Tag Archives: Amazing Grace

Children’s Books, Diversity, and List-Making

When my London philosopher friend, Darren Chetty, asked me to write an article for the Times Educational Supplement with him, I didn’t hesitate to do it. First, because I admire Darren’s work; he gets into the schools and talks to kids about issues of ‘race’ and racism, providing not only a venue for their discussions but a model for their teachers (you can find discussions of his work in “The Elephant in the Room: Picturebooks, Philosophy for Children and Racism” as well as in “‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be about White People,’” his chapter in Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant). Second, I wanted to do it because the TES is putting out really thoughtful pieces right now about education in an increasingly restrictive world (restricted by testing and assessment, worries over immigration, lack of funding, among other things). But mostly, I wanted to help because when people find out I research Black British literature for children, their first question is, “Oh, is there much of that out there?”

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Here are a few of the books from the list that are still in print in the UK–for now.

One of the elements that the TES wanted in the article was a “diverse” book list, and they were willing to let me do it my way. That meant, for me, a list of books with main characters who were British and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic—I’m not hugely fond of acronyms that “other” but it is the one that it is currently in greatest use in Britain), written and/or illustrated (at least one or the other, and preferably both) by BAME authors and artists. The reason for this is simple: if Britons know any book with a BAME main character, it is likely to have been written or drawn by a white author or illustrator. The most popular “diverse” books over the past half-century, and the ones that have stayed in print, have been written by people outside of the community that they are writing about. In some cases, such as Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft or Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace, the Black British main character is actually based on a real white child. Publishers want books that will appeal to white readers—because, as in the United States, white readers are in the majority. But making the white reader comfortable with a BAME character often means erasing much of what the white reader would find unfamiliar or strange. It often means leaving institutional racism and the status quo unchallenged, giving preference to assimilation, making happy endings that reassure white readers. It also sets up a problematic cycle, particularly in children’s literature, where most of the books are purchased by adults rather than the intended child readers. Book buyers purchase books that make them comfortable; child readers never see the books that might challenge the status quo or better represent BAME communities; these challenging books then go out of print because publishers say that they aren’t viable and/or that BAME children “don’t read” or don’t want BAME books. I’m guessing that most teachers and librarians will find Amazing Grace, if they haven’t already. But I wanted, with my list, to give them something they might not find.

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These are a few of the quality works of children’s literature that I wanted to put on the list, but couldn’t–because they are out of print.

But it wasn’t necessarily easy for me to find those books either. I’m fairly familiar with children’s authors who write about Afro-Caribbean characters; it’s my main field of research. The TES, however, wanted books that represented multiple BAME communities. I had to read a lot, look at multiple blogs and websites, find out about the authors and illustrators—and then find books of theirs that were still in print. Although I double-checked books against more than one bookstore/website, including the fantastic Letterbox Library and independent publishers’ websites such as Firetree Books and Hope Road Publishing, my friends at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book have already (less than two months after the appearance of the list) tried ordering the books and have found some unavailable. And so far, none of the publishers who let really good classic BAME texts go out of print have contacted me to say that they made a mistake in doing so and have set up a print run for any of the “Bring Back into Print” texts I recommended (okay, maybe this was just a fantasy of mine—but the TES was willing to endorse it!). I hope that this does not put off people—teachers, librarians, parents—who truly want to represent the world through books for their children. Because to be fair, my list is just one of many that have been written over the years. It is up to all of us to keep the pressure on the publishing and book industry to ensure that these books stay in print and that more books are published. That means buying them, promoting them, reading them ourselves. It is an effort, but we who care about books and children must make the effort. As Darren and I say in our article, “when kids start seeing themselves and their classmates in books, they learn that they all have a role to play—in the classroom, in books and in Britain’s literary heritage.”

Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Harrison, who is publishing this blog on her website, The Worrisome Words Blog, as a guest post. Dr. Harrison teaches at East Stroudsberg University in Pennsylvania, and her research interests include reader-writer relationships, thing-theory, and the supernatural; she is a reviewer for the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL), as well as the Children’s Book Review. You can read her blog, which focuses this month on multiculturalism, here: http://quantum.esu.edu/faculty/jharrison/.

You can read our article, “Why diversity should start at story time,” in the TES from September 30, 2016. You can download a free poster with my list of 50 diverse titles from the TES at their website, https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499.

