Tag Archives: Alex Godard

Lost by the System: The Orphanmakers of Children’s Literature

This week marked Independence Day in the US, but I want to focus this blog on the idea of unwanted independence.  Children’s literature—particularly children’s literature for white, middle-class Americans and Brits—has often been predicated on the (at least temporary) disappearance of parents in order that child protagonists might have an exciting adventure.  But for many real children, separation from parents is both economically and (more importantly) emotionally devastating—not the start of an exciting adventure, but the first step in a long and frightening road.  I highlight Principle 6 of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child:

“Principle 6  The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.”

This principle may seem obvious (or, given what is currently happening at the US-Mexico border, maybe not): young children should live with their parents when their parents are alive.  But children’s literature is littered with examples of how international institutional systems have separated children from their parents.  Many of these examples depict the separation as being for the child’s own good, but in fact it is usually the institution (or the state that sponsors it) that benefits.


Missionaries often deemed it best to separate children from the influence of their “heathen” parents.

Take for example the 19th century missionary school.  White writers depicted the missionary school as a place where colonized subjects could escape the tyrrany of their parents’ superstitions and be given the light of knowledge.  This knowledge generally, of course, led them to embrace the white-dominated society and reject their home society, as in this example from The Juvenile Missionary Magazine of 1854.  In a story entitled, “Woman in India,” the text argues that missionaries don’t even have to recruit children to their schools, as they are eager to leave their heathen parents behind:

“In April, 1847, five girls in the Mission-school of the Free Church at Madras determined to embrace the Gospel, and knowing that they would not be allowed to do this at home, they put themselves under the protection of the Missionaries.  One of them, called Muniatthal, was only twelve years old, but she was a very intelligent child.  On hearing her intention, her relations met together, and, taking with them a crowd of heathen, armed with stones, and clubs and bars of iron, they attacked the Mission-house until they were driven away by the police.” (8)

Note how the police are on the side of the state; the parents try to get their child back by using the courts, but the judge tells the parents that “Children have certain rights of their own; and throughout the length and breadth of this land, they will be protected in those rights which God and nature have given them” (9).  The British institutions of church and state collude to remove the child from her parents.


Eulalie’s drawing of happy lepers; Peter and Tess, the white children, appear friendly, but they keep their hands in their pockets.

While such blatant imperialism might be frowned upon in later years, the idea that the state could better care for children than their parents and that the child should be happy in such situations remains common in children’s literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth by Stella Mead, with illustrations by Eulalie, the white British children visit a leper colony where children are sent away from their families; while there the children are taught “English” (as opposed, I suppose, to patois) and they are all delighted to be there; an illustration shows Peter, Tess and a white doctor looking at five dark-skinned children who appear to be in a pen of some sort, but who are all smiling.  The text depicts the place as “restful and happy” (n.p.) but it is not clear if or when the children will be reunited with their families.  In Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft, the state is depicted as benevolently stepping in when Donovan’s parents give up on parenting Donovan; white people are obliged to take “trouble” over Donovan’s upbringing because (like the Indian heathens) his Jamaican parents are unwilling or incapable.


Children torn from their parents to learn the ways of the whites in When We Were Alone; they were only happy when they could escape to nature.

Authors of color depict the separation of children from their parents by the state quite differently.  David Alexander Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree nation, showed how devastating being taken from your parents to be schooled by the colonizer can be in When We Were Alone (Highwater, 2016).  In this book, illustrated by Julie Flett, a grandmother describes to her grandchild how she was taken away because white people “wanted us to be like everyone else” (n.p.).


Julia Gukova’s illustrations for Richardo Keens-Douglas’s Freedom Child of the Sea; slavery separated children from mothers even at the moment of birth, as this illustration shows. Other enslaved people can only look on helplessly.

Richardo Keens-Douglas reminds readers of the horrors of slavery in Freedom Child of the Sea (Annick 1996): “mothers were separated from their sons, fathers from daughters, brothers from sisters.  The wind that first day blew with a roar that had never been heard before in the beautiful land.  It carried the sounds of fear, pain, tears and broken hearts out to sea” (n.p.).


This is what separation of mothers and children looks like in Alex Godard’s Mama Across the Sea.

And Alex Godard’s beautiful illustrations for Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt 1998) is a reminder of the economic separation that many children face from their parents who have to leave their homes to make enough money to survive—often seeking jobs in the country that formerly colonized them.  All of these books indicate the ways that colonization and imperialism have affected people of color around the world.  Institutions tear children away from their parents, causing them lasting emotional pain and not necessarily improving their physical or economic well-being in the process.


Families belong together.  Children should not be lost in institutional systems—nor lost by them.  The UN knew this nearly sixty years ago, and it would do us good to remember it now.


Those Pristine Empty Beaches

For those in the northern hemisphere, it is summer, and hence vacation time—time to think about heading to the beach. But many of our beaches are cold, or polluted, or filled with sharp rocks or slimy algae. Not at all the picture of “beach” that many of us hold in our minds. Many people long for the beaches of the Caribbean, or perhaps Hawaii, imagining pristine, empty beaches shaded by the occasional coconut palm.

