Able to Participate: Disability and Race in British Children’s Books

This fall, when I participated in a daylong symposium at Amnesty International UK on children’s books and human rights, the author Alex Wheatle spoke about how he pitched a book to a children’s publisher about a Black British boy growing up in a care home; the publisher worried that there were too many issues to the book.  In other words, a kid can’t be in a care home AND Black AND in a children’s book.  Being Black, for many children’s publishers (even now) is “problem” enough.  The idea that not being white is a problem in British society is also likely to be one of the reasons that the CLPE Reflecting Realities report found that only one of the books with BAME representation could be classified as a “comedy”; if you are a problem, you, and your life, can’t be funny.  For years, it was seen as a generous, liberal white attitude to suggest—as one character does in Josephine Kamm’s 1962 Out of Step—that “there’s nothing wrong in being a West Indian or an African or an Indian.  They’re every bit as good as we are; they look different, that’s all there is to it” (20).  To argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with being yourself suggests that someone else thinks that there is.

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And yet—as the Amnesty symposium emphasized—children have the right to be represented in all aspects of society, including children’s books.  And that means all children, including those who are experiencing either a temporary or permanent disability.  The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has, as its fifth point, “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf). Special education and care should not mean isolating the child and making them feel “othered”, but helping them find ways to participate in society.  British children’s literature has made great strides in the last few years in depicting disabilities in a broad spectrum of books, including the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner, One, by Sarah Crossan about conjoined twins.  But it is unusual to find a main character of colour in a British children’s book who is also disabled—too many “problems” for one book!

The issue is not just academic, or a fictional scenario.  Amelia Hill, writing for the Guardian, highlights the case of two disabled children that the Home Office is trying to deport to Pakistan despite the children being born in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/12/home-office-disabled-children-leave-country). Disabled children often suffer discrimination; disabled children of colour can experience a double discrimination due to racist attitudes that a person’s “race” is a problem.  And being a person of colour doesn’t necessarily mean you are more sensitive to the “problem” of disability–most people need to learn to look for ability and strength in disabled people rather than othering them.

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Brahmachari’s main character, Laila, thinks she understands her best friend Kez–but sometimes all she see is her disability and the way it interrupts their friendship.

It is therefore encouraging to see more books being published that include disabled (temporarily or permanently) characters in books with or by people of colour.  The disabled characters are not just window dressing, but play major roles in the books.  Sita Brahmachari’s character Kez, in Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) is Laila Levenson’s best friend, but that friendship is tested because of Kez’s disability.  She is in a wheelchair, and although she and Laila have been friends since primary school, Kez decides she won’t come over to Laila’s house any more when they start secondary school after Laila’s father carries her down the stairs.  “I never want to be carried” (58), Kez tells Laila.  Laila thinks of herself as being the only one who understands Kez, but has to learn to see her in new and capable ways, and also learn how to make accommodations for her friend without patronizing her, before they can be close again.  Kez is white British, but makes up part of Brahmachari’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-able cast of characters, because as she herself puts it, “These ‘different’ characters populate my books because I know that they’re all ‘here!’ and more than anything I love to give each of them their “rites of passage” moment when they find a voice” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names).

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Depression is a disability that affects all kinds of people–but it’s not always a result of racism for people of colour.

Bali Rai’s Stay a Little Longer (Barrington Stoke 2018) deals with a different kind of disability, the emotional and mental disability of depression.  Rai distinguishes between forms and levels of severity of depression in his novel. Aman, the main character, is thirteen and grieving the death of her father. Although she considers herself “messed up” (69) for still grieving after a year, her friend Lola points out that “It’s not a competition to see who recovers the fastest” (69).  Aman’s grief affects her every day, but it is clear that she will return to her old self, more or less, eventually.  However, an older man that Aman meets, Gurnam, has a more serious form of depression that leads him to attempt suicide.  Aman, who has friends and family supporting her through her grief, wants to be supportive to Gurnam as well, but she has to learn to go about it in the right way.  She learns that love helps, but love alone is not enough; disabilities, even when they are not physical, require medical treatment.  Race plays an interesting role in Rai’s book; Gurnam is harassed by some local boys, but Aman cannot understand why because “The lads are Asian, just like Gurnam” (90).  She assumes that racism is the only reason a man would be harassed in Britain.  However, it turns out that racism has nothing to do with it.  Gurnam is gay, and the boys think that homosexuality is “Against nature” (58).  Rai’s book highlights the way that being “othered” can lead to disabling depression, but in doing so he also reminds readers that race is only one piece of a person’s identity—and not always the “problem.”