Missteps: The Truth about Racing Together

Last week, two attempts to “start a discussion about race” failed miserably. In the United States, the country’s best-known premium coffee chain, Starbucks, asked its baristas to initiate discussions about race with customers by writing “Race Together” on coffee cups and asking the customers to talk about their experiences. And in the UK, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality under Tony Blair and well-known Black British broadcaster Trevor Phillips presented a documentary entitled “Things We Won’t say about Race—That are True” on Channel 4. Both caused media firestorms. Starbucks was ridiculed on social media (with, for example, the Twitter hashtag “Black Coffee Matters”), and criticized for putting pressure on mostly young, mostly white baristas to initiate these “conversations.” Phillips has been excoriated by members of the Black British community (and embraced by the Daily Mail) for presenting truths such as “most black murder victims in Britain are killed by other black people” without adding “as are most white murder victims killed by white people,” or for his assertion that “Pakistanis were responsible for the systematic abuse of teenage girls in Rotherham” without saying “white people in power looked the other way while Jimmy Savile sexually abused hundreds of children over decades.”

The problem with both these efforts was not that they wanted to talk about something which has clearly become a central issue for many people in both the US and the UK. Frank and open discussion about problems is indeed the only way for people, communities, and nations to move forward without violence. The problem was that both Starbucks and Trevor Phillips wanted to talk about “race” as a uniquely definable entity, as something that “causes” you to act a certain way or feel left out of a conversation. Identities are complicated by all kinds of issues, racial and ethnic and gender and religious and sexual and familial and generational and economic issues, just to name a few. Simplifying the conversation to a single one of these concepts may put a spotlight on that issue, but it can also lead to misunderstanding and trivializing of people and their concerns.

Can elephants teach us about racism?

This kind of oversimplification happens all the time in children’s literature, since writing about complex ideas in a few short words is a near-impossible task. It is also complicated when the group in power is writing about ways to solve the problem.  Darren Chetty, a critical race philosopher at the Institute of Education in London, has written about how David McKee’s texts Tusk, Tusk and Elmer have been recommended as good starting points for discussing racism with children—but which (by virtue of distance from real people and their histories and issues) often reinforce the status quo and preference certain voices and solutions to problems over others (http://www.academia.edu/7945738/THE_ELEPHANT_IN_THE_ROOM_PICTUREBOOKS_PHILOSOPHY_FOR_CHILDREN_AND_RACISM).

Similarly, a book like Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace argues that its main character, Grace, can be anything she wants to be despite her gender and race. Struggle (against economic difficulties, against institutional opposition, for example) is not really a part of the story. Grace, like a neighbor’s daughter from Trinidad who has become a prima ballerina, succeeds in an artistic production designed and initiated by Europeans, and everyone applauds her ability to integrate. Initially, she is told by her classmates that she can’t be Peter Pan because she is black and female. Grace does not protest the selection of the story for a multiracial classroom (no mention is made of who will play Tiger Lily in the production, thus avoiding the difficult racial issues that are actually inherent in Barrie’s classic). In fact, she works hard to earn her place in it. And yet, why should she protest the choice of play? Grace spends her life pretending to be characters in stories—characters from European tradition, such as Dick Whittington, or characters interpreted through European eyes, such as Hiawatha or Mowgli. Although she also pretends to be Anansi, most of her story characters in this and other Grace books are European. When she goes to visit her father in Boundless Grace, for example, she takes only a book of (European) fairy tales with her to Africa, and complains that her own family has not turned out like the endings of fairy tales. She has been brought up believing in a world of white privilege, and it is unsurprising that she wants her life to match what she reads in her stories. Grace’s teacher values and supports literature approved as “classic”; although she welcomes new faces, she does not seek out new voices. Grace must adapt herself to the world in which she finds herself; it will not adapt itself to her.

Grace adapts herself to the approved way of “going native.” Illustration by Caroline Binch.

As long as we keep trying to present human divisions through simple narratives that tell a single-focused side of a story, we will fail. Hoffman’s and McKee’s books are not bad picture books—in fact, they are award-winning and satisfying stories. I like them, and have read them to my children’s literature students and to my own child. But because of their simplified focus and easy solutions, they are as unlikely to change attitudes about racial issues as Starbucks or Trevor Phillips. Kids need multiple examples of the kinds of conflict that people face; we need books, in addition to the Hoffman and the McKee stories, which question the status quo. These don’t have to be books about racism (or sexism, or any other kind of ism). The real truth about ‘race’ that we don’t want to talk about is that although race is an arbitrary construction (we could be focused on all number of things—blue eyes versus brown, or height, or blood type), the history behind racial division on our planet is real and continues to have consequences in the daily lives of people everywhere. We cannot forget that long and painful history—nor reduce people to a single aspect of their existence. We cannot race together until we take a lot of baby steps first.

