Tag Archives: Bernard Ashley

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.


On the Margins: Blackness and Black Culture as an aside in children’s books

There was a period between 1970 and 1980 where Blackness as a cultural attribute was deliberately and purposefully included in British children’s books; characters brought culturally-connected foods to “international food days,” for example, because they ate them at home. Often during the production of the food, the child character (or their parent) would tell the history of the food or of the culture in general, thus ensuring that Blackness was given specific cultural capital. Characters spoke in patois; they discussed life in Britain as Black people. This was true in books aimed at white readers as well as non-white readers. In fact, sometimes, white readers were targeted for these cultural lessons. Gillian Klein’s series of readers, designed to promote multiculturalism, showed a school event (food day, fancy dress party) from the eyes of multiple cultures, to ensure that everyone had a better understanding of cultures that were not their own.


Yvette talks about Trinidad with her mum in The Fancy Dress Party.

However, for a variety of reasons, these culturally-specific texts became less and less popular with publishers after about 1980. One argument frequently used was the idea of “reader appeal” (often code for appeal to the majority white readers). Another was the push, which in the UK was particularly prominent after race riots erupted in Brixton (1981) and Handsworth (1985), to highlight similarities rather than differences between and among all British schoolchildren. This often forced cultural reference into the margins of a text, sometimes in a way that almost entirely obscures the cultural connection.


This Donovan Croft cover shows him as an outsider in the school playground.

Bernard Ashley’s books for children show the beginnings of this change. Ashley won the Other Award for The Trouble with Donovan Croft in 1974, which was predicated on the fact that the title character was the child of Jamaican parents who had been temporarily forced to abandon him. The Jamaican-ness of the Croft family was necessary to the plot, and the focus of the story was on how Keith, the white boy protagonist, dealt with the “problem” of his foster brother. By the 1980s, however, multiculturalism was the dominant ideology in education. As a philosophy, multiculturalism celebrated difference (as long as it was based in something that everyone experienced, like food or holidays), and people were encouraged to get along.


But these children all look delighted to be together.

Thus, there is a distinct contrast between the cover of Donovan Croft and a book like I’m Trying to Tell You (1981; first published by Puffin in 1982). I’m Trying to Tell You is the story of four children, two white, an Asian boy and an Afro-Caribbean girl telling their stories about their school. The cultural stories of Nerissa, the Afro-Caribbean girl, and Prakash, the Asian boy, are obscured from the main story. Nerissa is asked to write a story by her teacher, and she thinks about her sister’s wedding which had recently taken place. The reader is privy to the tale of her sister’s wedding, but Nerissa’s teacher is not, because Nerissa does not see it as a story that her teacher would like. At the end of the chapter, all Nerissa has written on her paper is, “Once upon a time” (24) and her teacher tells her, “This just isn’t good enough” (24). Nerissa might find herself in the position of many Afro-Caribbean students in British schools, whose teachers found them lazy and uninterested in their schoolwork; she might even have ended up in the Educationally Sub Normal (ESN) class. Prakash, the Asian boy, suffers from racist attacks when the class plays another football team—Bren, the white girl, reports to her sister that the other team “made jungle noises” (51) when Prakash came on the pitch. However, she does not tell her parents about it. Both stories suggest that child characters, at least, understood that culture was not really something to be celebrated but rather hidden.


A political carnival–but not anything to do with Notting Hill . . .

In fact, the emphasis on multiculturalism led to new definitions of both British and non-British cultures. In Hannah Cole’s On the Night Watch (1984; first published in Puffin 1987), a class with a similar multiracial classroom to Ashley’s is depicted, but these children are shown, not hiding their heritage, but unaware of it. So when Zafar, who is Indian, offers to bring breakfast to the class, Janet asks if it will be “an Indian breakfast” (27). “Yes,” said Zafar. “Cornflakes and bread and butter, but maybe some English eggs.” (27). Who is this “joke” aimed at? Later in the story, a carnival is organized as a protest against the closing of the school. Janet, who is Afro-Caribbean asks her dad what the carnival is for. This could have been an opportunity to discuss the protest element of West Indian carnivals, including British West Indian carnivals such as the one in Notting Hill. But her dad tells her that it is for “everyone in the town to notice us” (53). Culture in Cole’s story is treated as a joke or ignored.


A holiday in Jamaica can be so boring . . . but it is what your teacher wants to hear about. Illustrations by Petr Horacek.

Culture did return to children’s books, after a fashion, particularly following the publication of Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman in 1991. In Amazing Grace, Grace’s Afro-Caribbean background needs to be explained away as not really an obstacle to her being British. But there remains a tension between British and non-British culture in books for young readers, and generally speaking, Britishness has more capital. Culture remains marginal, even—as in the case of Leon Spreads his Wings (2008) by Wendy Lee—boring. This early chapter book has as its theme Leon’s fear of flying, but this is not his excuse for not wanting to go on holiday to Jamaica. This first story shows a contrast between the imaginary Caribbean and the reality; the illustration of Leon’s father and grandmother happily sitting on the beach is above Leon’s bored misery, and eventually Leon’s father admits that Jamaica is not always idyllic. However, Leon does understand what the Caribbean is for: instead of writing the story of his rainy seaside holiday for his teacher, he tells her he went to Jamaica. As a place at the center of culture, Jamaica is something to obscure, but as a holiday destination marginal to Britain it is something to celebrate.

