Tag Archives: Black British

Reality, Reflected? CLPE, and the Search for Statistics about BAME Children’s Publishing

When I was writing my first book, Soon Come Home to this Island: West Indians and British Children’s Literature (Routledge 2008), a number of people asked me if there was really all that much literature to write about.  Most could not name a single Black British author or character in a book for children, and if they could, it was because they had gone looking for Black British literature specifically either for their own children, or for children that they knew and/or taught.


When I wrote Soon Come Home, many people wondered if there were any West Indians in British Children’s Literature.

By the time I wrote my most recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmilan 2017), this situation had changed for the better somewhat; most (British) people that I asked could name a few authors (though they were less likely to be able to name characters, indicating something about the “classic” status, or lack thereof, of Black British children’s literature)—and my American family, friends and students, who had to listen to me banging on all the time could also name a few authors, despite the fact that Black British authors are seldom published in the US.  But nonetheless, I still found myself able to write in that later book, “Depressingly little has changed in British publishing over the last 50 years” (Children’s Publishing 184), and “Publishing is an industry which is self-reinforcing: books that ‘sell’ are books that serve the majority population in society, so these are the books that are published—but groups outside the majority population do not see themselves in books, so they do not buy these books, and then publishers can argue that certain groups ‘don’t read’ and therefore don’t require attention from the publishing industry” (185).  Obviously this formulation is something of an oversimplification, but it has been true for a long time that the publishing world did not mirror the real world when it came to children’s books.


By the time of Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, more people were aware of Black British authors–but they could count the ones they knew on a single hand.

Just how far apart the industry was from reality, however, was an unknown quantity.  The British publishing industry did not keep (or release) statistics about the diversity of either its authors and illustrators or the characters in its books.  No UK institution (government or academic) attempted to keep such statistics either, as far as I know.  But this is about to change.  This week, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published a press release.  It read in part:

“The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) has announced a pioneering new study into ethnic representation in children’s literature. The Reflecting Realities initiative will evaluate the extent and quality of ethnic representation in children’s publishing and will be the first ever survey of its kind in the UK.

The study will be produced alongside and complemented by research from BookTrust, who will publish a Representation research project focusing on the number of children’s titles created by authors and illus­trators of colour in the UK in recent years. Both surveys are funded by Arts Council England and aim to promote conversation and awareness around representation in children’s books. Findings for CLPE’s study, looking at books published in 2017, will be announced in July and followed by BookTrust’s report in Sep­tember.”

I’m very excited to be a part of the Reflecting Realities project.  CLPE’s Farrah Serroukh, who is directing the project, has put together an excellent team.  We come from a variety of disciplines—sociology, philosophy, education, literature—and organizations (including Letterbox Library and Amnesty International), so we bring different ideas, suggestions, and frameworks to the question of ethnic diversity and publishing for children.  But we all hope to move beyond a “numbers game” where a publisher can say, oh, I published a BAME author last year, so I don’t need to do it this year.  Or, I have an award-winning diverse author on my lists, so I don’t need to encourage and nurture new authors.  As Sita Brahmachari wrote in a tweet on hearing about the project, “The fissure between the children I visit in schools and representation in stories is a constant reminder to me of how that absence feels as a child & what impact it can have on opportunity.  Knowing, seeing & feeling it fuels my energy to imagine stories” (2/8/18).

Sita Brahmachari’s latest book, from Barrington Stoke, is part of a long list of books reflecting the different realities of BAME people in Britain.

In the Reflecting Realities project, we hope to fuel publishers’ energy to produce such books and celebrate the ways that publishers are trying to respond to the nation’s child reading population, through looking at the quality of ethnic representation, and not just the quantity.


Books like Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet were part of publishers’ efforts in the 1970s to produce more books that reflected the realities of British youth.

