up.  But he quickly realized that many of the stories he remembered had been mediated in print through white authors, such as Joel Chandler Harris.  The invented dialect that authors like Harris used to represent African-Americans often made the characters seem uneducated; but more than that, Lester knew that these characters did not speak like African-Americans—not the ones he knew in the south or the north.  So he reclaimed the stories, by retelling them.  He put in jokes that modernized the stories (talking about washing machines) or familiarized them to a new generation.  In “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” when Brer Fox is going to barbecue Brer Rabbit, Brer Rabbit takes the time to opine, “If you got to go, go in a barbecue sauce.  That’s what I always say.  How much lemon juice and brown sugar you put in yours?” (15).

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In Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, the titular character is frightened and gives away his clothes to save his skin.

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But in Lester’s version, Sam is always in charge of the situation–even when he gives away his possessions, the reader knows he will get the upper hand in the end.

Lester performed similar reclamations with other stories that had been seen as racist texts that caricatured children of African descent.  Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1900) is a folktale-like story in which Sambo is terrified by tigers who take his clothes; he only regains power (and his clothes) when the tigers are too busy to notice him.  Lester rewrote the story as Sam and the Tigers, with pictures by Jerry Pinkney. Although the basic plot is the same, Lester does not depict his protagonist as cowering or weak.  When a tiger threatens to eat him, Sam counters, “If you do, it’ll send your cholesterol way up . .  . You could be the first Tiger smart enough to carry an umbrella” (Sam and the Tigers n.p.).  Although both stories are called trickster tales, only Lester’s version has a true trickster character, one who uses his brain to talk the tiger into something different than what he wanted.

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Bob Lemmons was something of a wild horse himself, living alone and free. But he was one of the best Mustang-tamers in the west because of his persistence.

In addition to folktales, Lester produced (also with his friend Jerry Pinkney) stories of legendary African-Americans (such as that steel-driving man, John Henry) and of the historical realities of African-Americans.  His historical stories, including Black Cowboy, Wild Horses and The Old African are, like his photographs, not about the famous, the celebrity, the well-known, but about ordinary people who struggled.  Black Cowboy, Wild Horses concerns a former slave who becomes a legendary tamer of mustangs in Texas, Bob Lemmons.  Lemmons was well-known in part because he persisted, and in part because (unlike most mustang-tamers) he worked alone.  Lester’s story embraces this strength and persistence against the odds.  Similarly, in The Old African, the titular character “had learned that enduring was a power too” (46) and because of his patience and endurance, he is able to provide visions and relief for slaves who are brutalized by the plantation owner and by a system that ripped them from their homelands in Africa.  Based on a story from coastal Georgia, Lester manages to combine the historical reality of slavery within the confines of mythical storytelling (the slaves, under the leadership of the Old African, walk into the sea and return to Africa over the bones of their ancestors).  His stories give voice and vision to African-Americans, and salutes their courage and persistence through struggle.  Lester made the ordinary person a hero, and gave those historically neglected a central role in his stories, photographs and songs.  His vision and voice will be greatly missed in children’s literature.

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Lester gave voice to the voiceless, and his vision will live on beyond him.

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Actively Engaged: Diversity, Activism, and Children’s Books

This week I’ve been visiting the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) in Madison, Wisconsin, to find out more about their work.  The CCBC is a state examination site, which means (among other things) that they get sent review copies of most of the books published for children in the US in any given year (in 2016, this amounted to about 3,400 books).  They keep track of all these books in logs, but they only keep most of them for a limited amount of time (they save award winners and unique books for teacher education and library students to use in their research).  They’ve been doing this since 1963, but that’s not the reason I know about the CCBC. If you aren’t already aware, the CCBC publishes yearly statistics on diversity in children’s book publishing in the US and have done so in some form since 1985.

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These shelves hold the fiction that arrived at the CCBC over the last 18 months. Picture books and nonfiction are shelved separately.

In 1985, Ginny Moore Kruse was not only directing the CCBC but serving as a judge for the Coretta Scott King Award.  The Coretta Scott King is awarded annually to the best book written by an African-American, but out of 2500 books published that year, only 18 met the criteria for the award.  Kruse, and the other librarians at the CCBC, began publishing statistics on African-American authored books; in 1994, they expanded to include Latin@, Native American and Asian authors as well as books with major characters from those groups.  These are the statistics you can find on their website (http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp).

