Tag Archives: BAME literature

Mixed, Not Mixed Up: Mixed Race Families in British children’s and YA lit

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I did what a lot of pregnant literature professors do—look for enough books to fill a library for their future genius.  In my case, along with my own childhood favorites (Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances books, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Dr. Seuss, my favorite fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), I wanted to get books where the characters would look like my child.  But this was not so simple.  In addition to the fact that many picture books have animals rather than people as characters, most of the people characters are white. Those that aren’t are from a single, identifiable racial group.  My child would be mixed race.

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Tony Bradman and Eileen Browne’s books about Jo show a confident, happy, mixed race child–but on book covers, she is all alone.

I went searching anyway, and found a few—not many.  I commented on these in an article I wrote, “Why are People Different? Multiracial Families in Picture Books and the Dialogue of Difference” (Lion and the Unicorn 25.3, September 2001: 412-426), You can read the article yourself (it isn’t too tedious) but the Ladybird version of the article is that I was disappointed in most of the books I did find.  The picture books I looked at then emphasized “difference and a physical space between the racially different parents” (423).  During that same year, Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe wrote, in her essay “Re-Membering ‘Race’: On Gender, ‘Mixed Race’ and Family in the English-African Diaspora,” that it was important that young people had representations they could look to because “neither the exclusionary discourse of White Englishness nor the inclusive discourse of the Black English-African diaspora completely represents their everyday lived realities” (50).  Of course, no one book can carry the burden of completely accurately representing the lived realities of any actual human, and not all the books were all bad.  I was especially fond of Tony Bradman’s and Eileen Browne’s picture books about a little girl named Jo (Through My Window, In a Minute, Wait and See).  And none of us in my family are badgers, but we still enjoyed singing the little songs Russell Hoban’s Frances made up—so books that are not about “race” can still raise a sense of recognition in a reader.

But I did wonder (and worry) what my daughter would have to read as she got older, and books stopped having visual representation of mixed race families—especially as in many of the picture books, the visual representation is all the representation that existed, the text itself could have been about—well, about badgers.  Would my daughter see people who looked like her when books left the character’s description to the imagination?  Or would she see the “normal” (that is, white) hero or heroine as most readers, no matter what their racial background, do?  And would there be any mixed race families for her to read about?

It turns out that the generation who grew up at the same time as my daughter expected to find multiracial families in books, and to some extent have got them.  I think that a recent rise in the number of YA and tween books with multiracial families/biracial characters has been advanced by the brilliant crop of BAME British writers who have begun scooping up prizes right and left.  While white Britons (and Americans) may or may not know someone who is of mixed racial heritage, most BAME people know at least someone—if they aren’t part of a multiracial family themselves.  Things have changed in the decade and a half since I wrote my article.

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Both Brahmachari’s Artichoke Hearts and Lawrence’s Indigo Donut show the multiracial couples physically linked.

First, one of the things I discussed in my article was the fact that racially different people were often physically separated in illustrations, even when they had a textually-stated reason to be close (such as being married!).  Book covers are different from picture books, of course—YA authors do not (usually) have any say at all about who does their covers.  Nonetheless, I see the covers of books like Sita Brahmachari’s Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017) to be quite positive advances over the books available to my daughter as a child.  Mira, the Indian- and English-heritage protagonist of Artichoke Hearts, and Bailey, the Afro-Caribbean- and English-heritage main character of Indigo Donut, are not alone on their respective covers—as, for example, Jo is on the cover of all the Bradman and Browne books.  As befits books for the 11+ age group, both Mira and Bailey are depicted with their romantic interests.  But unlike the pictures of married couples in the picture books I reviewed in 2001, the young lovers on these covers are linked physically (as they are in the books).  If you think that this is unremarkable, consider that Sarah Garland’s lovely Billy and Belle (Reinhardt 1992) faced difficulties getting published because the parents, one Black and one white, were shown in bed together.  Garland was told that many countries would censor the book unless she removed the scene. (She didn’t, and it wasn’t published at the time in South Africa, among other places.)

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Garland’s Billy and Belle was controversial because the parents actually slept in the same bed–shock horror!

Second, and perhaps more important, the books being published now no longer emphasize the idea of difference in a negative way.  As with any real child of a biracial marriage, the fact of being “mixed” only comes up occasionally.  Mira’s brother has different colored eyes than her, and her writing teacher describes her as having a “dual history name” (7), but it isn’t something that comes up every day.  Even when Mira goes to India in the sequel, Jasmine Skies, the emphasis is on her learning about her Indian heritage, not about her being “mixed”.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom 2016) announces part of the main character’s mixed heritage in the opening sentence: “My mum told me I was named after her Scottish granddad, Danny McKay” (1); McKay and his brother are also named after famous people of African heritage, Medgar Evers and Robert Nesta Marley.  But both McKay and Mira are part of their neighborhoods and families, not individuals set apart and “different”.  It is true that Lawrence’s Bailey faces teasing over his ginger afro, but he has learned to deal with it.  Rather than keep it short, he grows his hair as big as it will grow, telling Indigo that to cut it would be “telling people like Saskia they’re right” (78) to tease him.  Difference is not a problem to be solved, but one of many aspects to be celebrated.  The young characters in recent books for children may be mixed—but they are far from being mixed up.