Reflecting Realities is based on a model from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, who publishes similar statistics on US children’s publishing and has done in some fashion since 1985.  The CCBC began keeping statistics because one of their librarians had judged a national prize for African-American authors and found that very few authors existed.  The CLPE Reflecting Realities project is somewhat different in origin, because it comes at a moment when many stakeholders—including publishers—have expressed a desire for change.  But—as those who were around to witness publishing efforts of the 1970s (Macmillan’s Nippers and Topliners series) and 1980s (Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Other Award plus multiculturalism in series such as Puffin’s Happy Families by the Ahlbergs), and on into the 1990s and 2000s well know, desire to participate in a trend is not enough.  Alison Flood’s article in the Guardian, “Ethnic Diversity in UK Children’s Books to be Examined” allowed CLPE director Farrah Serroukh to sum up both the positive and the negative: “Serroukh at the CLPE, a charity which works to support the teaching of literacy in primary schools, said that there was currently ‘a momentum across the industry calling for better representation’. ‘We want to contribute to that conversation and move it on,’ she said. ‘It’s great that the industry has been reflecting on this, but that’s only effective if it ultimately leads to change’” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/07/ethnic-diversity-uk-childrens-books-arts-council-england-representation).  No single person, publisher, or organization can change children’s publishing—but we are hoping to do our part to make the nation’s children’s literature better reflect the reality of its reading population.


To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part One

Last week, academic librarian and YA social justice activist Edi Campbell produced a list of milestones in American YA literature, beginning in 1965 with the founding of the Council for Interracial Books for Children (the CIBC) and ending (at the time of me writing this blog) with the 2017 establishment of the journal Research on Diversity in Youth Literature.  In between are a host of important book publications, special journal issues, awards, blogs and podcasts, many of which are linked within the document to websites.  You can find her list, 50 Years of Diversity in Young Adult Literature, here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PVuxIihW4_3gAab-CHT5W0RXH61F0HeD6ouy1yMFOac/edit.

Campbell’s list covers many different types of diversity (including racial, sexual, gender, and ability diversity) but Campbell did not want the list to be only useful to Americans.  She put out a call on Twitter for other scholars to add to the list, including—thanks for the shout-out, Edi!—me.  So what follows are some highlights for BAME Young Adult lit that I hope to add to her list (or at least run parallel with it).  I’ve started a bit earlier than Campbell’s 1965 point of origin, because the British pioneers in the field came in response to a changing Britain (particularly in response to the 1958 Notting Hill riots). It is heavily weighted to Afro-Caribbean authors/characters, because that is my specialty, but I have tried to widen the spectrum as well.  I’ve tried to indicate the author’s background where I can, and have stuck to authors who for at least part of their life lived and worked in the UK (thus, I’ve left off authors published in the UK like VS Reid and Rosa Guy).  Also, it’s important to note that Black Britons were referred to as “West Indians” if they (or their parents) were from the Caribbean until at least 1980, and that British Asians were often considered Black.  If you know of things that should be added to the list, please let me know—and add them to Campbell’s google document yourself.  A more extensive account of the importance of these texts can be found in my recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Children's Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 - Critical Approaches to Children's Literature (Hardback)

This week, I am publishing the timeline to 1980; this covers the period when Windrush generation writers began producing literature for the children of immigrants struggling to fit into and make sense of British society.  It also highlights the nascent and increasing political anger of the new Black Britons.  Next week, I’ll publish the timeline from 1981 onward.


Of course the teenager’s brother is part of the racist National Front–early teen soap opera where “race” is a factor.

1962: White British author Josephine Kamm publishes Out of Step (Heinemann), an early “problem” novel about a white teenager in love with a West Indian.

1963: The Newsom Report, also known as “Half Our Future,” focuses attention on secondary students in poor (“slum”) areas of Britain.  It is the first major education report to consider what was then called “coloured immigration.”

1964-1967: Andrew Salkey, the Windrush-era writer who had a prominent place in both the BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, and the Caribbean Artists Movement, becomes the first West Indian to publish children’s books with a major British publisher, his “disaster sequence” with Oxford University Press.