I learned that the CCBC actually keeps track of much more than these basic statistics.  Each book is logged in for several different attributes, and each category has various sub-categories.  Therefore, while the statistics available on the website give a snapshot of the number of books published about Africans and African-Americans, the CCBC logs will actually indicate the geographic region (if identifiable) or cultural background of major characters—such as Jamaican or Jamaican-American.  This is a massive operation compiled each year by the relatively small staff at the CCBC, and I’m grateful to K. T. Horning, Merri Lindgren, Megan Schliesman and Madeline Tyner, all of whom took the time to explain to me the who, what, when, why and how of the workings of the CCBC.  The statistics they compile have helped to raise awareness in the US about the deficiencies in US publishing for children.  Even though the numbers have increased since the dismal 1985 numbers, they are still incredibly small; the statistics give scholars, writers and activists information that they can (and we all should) use to help put pressure on an industry which has for too long ignored what the US looks like.

In addition to the CCBC, Madison is home to a wonderful independent bookstore called A Room of One’s Own.  They have a wider variety of children’s books than I’ve seen in a long time at an American bookstore, and—at least in terms of what they highlighted and displayed while I was visiting—many of these books are by or about people of color.  Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of books written about activism for (and by) children.  I’m not sure whether this is due to the current political climate or to the historical political climate (Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated fifty years ago this April, not to mention the other uprisings and protests of 1968 around the globe).  Either way, there seems to be a (renewed?) interest in teaching kids, not just about past protests, but about how to become activists themselves—and many of the books that are being published focus on young activists of color.  I’ll just highlight two books that I purchased at A Room of One’s Own to give an idea of what is available for kids.

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Bob Bland produced The Little Book of Little Activists after the 2017 Women’s March.

The first is The Little Book of Little Activists (Viking 2017), which was created (it’s not really authored, per se) by Bob Bland, the co-chair of the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington.  Bland, who was nine months pregnant at the time of the march, wanted to create the book to emphasize two things: one, that ordinary people can make a difference (she started it as a Facebook event), and two, as she writes in her introduction,

People from all walks of life joined together in solidarity, many of them engaging in social activism for the first time.  This book seeks to inspire them and others to keep on resisting.  And to remind us all that the future is in the hands of our children, and they are poised and ready for action. (n.p.)

The rest of the book contains photographs of and quotations from young children (some too young to offer quotations or create the signs they were carrying) who participated in the march.  Additionally, a couple of pages define words connected with the march, such as “Equality”.  One of the pages I find most interesting is the one that defines “protest” as “Disrupting the usual flow of things in order to call attention to an injustice and demand that it be changed” (n.p.; bolding in original).  It then goes on to list several types of protests, including boycotts, sit-ins, and walkouts.

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The defining of protest types gives young activists different ways to react to injustice.

This caught my eye because the first book I had picked up at A Room of One’s Own, Innosanto Nagara’s The Wedding Portrait (Triangle Square 2017) had a discussion of the types of protest as its very raison d’être.  The subtitle of the book is, “The Story of a Photograph and Why Sometimes we Break the Rules” and it opens with an epigraph from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.  After an opening page introducing the photograph of the title, the book continues with a discussion of different types of civil disobedience—beginning with the bus boycotts in the American south in the 1960s.  This discussion struck me particularly because rather than show the expected picture of Rosa Parks, Nagara decided instead to introduce readers to an earlier protester—the 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who, like Parks, refused to move to the back of the bus when police demanded she do so.  Nagara indicates that Colvin was arrested, but also that “In the end, the laws were changed.  This is called CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.”

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Most books that mention the bus boycotts highlight Rosa Parks, but Nagara focuses on the young protester Claudette Colvin.

The book continues through different types of protests (my favorite line is in the section about the Salt March in India, where Nagara writes, “So the people said, ‘Sorry, British Empire, but it’s time for you to go home’”) including a page on Black Lives Matter and their protest against the confederate flag, before finally returning to the original wedding portrait.  It is only then that we learn that they bride and groom were married at a protest, and were handcuffed and arrested.  Like The Little Book of Little Activists, The Wedding Portrait shows protesters of every color.  It also emphasizes what young (and not-so-young) activists need to hear in troubled times: protest does not always lead to change right away, but with enough time and commitment, all people have the power to make a difference.  How you decide to do it is up to you.

