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“Slight” of Hand: Reading With, and not For, “Race” in Children’s Books

Apologies to those of you who regularly follow my blog; it has been a busy time for me, and indeed, this will be my last blog for a while as I concentrate on other concerns and projects.  But I wanted to conclude this phase of my blog by looking at something I rarely consider in these pages: the “non-issue” book in British children’s literature about people of colour.  In the 2017 Reflecting Realities report, the executive summary highlights the fact that many children’s books with characters of colour are not only about Blackness (or Asianness, or being a minority ethnic member of society in general), they are about the problem of being an ethnic minority in society (national society or global society):

“The fiction titles were categorised according to a set of agreed sub-categories intended to define subject matter. ‘Contemporary Realism’ was a category defined as books set in modern day landscapes/ contexts; these amounted to 91 titles, which accounted for 56% of the fiction submissions. This category therefore featured the highest percentage of BAME character presence. Only 1 of the children’s fiction titles submitted could be classified as comedy, conversely 10% of submitted books featured Social Justice themes. Almost a third of submissions classified as containing social justice issues focused on themes of war and conflict. This very much corresponds with the societal context of recent years and is important to acknowledge, explore and mirror in literature. That said this does however raise some important questions. Do those from minority backgrounds only have a platform when their suffering is being explored? And how does such disproportionate variation of representation skew perspectives of minority groups?” Reflecting Realities 2017 Report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children).

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The 2013 Vintage Classic edition of Arthur Ransome’s 1936 Carnegie Medal-winning Pigeon Post. One of the reasons that the medal matters is that Carnegie winners tend to stay in print for decades.

This is also an issue that has come up with regard to the CILIP Carnegie medal; if a book is not about a Serious Issue, then recently it has rarely been considered for nomination, let alone the award.  Alison Brumwell, chair of this year’s judging panel, commented about the books on the longlist, “The forty books selected by judges offer intimate insights into family life, superb world-building and thoughtful, incisive explorations of complex themes and issues” (https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2019_longlists_announced.html). This award preference for complexity of themes and issues can be found across children’s books—authors such as Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series (the first of which appeared in 2014), rarely appear in nominations, despite wide success with readers, diversity in characters, and a “literary” style (by which I mean, endpaper maps and literary allusions and a twist in the traditional tale-type) that the Carnegie judges have tended to favour.  It was not always thus; in fact, the first winner, Pigeon Post (1936), was one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; Lucy Pearson describes it as “deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history” (https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/pigeon-post/) but certainly not an “issue” book in the same way that Sarah Crossan’s One (the 2016 Carnegie winner) or Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (the 2015 Carnegie winner) are.  The emphasis on issue-based literature, mostly for older readers, and the preference for it from both publishers and award committees encourage authors of colour to write about “issues” in the hope of gaining literary success.

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Tanya Landman’s Carnegie-medal winner announces its Serious Issue on the front cover. Notably, the book is by a white author and set in America rather than Britain; to date no British author of colour has ever won the Carnegie.

Therefore, I want to focus the rest of this blog on two authors who have recently published books which might be considered “slight” by, not just award judges, but reviewers, teachers and librarians as well.  Malorie Blackman and Patrice Lawrence have both written “issue” books for older readers that the Carnegie medal process ignored anyway; Blackman’s 2001 Noughts and Crosses, often considered her most significant book; and Patrice Lawrence’s 2016 Orangeboy, which won the Waterstone’s prize, were not shortlisted.  Both of these books considered questions of racial identity and power structures, among other things.  But their recent books for the publisher Barrington Stoke are very different.  Blackman’s Ellie and the Cat (2019, illustrated by Matt Robertson, originally published in 1994 as Elaine, You’re a Brat by Orchard Books) concerns, according to the back cover list of themes, “Cats, Magic, Friendship”.  Lawrence’s Toad Attack! (2019, illustrated by Becka Moor) lists “Friendship, Toads, Tricks” as its themes.  These themes, combined with book covers that depict smiling children and animals drawn in cartoon-like fashion, indicate right away that these books are not going to deal with “serious” issues or be Carnegie-contenders.