1966: New Beacon Books founded in London by Trinidadian activist John La Rose and his British partner Sarah White.  The publisher/bookstore would be a primary outlet for the Black British community.  Indian-born English writer, Morna Stuart, publishes Marassa and Midnight (Heinemann), about Haitian twins separated during the French Revolution.

1967: The Plowden Report argues that books in schools (both educational and mainstream) should be re-examined to root out “out of date attitudes toward foreigners, coloured people, and even coloured dolls” (London: HMSO, 1967: 71).

1968: Jessica and Eric Huntley start Bogle L’Ouverture Press, a Black British press that would publish poetry by Linton Kwesi Johnson and Valerie Bloom, and the later novels of Andrew Salkey.  In Birmingham, Enoch Powell suggests in his “Rivers of Blood” speech that if immigration—by which he meant “coloured” immigration—wasn’t stopped, blood would flow in the rivers of England.

1969: The George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester Black Supplementary Schools were started by John La Rose and others in the Finsbury Park area, although the schools were formally registered in 1973.  Supplementary schools, which originally started with the British Black Panthers in the mid-1960s, were designed to improve basic skills and teach Black history and culture to young Black Britons; the George Padmore school was specifically for young adults. (http://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/archive/collection/black-education-movement). This same year, the charity Book Trust secures Arts Council funding to allow it to develop new programmes for providing books to low-income families.

1971: University of Sussex doctoral student, Bernard Coard, publishes his pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (New Beacon/Bogle L’Ouverture).  In it, he called for Black literature for Black British children.

1972: Community publisher Centerprise, based in the Hackney area of London, publishes Hackney Half-Term Adventure and the poems of Viven Usherwood, a young West Indian boy; these two books, along with communist teacher Chris Searle’s edited collection of poetry from his multiracial classroom, Stepney Words, would sell over 20,000 copies by 1977.

1974: The National Association for Multiracial Education (NAME) is founded in Britain.  White British author Robert Leeson’s novel about slavery, Maroon Boy (Collins), is published. White British author Jean MacGibbon publishes Hal (Heinemann), a novel about a friendship between a white boy recovering from a long illness and a lively West Indian girl.  This book would win the Other Award in 1975.


The voice of a generation of disaffected Black British youth in the 1970s.

1975: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry collection, Dread Beat an’ Blood, is published by Bogle L’Ouverture.  The Children’s Rights Workshop, started by Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann, create the Other Award to recognize books celebrating gender, racial and economic diversity in children’s books.  Horace Ové’s film “Pressure,” about the struggles of second generation Black British youth, debuts.  Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys at Westcroft appears from Topliners.


Aidan Chambers, the editor of Macmillan’s imprint for teenagers Topliners, recruited Breinburg and Farrukh Dhondy to write for him.

1976: The Notting Hill Carnival erupts into riots when British police attempt to arrest a pickpocket.  Most of those subsequently arrested would be Black British teenagers.  British publisher Collins launches a prize for Multi-Ethnic Fiction; one of its early winners was Farrukh Dhondy for his collection, Come to Mecca—which includes a story based at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival.  Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet is published.  Black and Pakistani British youth make an unusual appearance in British fantasy, in Michael de Larrabeiti’s urban adventure Borribles trilogy, the first of which appears in 1976.

1978: Farrukh Dhondy’s Siege of Babylon is published in Macmillan’s Topliners series, a young adult series edited by Aidan Chambers.  White British author Jan Needle’s controversial My Mate Shofiq (Collins), about racism against Asian Britons in the north of England, is published.  The first in white British author Marjorie Darke’s historical series, The First of Midnight (Kestrel) appears; with the other books in the series, it follows Black Britons from the 18th century to the present. Rock Against Racism, an anti-fascist, punk and reggae music organization, attracts thousands of Black and White British youth to anti-racist causes.