Love’s Bright Syllable: Speaking of Justice in BAME Literature

You who set free love’s bright syllable

from behind history’s iron door

that those who choose to take heed

may stride toward the sky

from “Voice” by John Agard

 

In the last post before Christmas, a package arrived for me from Newcastle.  It was a book of poems, The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King edited by Carolyn Forché and Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe 2017) that came along with a thank-you for my work on the “Diverse Voices? Curating a National History of Children’s Books” symposium in November.  Both the symposium and the poetry collection I received were part of Newcastle’s “Freedom City” project, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s visit to the city to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University just months before he was assassinated.

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The idea of commemorating such an event is a good one, especially with events and publications that speak not only about the past, but about the present and future.  The Mighty Stream includes poems that discuss King’s life, but also the life and death of Trayvon Martin.  Lauren Alleyne’s “Martin Luther King Jr Mourns Trayvon Martin” includes the lines, “For you, gone one, I dreamed/ justice—her scales tipped/ away from your extinction” (187).  Our “Diverse Voices?” symposium looked at the past, through archival work, but also pointed out the work that needed to continue—in publishing, in archiving, in prize-giving.  Both book and symposium also discussed the need for everyone—everyone—to use their own voice to call out injustice.  John Agard’s poem “Voice,” quoted at the beginning of this blog (and on page 47 of The Mighty Stream), is the optimistic and hopeful counterpart to Ifeoma Onyefulu’s comment at the symposium, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”  Calling out injustice is one piece of the puzzle, but unless (as Gandhi put it), “your words become your actions, your actions become your habits” then words are not enough.

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Brahmachari continues the Levenson family saga with a twelve-year-old girl finding her voice–and sharing it with the world.

One of the authors at the symposium in November, Sita Brahmachari, recently published a book that puts Gandhi’s ideas into practice.  Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) forms the latest book of her fictional Levenson family’s history, but it is also a story of justice born out of (often painful) experience.  Brahmachari’s earlier books, Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Jasmine Skies (Macmillan 2012) focused on the eldest Levenson girl, Mira, as she finds out who she is through art and travel.  Both these journeys of discovery involve Mira’s family in important ways; art is a gift of Mira’s Nana Josie, and Mira travels to India to stay with her mother’s side of the family and learn about her heritage.  Family also plays an important role in Tender Earth, about the youngest Levenson sister Laila, but Brahmachari’s novel expands the definition of family to include a wider group of people.  Indeed, the book begins with two trees—a traditional family tree, and Laila’s “Friend Tree”.  Her friend tree comes first, indicating its central role in the novel.

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Laila’s friend and family trees give her a place on this tender earth that is both local and global.

Friends are perhaps central to Laila because her family is breaking up, not in a negative way but in the normal course of things.  Her sister Mira is going to Glasgow to study art at university; her brother Krish has also departed, to the Lake District to live with Nana Kath.  Laila feels uncertain about her place in the family, as indicated by her new choice of “bedroom”—a couch on the liminal space of a stair landing, “a seat . . . like it’s a waiting room” (253) as one person comments.  At first, it seems old friendships are also breaking up.  Laila’s best friend Kez won’t come over anymore because she is in a wheelchair and Laila’s house is difficult for her to access—but Kez has also arranged to be placed in a different tutor group than Laila, a move that Laila sees as a betrayal. But being thrown onto her own resources necessitates Laila’s growth.  She makes a new friend, Pari, whose parents are Iraqi refugees, and meets her Nana Josie’s old friends Hope and Simon.  Simon gives Laila her deceased Nana’s “Protest Book” which lists a lifetime of social justice marches and activities.  These new friendships, a visit from Laila’s Indian cousin Janu, who is going around the world barefoot to raise money for his charity, and a sympathetic teacher’s gift of the biography of Malala Yousafzai, all work together to point out a direction for Laila.  She sees that what she’s been “waiting for” in her liminal space was a purpose, an identity.

Laila brings her new and old selves together by organizing her first protest.  When Laila’s friend Kez’s grandmother goes to visit the grave of her Kindertransport husband, it has been spray-painted with a swastika along with several other graves in the Jewish cemetery.  Laila witnesses the way the desecration of the graves devastates Kez’s family, and decides to mount a candlelight protest.  Her thought process is recorded by Brahmachari:

“Everything kaleidoscopes through my mind.  Those men’s faces on the tube, mocking Janu with their chanting, the hateful words in Pari’s lift, what her parents had to go through, Bubbe and Stan arriving as children, Grandad Kit marching on Cable Street against the fascism growing in the city, Bubbe’s tears at the refugee children on the news, at Stan’s grave . . . what if . . . what if no one can tell when they’re actually living in a time that’s losing its heart?  What if that’s why evil things happen?  No one says and does anything until it’s too late” (380).