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Disability doesn’t mean un-ability; Laird’s character Musa has strengths his brother Omar wishes he had.

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere might reasonably be expected to deal with a similar emotional disability, as the novel concerns a Syrian family who become refugees in Jordan before eventually being given asylum in Britain.  Refugees and migrants have formed an ever-increasing part of children’s literature over the past decade, but generally the stories have concerned able-bodied characters; again, the idea that being a refugee is enough of a “problem” for a single book applies.  But Laird includes two disabled characters who play pivotal roles in the story: the main character Omar’s older brother, Musa, who has cerebral palsy, and their younger sister Nadia, who has a heart condition.  Musa’s cerebral palsy affects the plot—his movement is restricted, and at times Omar has to carry him.  But he is also a “total brainbox” (15) who gets involved in the rebellion and has to be saved from being shot by Omar.  Musa uses his disability to his advantage when soldiers approach them, “making babbling noises” (57) and flailing his arms “wildly” (57) to make the soldiers think he is harmless.  His condition and Nadia’s heart problems put them on top of the list for asylum in Britain.  It is only at the end of the novel that race/ethnicity come into play, however.  Musa does not want to leave for Britain, arguing, “You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims?  They think we’re all crazy terrorists” (315).  Laird concludes her story with questions that acknowledge that attitudes toward “others” are still a “problem” : “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen next . . . How will they get on in their new life in Britain?  Will people welcome them? . . . Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams?  The answer to those questions lies with you” (334).  At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to ensure that every person is able to participate in society, and stop closing doors because of what we perceive as their “otherness”.

Brown Bombers? What Readers Expect, and What Viewers Get

This week, the comics publisher Abrams withdrew plans to publish a graphic version of a short story by Jack Gantos, “A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library.”  The story was originally published in 2016 by Walker Books, in a collection entitled Here I Stand: Stories that Speak for Freedom.  The collection of short stories was edited by Amnesty International, in order to encourage readers to think about their human rights.  Nicky Parker, the education director for Amnesty International UK, wrote in an afterword to the collection, “This book is inspired by the fact that human rights can be denied or abused even in countries like the UK or the USA, and we need to defend them constantly.  Stories and poetry are a wonderful way of making us think, helping us understand the world and other people.  More than that, they can inspire our empathy—which we need if we’re to overcome prejudice” (Here I Stand 310).

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Abrams Publishing pulled the graphic novel version of this story after protestors objected to the illustrations.

I quote Parker at length because the original story written by Gantos did not, to my knowledge, raise the same kind of protest that the graphic version has done, and I think it’s important to understand why.  Gantos’s short story begins with the simple sentence, “He is a boy and he is bored” (100).  A reader will learn over the course of the eight-page story that the boy is young, and that he cannot read, and that he is part of some religious or faith-based group that believes that those who have different faiths should be destroyed.  He lives in a place that has libraries, and “place[s] of worship” (101) and markets.  We are not told what the boy looks like, other than that he is wearing a red jacket and he is “little” (103).  We are not told where the town is. The reader may make assumptions about the suicide bomber, but the textual evidence will not support a definitive racial, ethnic or national origin for the boy.  In fact, if anything, the author’s own note at the end of the story problematizes any assumptions that readers might have: Gantos indicates that the inspiration for his story was the French Enlightenment philosopher, Denis Diderot.  Diderot, who Gantos suggests, “wrote a good bit on religious fanaticism” (108) was concerned with white, European, Catholic fanaticism.  In his writings, Diderot discusses the logical inconsistencies within Christianity, and the ways that these inconsistencies are used to inflict pain on other humans.  Gantos’s note reminds the reader that his story could take place anywhere—“even in countries like the UK or the USA,” where indeed, white boys commit terrorist acts against schools, synagogues, and anti-racism protests with alarming frequency.  By failing to give the suicide bomber a definitive identity, Gantos gives readers the opportunity to question or consider their prejudices about who might be a suicide bomber and why.

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The unillustrated version of Gantos’s story originally appeared in this collection produced by Amnesty International.