Darke was one of the first British writers to trace Black History in Britain back through the 18th Century.

1979: The National Committee on Racism in Children’s Books begins publication of a journal, Dragon’s Teeth, to review and comment on multicultural children’s literature.  The journal is edited by Black British librarian Dorothy Kuya.  White British activist Rosemary Stones becomes editor for the Children’s Book Bulletin “for news of progressive moves in children’s literature”.  The first issue has criteria and guidelines for evaluating books for racist attitudes.  The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) produces Our Lives, a collection of stories (many autobiographical) of immigrant teenagers.  White Briton Tony Drake’s Playing it Right (Collins) depicts a multiracial middle school cricket team, including West Indian and Pakistani British players.

1980: The anti-colonial Communist publisher Liberation begins publishing books for children and young adults under the Young World imprint. Andrew Salkey publishes his only novel for young people set in England, Danny Jones (Bogle L’Ouverture); the climax takes place during Notting Hill Carnival.

Back to the Old Country, not Back to the Past: Black Britons Consider the Caribbean

It’s Black History Month in Britain.  While David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan 2016) traces the long and multifaceted history of Black people in Britain, many ordinary Black Britons, born in the country or not, are still faced with the question, “But where are you really from?” quite regularly.


Hallworth uses childhood rhymes and games, not to look back to the past, but to showcase a modern and multicultural Trinidad.  Illustration by Caroline Binch.

Some Black British authors are from “somewhere else” and celebrate that in their writing, not just as a nostalgic look at their own history, but as a way of providing Black British readers with a sense of community and tradition.  I’m currently working on a piece about Grace Hallworth, who is an excellent example of this kind of “looking back to look forward” in British literature.  Hallworth, born in Trinidad in the turbulent period between the two world wars, was educated in schools that valued the British example (in literature especially) as the pinnacle of culture.  But she also learned the folk stories, songs, and rhymes of the many cultures of Trinidad, European and African and Asian.  She came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation; now in her eighties, Hallworth has been in Britain longer than she lived in Trinidad, but she never forgot her roots.  As a librarian storyteller in Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Hallworth told those stories to children born in Britain (Black and white) and she eventually began to publish them.  Her books’ introductions often stress the value of multicultural communities to the production of folk culture; in Down by the River (Heinemann 1996), she writes, “As children sing and play and then pass on the songs and games of their childhood, we see a living example of the interrelationship of different cultures.  This is something for us all to appreciate and respect” (n.p.).  She is also careful to depict children singing the rhymes as part of a modern-day Caribbean; the rhymes may be old but the children who chant them are not stuck in the past.  Looking back to Trinidad, for Hallworth, is a way of celebrating the ever-changing nature of both the land of her birth and Britain.

Other Black British authors, however, are “really from” Britain.  Indeed, this is more and more the case, especially with authors of Caribbean ancestry; the Empire Windrush, after all, docked nearly 70 years ago now.  But the descendants of the Windrush generation, like many of the children of immigrants, grew up surrounded by their “home” culture of Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, and the other West Indian islands.  And those who became writers often “look back” to the Caribbean, even when they don’t consider themselves Caribbean.  The gaze of these authors is, however, not directed at the past in the same way as a writer like Hallworth.  Instead, authors such as Patrice Lawrence send characters to relatives who stayed “back home” and explore what the Caribbean is like in the present.


Lawrence’s Granny Ting Ting celebrates the good things about being British and being from the Caribbean.  Illustration by Adam Larkum.