Laila’s protest brings together all the people she has met because they all can say and do something to help make things better.  One of the things Brahmachari does so well as a writer is to draw characters as whole people; Pari’s mother may be a refugee living in poverty whose English is imperfect, but she too has a voice and can take action.  She not only comes to Laila’s protest, she knits Laila a warm hat.  Everyone, Brahmachari argues, has something tangible that they can give to a community—no matter how liminal they may seem.

So in the spirit of the coming new year, and in the hope posited by events such as the Women’s March last January (an event mentioned in Tender Earth) and the “Diverse Voices?” symposium, I am going to think about ways to use my voice in 2018—and put my words into actions until they become habits.  Maybe you can do the same, and love’s bright syllable will help us all stride skyward.

Christmas in Another Color: Children’s Books for the Holiday Season

I have, in previous years, complained about the whiteness of Christmas books, so it is pleasant to be able to report *some* progress recently in British books that represent a wider variety of people.  Some of the best multiracial holiday books are coming out of smaller presses, who in many ways have led the charge toward changing the culture of British children’s books; hopefully the leadership of publishers such as Stripes and Nosy Crow will spill over into the mainstream presses—many of whom continue to reproduce a nostalgia for white Christmases in the UK.

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Jannie Ho’s Christmas alphabet includes all kinds of kids.

Since my last blog was about books for babies, I’ll start this one with a Christmas board book, Jannie Ho’s Christmas ABC (Nosy Crow 2016).  Ho is a Boston-based illustrator who once worked for Nickelodeon, but Nosy Crow is a London-based publisher who won the British Bookseller’s children’s publisher of the year for 2017. The idea of an early concept book related to Christmas is hardly a new one; the children’s publisher Frederick Warne (who would later publish A Tale of Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter stories) published The Father Christmas ABC in 1894 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2251033/The-ABC-Victorian-Christmas-revealed-Beautifully-illustrated-edition-childrens-book-discovered-University-library-P-plum-pudding-PlayStation.html), for example; and Little Golden Books (the “supermarket” bookseller of my childhood, known for The Poky Little Puppy and other books strategically priced and placed near the supermarket checkouts to entice weary parents with whinging children—not that my mother EVER had this problem of course) published The Christmas ABC by Florence Johnson, with pictures by Eloise Wilkin in 1962.  These books often repeat ideas—B is for Bell in all three, for example—but the images change.  The letter I is for ice in all three, and more specifically ice skating, but I’ll just leave the images to tell a story of a changing idea of who skates on the Christmas ice.

The letter G stands for games and shows children playing Blind Man's Buff, a popular parlour game at the time Father Christmas ABC from 1894; this book was found in Cambridge University’s rare book room in 2012.

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Eloise Wilkins’ 1962 illustrations from Golden Book’s Christmas ABC.

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Jannie Ho’s ice skater is different–and not just because of her Christmas sweater.

Jane Ray’s version of The Nutcracker (Hachette 2016) follows the general storyline of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, albeit in a modernized setting; Clara wears pajamas rather than the white lace-edged nightgown found in most ballet versions and she has multiracial friends who come to her party.  These friends unfortunately disappear at bedtime (though the text implies they stay at the house).  While it is true that in the ballet, Clara travels to the land of sweets with only the Nutcracker Prince to accompany her (not even her brother comes along), the final illustration in Ray’s book restores the unity of the white family only.  Nonetheless, Ray’s Sugar Plum Fairy is Black, and has not only a prominent place on the cover, but an illustration all to herself in Ray’s book, making it a lovely change in the traditional Christmas story.