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The plots of these books bear out the promise of the covers.  Ellie and the Cat is set in contemporary times, but it is a fairytale-like story with a wise woman (Ellie’s grandmother) who teaches “the rudest, most disagreeable child I have ever met” (12)—her granddaughter, Ellie—to behave through the use of a transformation, a quest, and the help of magical, talking animals.  Lawrence’s toads, on the other hand, do not talk, but they cause havoc for protagonists Leo and Rosa, who must discover both how to stop the hundreds of giant toads from destroying local gardens, and how to stop the destruction of the toads themselves by angry mobs.  Typical for Barrington Stoke books, these two are short (both resolve in under 75 pages), with relatively simple vocabulary and high readability.  The stories follow in the tradition of humorous, magical or hyperbolic books with mildly-delivered messages about good behavior or living in society, such as Gillian Cross’s Jason Banks and the Pumpkin of Doom (also Barrington Stoke, 2018) or even older stories by authors like Dorothy Edwards or Dick King-Smith.

The difference is that Blackman’s and Lawrence’s books have protagonists of colour.  Ellie and Leo are (at least partly—Leo has a white mother and grandfather) Black British heritage, and Rosa is British Asian.  But in many ways, that is the ONLY difference.  These books are not about “being” Black or Asian, and they certainly are not about the problem of being an ethnic minority.  It is not a new phenomenon to include British children of colour in stories such as these (Gillian Cross had a school series first published in the early 1980s that included Clipper, a Black British girl), but they have typically featured as parts of a gang, or sidekicks.  What Lawrence and Blackman do in these books is foreground the protagonists of colour, and the illustrators follow suit by keeping them prominent and central in the illustrations throughout.  Readers are not reading about the problem of being Black or Asian British, but they are reading about being Black or Asian British.  Lawrence and Blackman give readers the opportunity to see characters of colour in leading roles, part of humorous situations and allowed to problem-solve in a way that does not focus on identity.  These books may appear slight, but they perform an important role: they make being Black and Asian part of being British, in contrast with a publishing and awards industry that want to make them only Black British or only British Asian.  And this is a change, a sleight-of-hand if you will, which, over the long term, could have more impact than any individual medal-winning book.

Three Kings of Puerto Rican Children’s Literature

Happy Three Kings Day! While most Americans celebrate Christmas as their major winter holiday, in Puerto Rico, where I was last week, Christmas extends from (as one person there told me) Thanksgiving night when they put up the tree to the San Sebastían Festival in Old San Juan during the third week in January.  One highlight is today, El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos.  Everywhere we went in Puerto Rico there were signs and statues and light displays marking today’s festival, which was at one time the traditional gift-giving day of the holiday season.

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One of several books available at Libreria Laberinto for Three Kings Day; as you can tell from the glare on the photo, it was wrapped in plastic like many of the children’s books and therefore could not be browsed through in the store.

Now, as always, influence from the mainland and larger powers have had an effect on how Puerto Ricans celebrate, and Christmas has gained prominence accordingly.  Outside influence is, of course, historically the norm for Caribbean islands.  And like the three kings who came from other lands to bring their gifts, exploring imperial powers have changed—and continue to change—all aspects of Puerto Rican life.  This includes children’s books. While I was pleased, especially after my forays to bookstores in former British colonial islands, to see a wide variety of specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature available, they were dominated by three elements: the history of the island, language issues, and the value (in all sorts of ways) placed on reading.

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The folktale section was dominated by Juan Bobo tales. This is only a small part of the wall of books by and about Puerto Rico for children available at the bookstore.

As with many attempts at creating a national children’s literature, a great deal of attention is paid to the history (both factual and folkloric) of the island in its children’s literature.  At Librería Laberinto, a well-stocked bookstore at the heart of Old San Juan, they had a whole wall of children’s books from and about Puerto Rico.  Many of these are folktales.  Prominent among the stories were Juan Bobo tales; Juan Bobo is an apparently foolish character in Puerto Rican folklore who yet often succeeds against ridiculous odds.  Like Brer Rabbit, Juan Bobo has been discussed as a trickster character who wins out over the greater power—in Brer Rabbit’s case, the tales are often seen as an allegory of slavery, and in Juan Bobo’s, an allegory of colonialism with the Puerto Rican succeeding over the Spanish colonizer. Sharing the shelves with the Juan Bobo tales were Taíno folktales, stories from the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the island.  The Taíno were almost entirely wiped out in Puerto Rico by Columbus and the Spanish, but today they have gained a revered status.  As Ivonne Figueroa has pointed out, “Much has been said of the Taínos lately, but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the study of the Taínos took off” (http://www.elboricua.com/history.html).  This time period accords with both movements for Puerto Rican independence (from both the Spanish and the Americans) and with the international rise in the study of anthropology and folklore, which often manifested as a search for the noble primitive, an antidote to an increasingly industrialized world.  Renewed interest in folklore emphasizes this rejection of the globalized world of technology.

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European architectural styles and buildings dominate the counting book, Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers.