A Thousand and Seven Stories: Working in the Seven Stories Archives in Newcastle

Thanks to the support of many colleagues, I was able to take this academic year to study in Britain on a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship. Initially, I had wanted to apply somewhere in London. I am doing archival work on publishers who publish(ed) for a Black British child audience, and many important archives are in London, including the London Metropolitan Archives, the Black Cultural Archives, and the George Padmore Archives. But sometimes things don’t work out just the way you had planned, and this was one such case; the university that offered me space and place and time to think was Newcastle University, in the far north of the country. Despite the university’s distance from London (three hours by train—making for a very long daytrip at minimum. . .), they had one asset that London didn’t have: the National Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories Museum and Archives.

I had been to Seven Stories before, but was uncertain if I would be able to fill my time there. I knew that their authors’ and artists’ collections did not include many Black British or other minority ethnic writers (and if you are one, and are reading this blog, then think about Seven Stories as a place for your archives!). I knew they had the archives of Leila Berg, the radical author and editor who created the Nippers series. She had actively recruited Black British writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s to write for the series. So I began there.

Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose's New Beacon Bookshop.  Illustration by Richard Rose.

Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

Considering Leila Berg’s reading series (she didn’t want it to be called a reading scheme, but Macmillan insisted on marking the books with colors to indicate levels) started me thinking about those books that teach children how to read, and when they started to be multicultural. Here was one of the first revelations at Seven Stories, because they not only have a number of early reading texts in their book collection, they also have a collection of Ladybird Books, and I was able to look through them. Many people make fun of the Ladybirds (there have been several recent parodies, both official and unofficial) but I was surprised to find that even though Peter and Jane, the Ladybird Reading Scheme protagonists, live a boring, middle-class life, multicultural Britain is never far away.

Multiculturalism is everywhere in Britain (but mostly on trains)!  Illustrations by Martin Aitchison from the Ladybirds Boys and Girls and Where We Go.

Multiculturalism is everywhere in Britain (but mostly on trains)! Illustrations by Martin Aitchison from the Ladybirds Boys and Girls and Where We Go.

Multicultural Britain is also a part of the work of many of the authors in the archive. I recently gave a talk on (white South African-born) Beverley Naidoo, who wrote books about her home country’s apartheid regime, such as Journey to Jo’Burg, and then went on to write about Nigerian and Somalian refugees in Britain in her Carnegie medal-winning The Other Side of Truth. I was curious about what led her to write about these refugees, and found many supporting documents in the Seven Stories archive that allowed me to build up a picture of her long-term interest in the subject. I am looking forward to examining the archives of Bernard Ashley, author of The Trouble with Donovan Croft, and Michael Morpurgo, author of A Medal for Leroy, to learn more about their thought processes in writing and revising their books, and their publishers comments about them as well.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the archives for me at the moment, though, is their book collection, which provides a wealth of resources for building a picture of Britain as it changed over the course of the twentieth century. The book collection holds a number of magazines, story papers, comics, and annuals from Boys’ Own to Empire Annual to World of Wonder and Beano. These often overlooked resources can provide a snapshot of acceptable attitudes toward race and diversity over time. Golliwog figures have disappeared when once they were prevalent in the comics, for example. And stories about savages and cannibals were exchanged around the 1970s for non-fiction “tourist” style pieces about the islands of the Caribbean.

Spot the difference: two Puffins published a year apart, in 1963 and 1964.

Spot the difference: two Puffins published a year apart, in 1963 and 1964.

The book collection also includes Kaye Webb’s collection of Puffins. Kaye Webb, who was the longtime editor of Puffin, was the first major figure that Seven Stories “archived”—her papers are all there, a massively important collection that will serve researchers like me for years to come. But in the book collection, there is a visual sense of the way that publishing changed over the time of her tenure at Penguin (she was editor from 1961 to 1979) and beyond, for the archives include copies of more recent Puffins.

Seven Stories has journals for all kinds of researchers interested in children and their books.

Seven Stories has journals for all kinds of researchers interested in children and their books.

When I can tear myself away from the book collections, I have been reading through several years of Multicultural Teaching, the journal edited in the 1980s and 1990s by Gillian Klein. These were brought to my attention by Collections Officer Paula Wride, who had heard one of my lectures and thought they might be useful. They have, indeed! I am certain that several articles will find their way into my next lecture, on Stephen Lawrence, Mary Seacole, and the National Curriculum (November 18th in 152 Robinson Library, 5:30 pm, in case you happen to be in Newcastle next week). The book collections include many complete or near-complete runs of the major children’s literature journals from literary, education, publishing and librarianship perspectives. Although I’ve been in university libraries that hold several of these, it is rare to find so many—from so many different approaches—in one place.

I came to Seven Stories in September thinking that I would not find resources enough to keep me busy all year, but now I realize the wealth of information that can be gleaned about diversity in Britain from what they already have. With a dynamic staff who love and understand books and are thoughtful and celebratory of authors and researchers, I know that my year at the archive will leave me hoping to come back for more.

If you want to learn more about Seven Stories archives and/or arrange your own visit, you can visit their website’s Collections page: http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/collection/collection-highlights.