Turning Gantos’s story into a graphic novel, however, removes the potential for the bomber to be an “every boy”.  Dave McKean, who illustrated for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, depicts the suicide bomber as a brown boy, and many assumed that he was not just brown, but Muslim (I have only seen the front cover of the graphic version, so don’t know whether other clues in the illustrations suggested the boy was Muslim).  A thousand people signed a letter to the publisher, written by the Asian Author Alliance, calling for the book to be scrapped, saying the book was “steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/26/a-suicide-bomber-sits-in-the-library-comic-pulled-protests-jack-gantos-dave-mckean).  In pulling the text, the publisher and the illustrator agreed that they had erred in creating a book that reinforced, rather than challenged stereotypes.

The discussion about Gantos’s story and the graphic novel version of it brought to mind another story for young readers about a terrorist which was eventually turned into a graphic novel: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (2001). Like “Suicide Bomber,” Blackman’s story includes a conflicted young terrorist, but there are many differences that complicate Noughts and Crosses.  The terrorist in Blackman’s story is a racial terrorist, reacting to an unequal society rather than a difference in belief systems.  He carries out and succeeds in his terrorist act, and is eventually hanged for it.

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Novelist Malorie Blackman also wrote about a young terrorist involved in a bombing.

The terrorist in Blackman’s novel is also white.

Callum MacGregor, Noughts and Crosses’ male protagonist, is not the bomber in the story–it is actually his father and brother who plant the bomb–but he becomes a part of their terrorist organization.  Although he is white, he is not like those the media in the US and UK refuse to call terrorists (“lone wolf” is often the preferred term): the disaffected white males who attack their own peers in a school or movie theater, or drive cars into peaceful protests, or go on shooting rampages in synagogues or Jewish daycare centers.  He is a member of the oppressed in Noughts and Crosses, a novel set in an alternate universe where Black people are in charge and white people lack access to freedom and power.  Blackman’s novel deliberately makes the point that racism is about power, not innate inferiority/superiority.  By only referring to Callum’s whiteness from time to time in the novel, she also requires the reader to constantly revise assumptions about race.  I have taught this novel several times, and white students as well as Black have told me they had to keep reminding themselves that Callum was white.  Our assumptions about race, power and terrorism are that deeply engrained.  It is this constant revisioning that makes Blackman’s novel so effective.

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The graphic novel version does not force assumptions to be constantly questioned.

It is also, paradoxically, what makes the graphic novel version less successful.  Even though Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s 2015 graphic novel follows Blackman’s story and reproduces its reversed racial hierarchy, the reader no longer needs to repeatedly reconsider what a terrorist looks like, because the pictures show them.  But because Blackman’s novel is set in an alternate world rather than being a version of our contemporary one, the viewer of the graphic novel also can separate these two worlds.  They can think, “Callum is a white terrorist in Blackman’s book, but that is a different world from ours”.  The illustrator’s vision erases the need for the reader to revision.

Jack Gantos concludes his author’s note following “Suicide Bomber” with a quotation from Diderot: “But who shall be the master, the writer or the reader?” (108).  In the best situation, both are master, because the writer presents a range of possibilities and the reader is open to thinking about those possibilities.  The Barthesian failure of both of the graphic novels I discuss here is the closing off of these possibilities, forcing us to accept a world in which suicide bombers come in one color only.

Like a Norman Rockwell Painting: Freedom, Justice, and Children’s Literature

This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that has always been about more than a harvest feast or festival.  Both in its root (and somewhat mythic) origins as a celebratory meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people at Plymouth Plantation, and in its nationalization as a federal holiday during the Civil War, Thanksgiving in the US is meant to encourage Americans to think about unity.  There are two main images Americans conjure up during this time of year.  The first is a picture of the “first Thanksgiving” showing happy pilgrim women carrying historically unlikely food and serving equally happy Wampanoag people.  It is an image which, in my own childhood, led to many a school “feast” of dry cornbread and koolaid consumed while wearing paper pilgrim “hats” or construction paper-feather headdresses.  (I’m told they don’t do this anymore, and yet a quick internet check shows several “teacher” websites touting the “fun” of wearing feather headdresses.  One even suggests adding gold sparkles, perhaps to recall the reason that Columbus and his men led a genocide of native Caribbeans.)

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Where’s my construction paper pilgrim hat? Charles Schulz’s version of the first Thanksgiving, with smiles all around and historical inaccuracies aplenty.

The other popular image of Thanksgiving, however, is more modern.  It comes from the painter Norman Rockwell, and was a part of a series that Rockwell did for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 based on a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The speech, and the paintings, are called the “Four Freedoms” because they illustrate freedoms that Roosevelt hoped a post-war world would embrace: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  The “Thanksgiving” image is Rockwell’s depiction of Freedom from Want, set in his very white American Vermont town.