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Tradition and change in Jane Ray’s version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

Christmas is a time for thinking about others, and for older readers in Britain, Stripes Publishing produced I’ll Be Home for Christmas in 2016 in part to help raise funds for Crisis, a charity providing services for the homeless across the UK.  Prominent, award-winning writers contributed poems and short stories to the collection, including Benjamin Zephaniah and Sita Brahmachari.  Zephaniah’s poem, “Home and Away,” opens the collection with a very different version of Christmas than that produced by nostalgia merchants, but one that forms a familiar experience for many readers.  “I’d like to be home for Christmas/That’s where the rhythm wise hip-hop is,/ That’s where the rock and the jazz is/ The place where I dream happy/ Where I dance to sweet homemade reggae” (19).  Zepahniah’s Christmas carols of a different color remind readers that different doesn’t mean unhappy or unChristmassy.

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A time for giving–Benjamin Zephaniah and Sita Brahmachari are among the authors helping Crisis at Christmas.

These recent Christmas books make all the more disappointing a recently reissued edition of Terry Deary and Martin Brown’s Horrible Christmas (Scholastic 2016).  The concept of horrible history is a fabulous one, and really draws the interest of many children (including, when she was younger, my own daughter) who are otherwise reluctant readers.  BAME history has always proved a tricky subject for the Horrible History franchise, as I’ve detailed in other blogs, books and articles.  While I’m aware that it might not be easy to make light of some BAME historical topics (probably a book on “Slimy Slavery” or “Egregious Empire” would raise eyebrows, to say the least), Deary and Brown often fail to include BAME people in British history even in noncontroversial ways.  This is true of Horrible Christmas as well.  The cover image provides a hint of what is between the covers, showing five white people (four of them men).  The only image throughout the 96 pages of horrible Christmas trivia that includes people who aren’t white is a tiny one of a group of carol singers on page seven.  They are about to have the door slammed on them.

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Does tradition have to mean a White Christmas? Deary and Brown’s horrible holiday.

In fact, Deary and Brown’s book ends with a vision of Christmas future that is both a very white Christmas and a plea for helping others less fortunate—a page which recalls for me charity Christmas songs of the 1980s (yes, people around the world DO know it’s Christmas, even when they don’t or can’t celebrate it after all, you patronising so-and-so).  I prefer the final image in Jannie Ho’s Christmas ABC, and leave it with you along with Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 wish for a “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

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The Mirror Stage: Gift-Giving Ideas for All Babies

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Every baby deserves to be loved so much–Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury’s lively picture book.

“What better way to welcome a little one to the world than with a brilliant selection of books?” This sentiment, which began the Toppsta blog “Top 10 Books for a Baby’s Bookshelf” (https://toppsta.com/blog/view/top-10-books-for-baby-bookshelf 5th December 2017) is one with which I can heartily agree.  And the suggestions, which included books by Beatrix Potter, Eric Carle, Raymond Briggs and the Ahlbergs, are all books that found a place in my own and/or my child’s nursery.  But while these classic texts are enjoyable, there are other babies’ books that deserve to be on every shelf, and my daughter’s bookshelf also included books with people who looked like her.  Recently, when we welcomed a new baby cousin into the family, I decided to send only books with BAME main characters in them—knowing that someone else would buy A Very Hungry Caterpillar for the little one.

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Venus produced a series of board books for Firetree books with BAME children enjoying everyday activities.

My task proved to be harder than I had anticipated, especially with regard to that babyhood staple, board books.  Children need books that will comfort, and if you’ve ever had a teething baby, you know there’s no comfort like a book to chew on.  One of my favourite board books for this purpose, because it is both eatable and about eating at the same time, is Pamela Venus’s Let’s Feed the Ducks (Firetree 2016).  All of Venus’s board books for Firetree are lovely, but the cover illustration of this happy boy with his bag of duck food is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face—including your baby’s.

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My daughter had one that she loved to shreds: Carol Thompson’s Blankies celebrates babies’ comfort objects.

The illustrations in Venus’s books are realistic, and while I feel it is critical for small children to have accurate depictions of people who look like them, there is also a pleasure in more “cartoony” pictures—as evidenced by the success of authors like Allan and Janet Ahlberg.  There is something pleasing about the round shapes and simple features of the toddlers depicted in Carol Thompson’s Blankies (Child’s Play 2013), and the topic of comfort objects is one that appeals to most children.

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We love you, don’t eat the crayon–Grace Nichols offers admonition and admiration for a curious baby.