But the power of colonialism is also present in Puerto Rican children’s books.  One of the books I brought back, Yvonne Sanavitis and Karen Dietrich’s Los Números en Ponce in Numbers (Plaza Mayor 2009) is a counting book that tells the history of the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico.  Most of the sights associated with the different numbers are connected to la Plaza de las Delicias, the main town square built by the early Spanish settlers in the 1670s, including the Fuente del Léon (Lion Fountain), City Hall, the fire station, and the Armstrong-Poventud house.  These buildings and monuments are all displayed in their European-style decoration, and a brief description of the Spanish colonizers who created them and held sway over them is given.  The Taínos, on the other hand, are not mentioned until the last number of the book.  The page describing 100 shows an isolated path of stones outside the center of the city.  The text reads, “Floods caused by a hurricane washed away layers of earth in the Tibes neighborhood of Ponce and revealed an indigenous Taíno ceremonial site.  Tibes excavations have provided important information about ceremonies, eating habits, ceramics and construction of homes of the indigenous population of Puerto Rico” (51).  It is difficult to see, looking at the illustration, how any of this information could have come from the pile of rocks; additionally, the book says nothing of the people living in the neighborhood at the time of the floods or what happened to them.  The focus is on the people with the power to shape history; the book opens with a quotation from educator Rafael Pont Flores stating, “Ponce no longer repeats its history, it makes it better” (5).

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The Tainos are only represented in Los Numeros en Ponce in Numbers by the number 100; the illustration shows an unreadable pile of rocks.

Los Números en Ponce in Numbers also highlights another trend I found in the children’s books in Librería Laberinto, a focus on language.  Many of the books available came in dual editions or dual languages, showing the tension between English and Spanish on the island.  Spanish is, of course, the native language of most Puerto Ricans, but—especially in tourist areas like San Juan and Ponce—English is increasingly necessary at all levels of the economy.  In 2012, the island instituted a pilot program to shift instruction in Puerto Rico’s schools from Spanish to English (https://www.caliricans.com/2012/08/english-to-replace-spanish-in-puerto-rico-schools/).  But it is a fraught issue that mirrors the tensions between the island and the mainland United States.

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This board book highlights words specific to Puerto Rican culture–perhaps it should be labeled trilingual instead of bilingual.

Perhaps the concerns about language come to a head in Palabras Boricuas/Puerto Rican Words (2016), a bilingual—or perhaps trilingual—board book by Hector E. Baez.  Right on the front cover, along with the title and the Puerto Rican flag, is the sentence, “No decimos Banana . . . decimos Guineo.”  Translated into English, this says, “We don’t say banana . . . we say banana.”  This epitomizes for me the struggles over language found in books specifically for Puerto Rican children.

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The Thiago series focuses on issues and concepts important to Puerto Ricans–but because publishing on an island is expensive, even short books like this are costly.

But how many children have access to these books is something I would be interested to know.  As I said, Librería Laberinto had an excellent selection of books, showing how much specifically Puerto Rican children’s literature is valued.  But these books were also incredibly expensive compared to their translated counterparts.  Most were produced by the educational arm of the University of Puerto Rico or the Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña.  Again, this shows that children’s literature is of cultural value, but the cost of publishing books on a small island means that most picture books are hard cover only (many of them in the bookstore were sealed in plastic, and therefore unbrowsable).  The books designed for beginning chapter book readers, such as the Thiago series by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and published by EDP University of Puerto Rico, can cost ten dollars for a twenty-six page paperback book.  These prices mean that many children will only encounter books in libraries or schools, rather than being able to have shelves of books in their homes.  This is true in other places as well, of course.  But Puerto Rico’s past and present shape the audience for their specifically Puerto Rican children’s books—leaving the treasures of reading out of reach for many.

Yes, actually, they DO know it’s Christmas: Imperialism and the holidays

My least favorite Christmas songs involve people feeling sorry for other people.  There’s no better way to encourage smug self-satisfaction about your superior life than listening to songs where people buy shoes for little boys who have mothers with cancer.  At least the shoe song is about local, face-to-face charity.  The all-time most annoying Christmas song, in my opinion, is Bob Geldof’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, a world-wide smash hit and Christmas Number One in the UK.  I know that I am not supposed to hate this song, because all the profits went to help sick and starving children in Africa—not once, but three times (it was re-recorded in 2004 and 2014, both times as charity singles).  But this song embodies for me all that is wrong with formerly (?) imperial countries and the way that they understand the world.

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An image from Iceland’s banned Christmas advert–perhaps the orangutan isn’t starving enough?