Lawrence’s Granny Ting-Ting (A&C Black 2009) is an excellent example.  Lawrence, as the book’s “About the Author” section explains, is “Sussex-born, Hackney-living, from a Caribbean and Italian family” (77).  The book was part of A&C Black’s White Wolves reading series, “selected to match developing reading skills” (according to the back cover), and published in consultation with CLPE, the UK’s Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.  Granny Ting-Ting is one of the Year 5 level “Stories from Different Cultures”; but while the other advertised books Pratima Mitchell’s Bamba Beach and Andrew Fusek Peters’s Ever Clever Eva seem to be based around characters entirely from those “different cultures” (and I’ll admit I haven’t read either one, so if anyone has and I am mistaken about this, please do let me know), Lawrence’s book opens with the Trinidadian characters awaiting the arrival of visitors from London.  Michael, the cousin of Trinidadian Shayla, “was born in Trinidad, like Shayla, but moved to London when he was a baby” (8) and is now convinced that everything is better in London.  Lawrence’s narrative does not come to the opposite conclusion—that everything is better in Trinidad—but that each place has its benefits and drawbacks.  The important thing is learning to appreciate difference—and similarity.


Blackman’s Betsey has much in common with her British counterparts–except for the hurricanes and flying fish. Illustration by Lis Toft.

Malorie Blackman is also British-born, from Clapham, but she has been told to “go back where you came from” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/23/malorie-blackman-teen-young-adult-fiction-diversity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014).  She has also said that she wants to “write books that have black characters in them, but that had nothing to do with race” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/malorie-blackman-the-childrens-laureate-talks-writers-block-noel-gallagher-and-being-a-warlock-8942592.html).  This does not mean she doesn’t think about being Black, or having family that “came from” somewhere else, and like Lawrence she celebrates both in her books.  The Betsey Biggalow series from Mammoth present an exuberant girl character who gets into trouble and lives life to the full.  Although the illustrations and the books’ promotional material promote Betsey’s Blackness and Caribbean-ness, Blackman herself presents the books without fanfare.  Betsey is a girl who is both similar to and different from British girls.  She fights with her friends and her siblings, and likes milkshakes and trying on her mother’s makeup.  She also likes to eat flying fish, a specialty of the Caribbean, has to deal with hurricanes, and plays often on the beach near her house.  Neither Blackman nor Lawrence are writing about their own Caribbean past—nor indeed, the Caribbean past at all—but their books, as well as Hallworth’s, allow readers to connect to the history of their family without feeling like they are taking a backwards step, or worse—being forced back into the past.

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


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.

Many Happy Returns in a Book: Who gets to have a birthday in children’s lit?

Illustrations from Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, Illustrated by Elaine Mills.

Today is my birthday. I mention this because it is so completely normal (I have one every year!). And yet this normal ordinary thing is something that for a long time, at least in books, excluded many children. I think about my childhood reading—I (still!) know when Jo March’s, Anne Shirley’s, and Betsy Ray’s birthdays are. I read about numerous animals having birthdays, including Curious George, Little Bear, and Frances the Badger. Amelia Bedelia and Mister Muster had birthdays. But I never read about an African, an African-American, an American Indian, an Asian American or a Latinx child having a birthday when I was growing up. In fact, everything about birthdays, from cake toppers to birthday cards underscored the normality of being white.

Betsy Ray’s birthday in pictures by Lois Lenski, stories by Maud Hart Lovelace.

This privileging of whiteness that permeates the culture can seem innocuous because it is so apparently normal. But birthdays especially are connected with valuing individuals, celebrating and recognizing a person’s uniqueness and worth through gift-giving and the setting aside of time to honor that person. We take it for granted, but think about what it means to be sung to (really: how often does someone sing to YOU, sing ABOUT you?), fed your favorite foods made by someone just for you, given tributes through words and presents specially selected. Take a moment and think about all of that. Then think what it means to be perennially placed on the sidelines of such a celebration, to never feel like such an honor belongs to you?


Not everyone gets to be A Little Princess on her birthday.