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This image captured white Americans dream of Thanksgiving unity during wartime.

In fact, all of Rockwell’s freedoms paintings depict white Americans, because these were his neighbors—but also, perhaps, because of where he published. According to a special exhibition on Google Arts and Culture produced in coordination with the Norman Rockwell Museum, “In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled having been directed to paint out a black person out of a group picture because ‘Saturday Evening Post’ policy at that time allowed showing black people only in service industry jobs” (https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/ogKyOs7llcWMIg). Rockwell did go on to paint three important Civil Rights Era paintings, most notably “The Problem We All Live With” based on Ruby Bridges’ integration of a New Orleans elementary school. But his lasting image of Thanksgiving continues to remind us of who had access to freedom in 1943.

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But Rockwell knew that not all Americans had the freedoms white Americans took for granted, even twenty years after his Four Freedoms paintings. This depiction of Ruby Bridges was published in Look magazine in 1964.

This past March, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Rockwell “Four Freedoms,” Smithsonian magazine had four artists reimagine the paintings for today’s America.  I was particularly interested in the revisioning of Freedom from Fear.  In the original painting, the parents of two small children watch them sleep.  The father is holding a folded newspaper with the words “bombing” and “horror” visible, but no immediate visible threat faces the family.  The revision shows a migrant family in a detention camp, posed exactly as Rockwell’s family is, but with the very clear visible threat of a barred window and guards with guns and dogs.  Rodriguez wanted to use his painting to push Americans to consider their view of migrants and refugees, an idea one reader, a retired immigration officer, called, “despicable” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/apr_col-discussion-180968411/).

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Images from Smithsonian magazine’s re-visioning of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (on the left) by Edel Rodriguez (right), once a Cuban refugee himself.

But Rodriguez is a migrant himself, having come from Cuba on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 at the age of nine.  He and his family came to the US with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the rest having been confiscated by the Cuban government.  Although Rodriguez says he was “warmly welcomed” upon their arrival in the US, he spent time in a Cuban detention camp before their departure.  And when he looks at America now, he says, “I’ve sometimes strained to differentiate my adoptive country from the dictatorship I fled. Violence at political rallies, friends watching what they say (and noting who is in the room when they say it) and a leader who picks on society’s weakest — this has felt all too familiar. I began making art about what I saw, to bear witness” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/opinions/2017/08/25/i-fled-despotism-in-cuba-now-im-fighting-it-in-america/?utm_term=.892f5588276f).  His controversial magazine covers depicting Donald Trump (in one, beheading the Statue of Liberty) have gained him notoriety.

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Like Rockwell’s and Rodriguez’s depictions of Freedom from Fear, Rodriguez’s illustration of Sonia Sotomayor as a child shows her sleeping. She has a smile on her face because she knows her mother, though poor and a migrant, can still offer her opportunity in America.

While Rodriguez’s art is designed to bear witness to the America he believes in, not all of it is controversial.  He also illustrates children’s books, and one in particular that I want to highlight combines his passion for social justice with his depiction of the immigrant struggle in America.  Jonah Winter’s Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx (Atheneum 2009) has a title which recalls Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—another immigrant family story published in 1943, the same year as Norman Rockwell’s paintings.  Winter’s story tells of a girl born in New York who did not have the same freedoms as those people in the Norman Rockwell paintings.  Winter talks about Sotomayor’s childhood economic poverty, but Rodriguez balances what could be a gloomy text with illustrations that show a little girl secure in the love of her mother.  Sonia looks more like the Norman Rockwell children in Freedom from Fear than the children in Rodriguez’s revision.  Sotomayor’s background of poverty made her a compassionate judge: “She had seen things most other judges had not.  People she’d grown up with had gone to jail.  People she’d grown up with were poor” (n.p.).  But she never would have become the passionate judge she became without her mother protecting her and working to ensure her freedom to be anything she wanted to be.  Just as Norman Rockwell’s Freedoms paintings contrasted America as it should be with his later Civil Rights paintings of America at its worst, Edel Rodriguez’s Rockwell revision and depiction of Sonia Sotomayor’s childhood shows the fear and promise of the American immigrant experience.  Both artists are asking Americans to choose the America that they want to embrace, and hoping that they choose love over fear.