Consciousness-Raising by the Numbers in Diverse Children’s Books

A week ago, the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published its annual review of the diverse books published in the United States in the previous year (you can see their findings here: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp). The statistics held good news, bad news, and curious news. The good news is that books by and about African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and American Indians are all up over the numbers for the past few years. The bad news is that, in most cases, the numbers are not significantly higher, and are still only a tiny percentage of the books published in any given year. The CCBC receives about 3500 of the approximately 5000 new books published in any given year, and of those 3500, the largest group of books, those by and about African Americans, represents only 2.5% (written by) and 5% (written about) of the total number. Neither number comes anywhere near being representative (statistics vary, but about 13% of the US population self-identifies as Black or African American). The numbers are even worse for the other groups represented, particularly for Latinos, who represent 12.5% of the US population but less than 1% of the books published every year.

The curious aspect of the statistics for me was the correlation between books written by and books written about a particular group. In terms of both Asian and Asian-Pacific Americans and Latinos, the number of books written by and the number of books written about these groups are relatively close; so, for example, 59 books were written by Latinos, and 66 were about them. Although there’s no guarantee that the books written by Latinos were also the books about them, the numbers are fairly even, suggesting at least some correlation between them. However, in terms of African Americans and Native Americans, there are more than double (African Americans) or almost double (Native Americans) the number of books written about them as by them. This means that many books are being written about these groups from outsider perspectives.

Diverse books aren’t always by diverse authors . . .

There is not necessarily anything wrong with outsider perspectives; it is impossible to tell merely from someone’s ethnic background or skin color the experiences they have had in life or what drew them to writing about difference or diversity. Some authors and illustrators from European backgrounds have produced good, thought-provoking books about how we think about racism and diversity; British author Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991) has become an international bestseller because of its positive message about achieving your goals despite facing the racist and sexist attitudes of others, and Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (1990) introduces middle-grade readers to a character whose eyes are opened to the effects of racial prejudice in his town.

But even if all diverse children’s books by outsider groups are entirely positive, accurate, and thought-provoking portrayals (and they aren’t—both the award-winning books above have faced their fair share of criticism as well), the very fact that at least half of the books published about African Americans and American Indians are by an outsider group suggests that somehow, the experiences of these groups are a known quantity. European Americans can know what it is like to be and what matters about the history of African Americans and American Indians. And publishers, by publishing twice as many books about these groups as by authors from those groups, are reinforcing these ideas of what matters. And this has a big impact on how child readers (of any background) understand diversity in the US. Martin Luther King, Jr. matters, for example, as do the folktales of American Indians—these books have traditionally made up a large percentage of the diversity children experience through books. And I absolutely agree that they should matter, to all children (and adults, for that matter). But so too should Malcolm X. So too should the experience of American Indian tribes living both on and off reservations in our contemporary society. A quick check of any online bookseller will show that Malcolm X is considerably less present than Martin Luther King, Jr., and in less child-friendly (more textbook-y) fashion. The numbers for other Black political leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, are even worse; and I could find only one, out-of-print, book about Angela Davis. A similar search for children’s books about American Indians will reveal almost no books at all about today’s experience of being an American Indian, especially at the picture-book level

Angela Davis, where are you?

Diversity matters in children’s books. But diversity should be diverse. I don’t think that means entirely quashing the publication of books by outsider groups (especially Europeans or those of European-descent); the perspective of white authors and white characters working for justice and equality in a diverse society can teach child readers valuable lessons about standing up for what is right. I don’t think we need fewer books about Martin Luther King, Jr., or fewer versions of American Indian folktales; these books highlight important pieces of American history and culture for all readers. But these voices and these depictions should not dominate the already-too-limited diversity publishing for children. The CCBC’s statistics do indicate a change in publishing habits (when they began keeping statistics, in 1985, they found only 18 books published by Black authors and illustrators). But in order to really change these numbers for the better, publishers must begin to broaden their own definition of “the African American (or American Indian, or Latino, or Asian and Asian-Pacific American) experience”—not to mention their definition of other diverse groups, such as Gay and Lesbian Americans or multiracial Americans. If we want to teach our kids that all lives matter, we must provide children with opportunities to read about a larger percentage and a greater variety of those lives in our children’s books.