A news story this week caught my eye—perhaps I should say “news” story, as it was accompanied by the usual screaming headlines of The Sun. It concerned Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta’s Biff, Chip and Kipper books, and the adult themes of some of the illustrations (https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4540364/childrens-author-dogging-scenes-biff-chip-kipper-books/). The comments on the story were a mix of calls for censorship and raised-eyebrow-amusement, but it got me thinking about Banned Books Week, which has been celebrated in the US since 1982, and what censorship means for BAME authors and readers.
What are they doing behind those bushes? One of the controversial pictures from the Biff, Chip and Kipper series.
On the Banned Books Week coalition website, they list the top ten challenged books of 2016 (http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about). Most of the books on the list were challenged for sexual content, and most are for young adults (I am Jazz, about a transgender child, is a rare picture book exception). Most of the books are about white children. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel, This One Summer, and Bill Cosby’s Little Bill books are the exceptions; and these are both challenged for sexual explicitness (in the case of Bill Cosby, his own rather than the books’). This is quite a change, historically speaking; books in the US used to regularly be challenged on the basis of their depiction of race, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the “mixed race marriage” depicted in Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding.
The UK has, at least over the last few decades, not had the same kind of censorship culture as the US with regard to children’s books. The last publication to be banned under the UK’s Obscene Publications act was David Britton’s graphic novel, Lord Horror (published in 1989, banned in 1992), a book definitely not aimed at children. Indeed, the Obscene Publications act has mostly focused on adult literature, and in recent years hardly used at all. The 1955 Children and Young Persons Harmful Publications Act, which was introduced in response to a National Union of Teachers exhibition of horror comics they deemed harmful to children, ultimately resulted in only two prosecutions (both in 1970) according to the parliamentary record (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1974/dec/05/childrens-publications-prosecutions#S5CV0882P0_19741205_CWA_237). In 2010, the BBC noted that US-style banning of books was rare: “Part of the difference is in the level of local control over schools. Typically in the US, locally-elected school boards can have books withdrawn when parents petition them. In the UK, control lies almost exclusively in the hands of headteachers, says Sally Duncan, of the School Library Association” (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-11417672). This attitude of UK rationality regarding the US with benign bemusement is fairly standard across articles from the UK about censorship.
But the suggestion of British superiority belies the ways in which the institutions and industries (particularly education and publishing) in the UK effect the same result: producing literature which reinforces a white, patriarchal, Christian, heterosexual status quo. This is true in terms of the books and authors who do get published: the most lauded picture book about a Black British child was written by a white author, and rewards the Black British character for wanting to participate in British (and more particularly English) literary and dramatic tradition (including Kipling, Shakespeare, J. M. Barrie, and British pantomime); most of the books written by BAME authors or about BAME characters that have won awards in the last fifty years have gone out of print in a relatively short amount of time.
BAME British books and authors that depict alternatives or challenges to white dominant society are often ignored or criticized. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, an alternative-reality story where Black people hold the majority of power positions and white people form militant groups, garnered considerable attention, including from racist trolls. Except for Noughts and Crosses, Blackman’s books were not published in the US. Neither are the books of most other BAME authors, including award-winners such as Alex Wheatle and Patrice Lawrence (although the picture book I mentioned above by the white author was not only published in the US but has remained in print), suggesting that UK publishers do not value the literature enough to promote it, or US publishers do not see the works as “translating” to the US, a dubious idea. Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights may have won the Guardian Prize for fiction, but neither he nor Blackman has ever won the most prestigious children’s book prize in the UK, the Carnegie Medal (and Wheatle, along with several other celebrated BAME authors, was not even shortlisted). The Carnegie, unlike many of the other children’s book prizes in the UK, is awarded by children’s librarians.
I am certain that individual publishers, authors, and librarians could protest the suggestion of racism in children’s book publishing—but the individual example is an easy way to diffuse a larger argument (no matter what the topic). I’d like to quote some statistics to prove my points, but the UK, unlike the US, does not publish statistics relating to diversity in children’s books. So while the UK can be smug about its lack of direct censorship compared to the US, it can also mask its poor efforts in publishing and awarding BAME children’s literature. The UK needs an organization like the US-based Cooperative Children’s Book Center (https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/default.asp), which publishes yearly statistics on the numbers and types of diverse children’s books published in any given year.
Academics, whether focused on education, librarianship, or children’s literature can also play their part in raising the profile of BAME children’s books. In the 1970s, when literature with Black British characters had a brief moment in the sun (one even won the Kate Greenaway medal, as I’ve discussed on this blog before), it was partly because children’s librarians such as Dorothy Kuya (in her publication Dragon’s Teeth) and Janet Hill (in books like Children are People) actively promoted and discussed BAME children’s literature. Andrew Mann and Rosemary Stones did the same through the anti-racist anti-sexist Children’s Rights Workshop and its publication Children’s Book Bulletin. These publications were aimed at an audience of teachers, librarians and parents, in an attempt to educate them about available literature. Letterbox Library is one of the organizations that works toward these goals now, but there is no journal in the UK devoted to BAME children’s literature that I know of—whether aimed at an academic or non-academic audience. Perhaps it is time to start one—but in the meantime, may I suggest that we all could participate in anti-censorship activities this week by picking up a book that has been banned in the US—or one that has just been ignored in the UK.
I’ll end with one of Letterbox Library’s tweets from this morning which sums all this up nicely:
Letterbox Library @LetterboxLib 4 hours ago
Spot the difference- we requested the book shown in this trade catalogue; this is what we received (we were sent the “UK edition”…):pic.twitter.com/lMTdFLjHXI