Unsurprisingly, babies like books about . . . babies.  Two of my favorites that combine lively, bouncy text with cheerful illustrations of families in love with their babies are Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury’s So Much (Walker 1994) and Grace Nichols and Eleanor Taylor’s No, Baby, No! (Bloomsbury 2011—my copy has a cd of Nichols reading the text as well).  Anna McQuinn’s Zeki Can Swim! (Alanna 2016) and Molly Bang’s Ten, Nine, Eight (HarperCollins 2003) speak to common experiences (swim class and bedtime) for babies and toddlers in simple text meant to be shared between parent and child.

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Counting to one, again and again, with this multiracial family.

Molly Bang’s book brings up another category every good baby library should include: early concept books, those that teach the alphabet, counting, colours and similar basic ideas.  Many of the good BAME alphabet books are designed for slightly older (4-6 years) readers—such as Valerie Bloom’s Fruits, a classic in its own right that introduces readers to ideas beyond “A is for Apple”, and Verna Wilkins’s ABC I Can Be, which discusses career options for all children.  For a similar age, I like Hena Khan and Mehrdokht Amini’s Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns (Chronicle 2015), which teaches colours and aspects of Muslim family life at the same time.  These are all good choices to stock a baby’s library, waiting for when they are ready for them; an early concept book suitable for babies and toddlers to enjoy is George Shannon and Blanca Gómez’s One Family (Farrar Strauss and Giroux 2015), a counting book that (without a huge fanfare) shows that everyone counts.

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Elizabeth Hammill compiled this nursery rhyme collection with the help of Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book.

Finally, I think that any good gift library for new families should include nursery rhymes, which introduce the youngest listeners to concepts of rhyme, rhythm, and sound.  Grace Hallworth and Caroline Binch’s Down by the River (Heinemann 1996) is a classic text including many rhymes familiar to all (parent) readers (such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away”) in an evocative Caribbean setting.  A less localized collection is Elizabeth Hammill’s collection of nursery rhymes, Over the Hills and Far Away (Frances Lincoln 2014) which has rhymes from around the world illustrated by a wide variety of illustrators.

These are just a few of the books available for the very youngest book audience showcasing children from BAME backgrounds.  I offer them not as replacements for Peter Rabbit or The Snowman, but as additions to ANY new baby’s library.  It is never to early to offer babies mirrors of themselves in books—nor to show them that other babies may look slightly different, but they all do baby things, make baby noises, and reach out for the love of their parents through the medium of books.

A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories

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The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.

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Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”

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Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”

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Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”

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S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”

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Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.

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We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.

To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part Two

This week’s blog continues the history of Black and BAME British YA literature.  1981, the year that starts the second half of the timeline, is significant for YA literature.  The end of what scholar Anthony DiGesare calls “the long 1970s”, a period when race was the focus for both Black and white Britons from Enoch Powell to future Guardian prize-winner Alex Wheatle, 1981 saw the Brixton Riots bring institutional racism into the spotlight for the first—but by no means the last—time.

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YA novelist Alex Wheatle was among the people who experienced the Brixton Riot of 1981.

1981: The Brixton riots erupt as a response to the perceived racist attitudes of police against the Black British community.  West Indian Children in our Schools, a government report authored by Anthony Rampton, calls for mainstream literature to better represent the increasingly diverse cultures of Britain.  The Rampton report was written in response to increasing tension between the Black and Asian British communities and law enforcement.

1982: The first of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books is held in Islington Town Hall, London, partly due to lack of outlets for BAME books for children.  New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture are major sponsors.

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The cover of one of the IRR’s histories of racism. The fourth book, The Fight Against Racism, shows pictures of the Brixton Riots.

1982: The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a series of informational books for older readers on racism, starting with The Roots of Racism.  The four books touch on issues of colonialism, slavery, white privilege, police brutality, protests and riots.

1983: Valerie Bloom’s first UK collection of poems, Touch Mi! Tell Mi! is published by Bogle L’Ouverture, aimed at a young adult audience.  Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea (Heinemann), about an Indian village, wins the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

1984: Geraldine Kaye’s Comfort Herself, about a young Black Briton who goes to live with her father in Ghana, wins the Other Award.  Grace Hallworth’s collection of ghost stories from the Caribbean, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out (Methuen) is published.

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Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah was recommended by the Youth Library Group for older readers in the year of the Handsworth riots.

1985: Brixton and Handsworth (in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city) again face clashes between police and Black British youth.  The Youth Libraries Group, in their newly revised list of Multiracial Books for the Classroom, recommend Pen Rhythm, “a lively collection by this well known poet” (100), Benjamin Zephaniah.