First, there is the idea that white westerners must save the Africans.  This is problematic on two separate accounts.  One, it ignores the fact that white, western countries stripped African countries of people and resources for hundreds of years through colonialism, and continue to do so—just ask the UK supermarket chain Iceland, whose Christmas advert heralding their ban on palm oil, the harvesting of which destroys orangutan habitats, was banned for being “too political” (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/09/iceland-christmas-tv-ad-banned-political-greenpeace-orangutan).  Nowhere in Geldof’s song does it suggest that Britain might help Africa because Britain helped cause the problem in the first place.  Two, even if you quibble with the notion that European colonialism continues to affect African countries, the idea that Africans need pity (rather than, say, economic development, fair trading practices, or reparations) perpetuates a racial hierarchy that is often felt much closer to home in the UK or US.  Several children’s books written by people of colour detail the humiliation of being compared with “pitiable” Africans; Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s semi-autobiographical Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995), for example, includes a school lesson about the famine in Biafra (1967-1970).  After hearing from Sister Agnes tell the class that “We in the West are fortunate to have fertile land, enough food, water and wealth . . . We must help those who are less fortunate” (29), Hope watches the pictures of the Biafran famine with horror and shame.  “How could Grandpa be proud to be descended from Africans?” (29) she asks.  Then she realizes that the rest of her class associates the starving children with her, even though she is from Jamaica: “I was the only black girl in the class and everyone looked at me” (29).  Hope’s classmates learn the lesson that it is acceptable to be racist, as long as you are charitable while doing so.  As Bono famously sings in the Geldof song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The linking of race and poverty (consciously or not) is the most egregious of problems with “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” but it is not the only one.  Simplistic attitudes toward “the world outside your window” range from the idea that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (it actually does snow in Ethiopia, although not in the plains); to the idea that all Africans would care if they knew it was Christmas (about a quarter of the population is Muslim, to say nothing of other non-Christian religions); to the idea that if people don’t have the consumer trappings of a Western-style Christmas, then they will not recognize the day as Christmas.  Rachel Isadora’s The Night Before Christmas (Putnam 2009) tries to counter some of the stereotypical attitudes toward Africa by resetting Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in Africa.  Her dreadlocked Santa visits a family in Africa, bringing snow in his wake and providing presents from his sack.  Isadora, who is white American, lived in Africa for ten years, and has redone a number of traditional European and American tales by placing them in African settings; and although I think they are designed more to counter those naïve stereotypes about people in Africa for white people than I think they are for Africans themselves, it is still nice to see a book with a Black Santa on the cover.

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There will be snow in Africa–and Santa Claus too.

I thought about imperialism and its continuing effects too when I saw the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s A Doll for Navidades (Scholastic 2005), which shows two brown girls cuddling a white doll.  Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, and illustrator Enrique O. Sanchez, who is Dominican, did not accidentally depict a white, blonde, blue-eyed baby doll.  The story is based on an incident from Santiago’s own childhood, when she longed for a doll like her cousin had and specifically requested the blonde blue-eyed baby as a present.  This recalls Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1950 “doll test” in which all children of any colour who were offered white dolls or black dolls chose the white dolls.  The experiment was used as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to demonstrate the effects of systemic racism on children’s self-image.  Two of my former students—one Puerto Rican and one Dominican, as it happens—are currently looking in to what it means to have “national” children’s literatures in places where the shadow of imperialism (economic, political and cultural) still affects people on a daily basis.  What is interesting to me about Santiago’s book is that, while she allowed the white baby doll to remain, and titled the book A Doll for Navidades (Christmas), the book itself focuses on the difference between an American concept of Christmas and the Puerto Rican traditions.

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Giving the readers what they expect? Santiago doesn’t get the doll, and she doesn’t get anything for Christmas, because gift-giving in her Puerto Rican childhood happened in January.

The main character does not ask Santa for the doll, nor does she get gifts at Christmas.  The family go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and eat traditional dishes on Christmas Day, but the gift-givers are the Three Kings, and the gift-receiving day is January 6th (their feast day).  Again, these are, I believe, deliberate choices.  Santiago, writing for an American audience, allows readers to think they are getting a story that mimics American stories of writing to Santa with demands—but then, without fuss, gives a story that introduces other customs.  Further, the main character does not get the doll because her family cannot afford it; but this is not a story of wretched poverty and reluctant self-sacrifice.  Her sister gets the doll, and—seeing the protagonist’s disappointment—asks her to be godmother to the doll.  The children had learned to desire the consumer object made in a white western mode, but tradition and familial love made Christmas (and Three Kings’ Day) a memorable feast.