A typical tourist vision of a Caribbean beach–photograph by Bob Friel.

But this image of the beach is a false (or at least misleading) one, and ultimately dangerous. It perpetuates myths that go back to the Age of Exploration and the Age of Empire, that describe the world as empty and just waiting for Europeans (and Americans) to come and use it up. The flora and fauna of these islands, under this mindset, is merely decoration; and the people who live there are part of the scenery at best and completely invisible at worst. For years, children in Europe and America were taught these myths in school textbooks. M. Synge’s The Story of the World, a popular geography text from the early 20th century, describes the exploration of the Caribbean by Columbus and his crew in these words: “From island to island they cruised, discovering many things of which no man had dreamt before” (volume II: 158, emphasis mine). This passage comes after Columbus’s initial encounter with the “natives” who, based on the logic of the quotation, are non-human.

This kind of logic allows Europeans and Americans to continue to think it is acceptable to ignore the humans and the environment of the tropical world. But this can lead to a perpetuation of racist attitudes, to poverty for the residents and to the ultimate destruction of the very environment that Europeans and Americans come to see. Many people have written about the impact of tourism on the tropical world (just put “tourism and colonialism” into your search engine), and generally, it’s a negative impact.

However, some studies indicate that knowledge about a place—its people, its place in the economic system, and its environment—can make a huge difference in changing the negative to a positive. One World Bank study by John Dixon et al, argues that “The severity of the impact of environmental problems on the tourism sector depends crucially on what potential visitors know about the extent and nature of these problems” (you can read this study here: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2001/03/1570699/tourism-environment-caribbean-economic-framework). If this is true, then it is important that we change the attitudes about tropical beaches. Two important ideas should be taught to all children: beaches are not empty, and your enjoyment of those beaches depends on the people who live near them.

If you pay attention, no beach is empty.

If you pay attention, no beach is empty.

And Caribbean children have knowledge to share. Did you know what a zandoli is?

And Caribbean children have knowledge to share. Did you know what a zandoli is?

A good book to teach children that beaches are not empty is Dawn Allette’s Caribbean Animals (Tamarind, 2004). This is an alphabet book listing animals found in the Caribbean, illustrated by Alan Baker. The pictures show beautiful beaches, but they aren’t empty: they are alive with plants, trees, people and animals, both in and out of the sea. The book uses a young Caribbean boy as guide through the animal alphabet; he is not a tourist out to escape the world, but a junior scientist examining the world through binoculars and quiet observation. By presenting the book through his eyes, the authors give value to both the environment and the human residents, requiring the reader to see more than just an empty beach.

The sun, sand, and sea aren't as nice when you are sitting on a tin roof waiting for you economic migrant mother.

The sun, sand, and sea aren’t as nice when you are sitting on a tin roof waiting for you economic migrant mother.

It is much more difficult to find children’s books that discuss the ways that people who live on islands support and are impacted by the tourist industry. Picture geographies often do not discuss poverty, or the ways that the tourism industry can perpetuate it. Even when the difference between the tourist and the native is hinted at, the reference is often oblique, as in John and Penny Hubley’s A Family in Jamaica (Lerner, 1985). This book shows the poverty of Dorothy’s family in the photographic illustrations, but refrains from directly alluding to the lopsided relationship between tourists and natives: “Many people from other countries come to Jamaica on vacation. They like the sunshine, the beautiful beaches, and the mountains. Most tourists stay in the big hotels near the Caribbean Sea. Many Jamaicans work in the offices, kitchens, and restaurants of these hotels” (24-25). The passage, although making visible the people who work for the benefit of tourists, leaves the impression that the sunshine, beautiful beaches, and mountains—not to mention the big hotels—exist for the benefit of foreigners only. Perhaps a better way to teach children the continuing impact of economic colonialism on the tropical world is by looking at picture books where the child character loses his parent due to lack of economic opportunity outside of Europe and America. Both Regina Hanson’s The Tangerine Tree (Clarion, 1995) and Alex Godard’s Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt, 2000) depict children whose parents have left their island for greater economic opportunities. The beach in these books is still as beautiful, but it is a place to watch in physical discomfort for the return of a parent: “The tin roof Cecile sat on was burning hot, but she didn’t care. She was waiting for her mother” (Mama, Across the Sea n.p.). The sights and sounds of the Caribbean are not relaxing for Ida in The Tangerine Tree either: “Tears stung Ida’s eyes as she thought about losing Papa. . . . Today the songs of insects did not comfort her. Nor did the scent of the tangerine leaves she had bruised, nor the bright fruit that seemed to set the tree ablaze. She pressed her cheek to the scratchy bark and sobbed” (n.p.). Europeans and Americans have helped create a world where people in other places—generally people of color—remain in poverty or struggle to survive while tourists “relax” in their homelands without ever truly seeing or understanding. Changing this paradigm has to start with showing child readers what “empty” beaches truly contain.