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Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights announces the multiracial heritage of McKay from the opening sentence.

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At the End of Everything is Something New: Recent Releases in BAME Lit for Children

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The latest from Alex Wheatle and Kiran Millwood Hargrave are very different–and share many similarities as well.

I have been terribly anxious for my term to end in the US–not just for the ordinary reasons (exam time does not exactly reveal anyone at their best, most cheerful self)–but because, nearly as soon as it did, I hopped on a plane for several weeks in the UK.  And I went straight to the bookstore.

One of the curious things about American publishing (not to mention American television, American film stars–I’m talking to you, Samuel L. Jackson–and other elements of the American cultural world) is that, if they recognize that there is such a thing as a BAME British writer (tv star, film star, whatever), they do not think their work is relevant to Americans.  This is similar to the way that white British publishing often acts as though BAME lit is only for BAME readers, despite the phenomenal success of writers such as Zadie Smith or Malorie Blackman (just to name two of many). When I am in the US, I can get the work of BAME writers, but generally by special order from the UK, which is expensive–or slow.  So when I’m in the UK, I stock up.

And I’d been especially impatient to read two recent releases by 2016 award-winning authors, Alex Wheatle’s latest installment in the Crongton series, Straight Outta Crongton (London: Atom Press, 2017) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything (Somerset: Chicken House, 2017).  On the face of it, these books could not be more different.  Alex Wheatle’s series, including this latest, concerns the lives of young urban Britons growing up on a fictional estate plagued by gang warfare aimed at the young adult market.  Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel is a fictional account for older middle grade readers of a real island in the Philippines where people with leprosy were sent in order to try and eradicate the disease.

But despite this surface-level contrast, the two books actually have some important things in common.  Most obviously, they are both focalized through female protagonists, and feature mother-daughter relationships as critical elements of their plots. Wheatle’s Mo Baker has a troubled relationship with her mother–or rather, with her mother’s choice of male company.  Things get bad enough that Mo eventually leaves to stay with friends.  Millwood Hargrave’s Amihan Tala adores her mother–or Nanay, the Tagalog word for mother–but she too leaves home, by force, because government officials decide to segregate people with leprosy (Nanay) from people without (Amihan), even if this means separating families.  Each girl experiences an eventual reunion with her mother, but in both cases the reunion is (or in Mo’s case, appears at the end of the book to be) temporary.

During their separation from their mothers, both Mo and Ami get strength from female friends.  Indeed, the importance of the connection between girls is a major theme in both these novels.  Mo’s friends support her by taking her in (even when the adults involve demur, Mo’s friend Elaine insists that she be able to stay with them), by not allowing Mo to accept an apology from her mother’s boyfriend after he physically abused her and instead trying to get her to report him to the police, and by accompanying her on a dangerous mission of revenge.  Ami’s friend Mari also accompanies her on a dangerous mission, to escape the orphanage–and island–where she has been sent and get back to her Nanay.  Neither Mo’s nor Ami’s mission results in an entirely happy conclusion.  But it is their female friends who help them get through their trials alive, and with a deeper understanding of the complicated actions and emotions of the adults around them.

As you may be able to tell from this brief description of the novels, ‘race,’ racism, racial politics are not the focus of the books, though these things are not entirely absent from them either.  Wheatle’s Mo is white, and her boyfriend Sam is Black.  They have known each other since childhood, when even then they had an awareness that race mattered, at least to older people.  They play a trick on a social worker who comes to visit Sam’s mother, telling her that they were “the first black and white twins born in the country” (78).  But at the end of the day, what matters more to Mo and her friends is that they share a common language and experience, united by the good and bad things about Crongton–which in many ways is as much of an isolated island for them as Culion and Coron are for Ami in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s book. The Island at the End of Everything does highlight the difference of skin color: Ami’s friend Mari is “paler than the others, paler than any of us, her hair light and flyaway, making a halo around her head” (94).  Later Ami learns the pale skin comes from Mari’s being half-Spanish.  Mari’s background is not insignificant, but what matters more to her relationship with Ami is that they are both in an orphanage under the thumb of a tyrannical government official.

And this is one more thing that The Island at the End of Everything has in common with Straight Outta Crongton.  Both novels view the government as unhelpful, sometimes unkind, and always untrustworthy.  Mo Baker mistrusts “the feds” enough so that she does not turn to them for help when she really needs it.  Ami Tala experiences the consequences of a well-intentioned government policy (few would argue with the eradication of leprosy as a good goal) that disregards the human cost of separating families.  Both heroines ultimately accept the authority of that government–after they defy the dehumanized government to connect with people they love.

Wheatle and Millwood Hargrave have written novels that are departures from the one(s) that came before.  Wheatle’s earlier Crongton novels are focalized through male protagonists, and Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars is a fantasy. The reason that these authors matter so much right now is patently not because they have one story, “the” BAME story.  These novelists prove that there is no such thing as a single BAME story–no such thing as a single Wheatle story or a single Millwood Hargrave story.  At the end of everything is the start of something new.  And now that I’ve finished these novels, I can’t wait for the next ones.