1986: 13-year-old Bangladeshi Briton Ahmed Iqbal Ullah is murdered by a classmate on the school playground in Manchester.  Ullah’s murder was racially motivated.

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Nichols’ poetry collection includes British Asian as well as Black British poets.

1988: Britain introduces a National Curriculum; many complain it does not address the needs of diverse Britain, but instead urges assimilation.  Blackie publishes Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’ collection from Black and Asian poets around the world, Black Poetry (the title was changed to Poetry Jump-Up in the paperback edition).

1993: 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence is killed by a gang of white British youths while he is waiting for a bus.  Lawrence did not know his attackers.  The murder was racially motivated. The official inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson Report (1999), would call for many changes, including revisions to the National Curriculum to include anti-racist and diverse teaching and reading materials.  Meiling Jin, a London-based writer of Guyanese Chinese descent, publishes Thieving Summer (Hamish Hamilton)

1997: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah publishes his collection for older readers, School’s Out: Poems Not for School (AK).

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Bali Rai has produced several titles for Barrington Stoke on high interest topics such as football for reluctant readers.

1998: Barrington Stoke, a publisher focused on reluctant and dyslexic children and YA readers, is founded.  They publish books for YA readers by many high-impact BAME authors, including Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, and Sita Brahmachari.

1999: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (http://www.racearchive.org.uk/) is set up in Manchester to honor the 13-year-old killed by his classmate; the trust would publish stories of young refugees and immigrants to Manchester, as well as illustrated biographies of BAME Britons created by young people.  Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel, Face (Bloomsbury), “a story of facial discrimination,” as he calls it, is published.

2000: Black British publisher Tamarind Press publishes the first in its Black Profiles (later renamed Black Stars) series by Verna Wilkins, biographies of living Black Britons of achievement, including author Malorie Blackman.  The Carnegie Medal goes to South African-born white British author Beverley Naidoo for her book about Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses led to a series of successful novels–and to her becoming the first Black British Children’s Laureate.

2001: Black British author Malorie Blackman’s novel, Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday), detailing an imagined England where Black Britons have all the power positions, is published.  The book would go on to win a number of book awards.

2003: Black British poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah refuses an OBE because of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery.

2004: Guyanese-born poet John Agard publishes Half-Caste (Hodder), a book of poems which encourages readers to “check out” their Black British history.

2009: Publisher Frances Lincoln teams up with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, to offer the Diverse Voices Award.  Poet John Agard’s revision of Dante, The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln), with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, appears and is nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie Medal.

2013: Malorie Blackman is appointed the first Black British Children’s Laureate. Pakistani-born Tariq Mehmood becomes the only non-white author to win the Diverse Voices Award, for his novel You’re Not Proper (Hope Road).  White British author Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury), about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

2014: Seven Stories and Frances Lincoln publish a list of “Diverse Voices: 50 of the Best” books for children and young adults (https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/diverse-voice-top-50).  The BBC and BookTrust collaborate to offer the first BBC Young Writers Award, for short stories by 14-18 year olds.

2015: The Carnegie Medal is awarded to white British author Tanya Landman for her book about post-Civil War African Americans, Buffalo Soldier.  Catherine Johnson’s novel of a poor, Black British woman masquerading as a princess in the early 19th century in order to survive, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, appears from Corgi; it would be shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in 2016.  A graphic novel version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by John Aggs, appears.

2016: White American author Robin Talley wins the first Amnesty CILIP Honour medal for her book about Civil Rights-era America, The Lies We Tell Ourselves.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom) becomes the first story about Black Britons written by a Black British author to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) is shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award; it would win the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the YA Bookseller’s prize in 2017.

2017: The UK’s Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories in Newcastle, hosts “Diverse Voices?” (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/diversevoices/),  a symposium designed to think about ways to better represent BAME voices in children’s books, archives, museums, prizes and publishing on November 24th.  If you are reading this at first publication, you’ll know that this event has not yet happened, but it’s something I’ve been involved with planning over the last year.  YA authors Alex Wheatle, Catherine Johnson, and Patrice Lawrence are among the invited guests (several other authors, including picture book and middle grade authors, are also participating), and author and publisher Verna Wilkins will also be discussing publishing for a BAME audience.  I’ll be getting ready for the symposium next week, but hope to have a blog or two following the event discussing some of the salient points.  Watch this space!