Historically, British children’s literature did not really recognize other-than-white people as having birthdays. Sarah Crewe had a giant birthday party at Miss Minchin’s, and even Becky, the child-maid who was one step away from starving in the streets gave her a birthday present. But would anyone find out when Ram Dass’s birthday was? Not in the book, anyway. Often, characters meant to represent Black people (such as the Golliwog—a much more common figure in British children’s literature throughout the first half of the 20th century than actual Black people) were not only NOT being celebrated, they were the entertainment. This “Golly” character from a paperboard shape book (and if anyone can date this for me, I’d be grateful; there are some things that the British Library just does not count as “books”) is the juggler, tightrope walker AND the magician at the Panda’s party—but he still brings a gift as well.


Everyone else is a guest at the party, but Golly must earn his place by performing.

The lack of birthday representation for Black British children was one of the specific absences that Verna Wilkins set out to redress when she created her first books for Tamarind Press in the late 1980s. Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book was designed as an early reader for schools, which originally came with a triangular number puzzle and a set of story sequence cards. But though early literacy and numeracy was important to Wilkins, equally important was presenting Black British children enjoying the same privileges and celebrations as their white British counterparts. In Wilkins’ book, “normal” includes being the birthday princess, but also receiving birthday cards with Black people on them.


Wilkins’ Finished Being Four, illustrated by Claire Pound, also has the traditional British birthday feast.

A similar ethos guides her later book, Finished Being Four (1992), a trade picture book about four children in a class who share birthdays in the same week and so also share a party. The birthday feast is full of traditional British party food, including cocktail sausages, quiche, jelly, jam tarts and swiss roll—as well as a birthday cake, of course. Some criticized Wilkins for erasing cultural references (in Finished Being Four one of the mothers wears a sari but there are no Indian sweets on the birthday table, and no indication that any culture celebrates birthdays any differently than the British) but for Wilkins, at least when she began, having Black characters experience the same birthday celebrations as white characters was part of the point.


Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus has lost his dreadlocks in Marcellus’ Birthday Cake. Illustrations by Petra Rohr-Rouendaal.

Other British children’s books published during the early nineties similarly used a birthday celebration to emphasize the normality of Black British existence. Interestingly, Lorraine Simeon’s sequel to Marcellus, a book about a boy with dreadlocks who is afraid he’ll be made fun of at school, is Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, where the title character attempts to make his own birthday cake. While Marcellus depicts a potential outsider gaining acceptance despite his difference in appearance, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake does not even hint at Marcellus being an outsider—he has even lost his locks. It is hard to tell if this is what Simeon intended (she did not illustrate either book, and both of my editions were published in America, so perhaps the British editions are different). Nonetheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that Simeon’s birthday book has an almost-studied “normality” about it.


The birthday feast in Jennifer Northway’s Lucy’s Quarrel is the same as ever, but the birthday cake is unique.

Jennifer Northway’s Lucy books are really Lucy and Alice books, because they tell about the often quarrelsome, often loving relationship between Lucy and her cousin Alice. But the books are titled after Lucy, who has a Black British mother and a white British father, rather than white British Alice. Nonetheless, Lucy’s life as depicted in Lucy’s Quarrel is remarkably similar to her cousin’s; both live in middle-class houses, go to ballet class, attend the same school, and go to the fun fair. Lucy’s birthday cake is the sole distinguishing feature about her party that reminds the reader of her Black British heritage. Unlike the plain cakes depicted in all the other Black British books, Lucy has a ballerina cake (I had one of these when I was four too), and the ballerina is brown.

There is a tension in picture books depicting Black British child birthdays; on the one hand, authors are deliberately representing and making central the characters who were formerly either invisible or on the sidelines at birthday parties. On the other hand, other than their brown skin, these characters often have little to mark them out from white British characters. We all should be allowed to have a happy birthday—and see people like us in books doing the same—but do we really all have to have the same kind of birthday to be seen as “normal”?

A Valentine to Black Britain: British Children’s Poets Namecheck their History

My blogs lately have been very serious, so in honor of the holiday, I thought I’d do something just a little lighter—though still with a serious purpose. Because (as my daughter can tell you), there are no days off for learning. This habit of tireless education comes from my dad, who Knows Everything. If there is a quiz on a walking tour, or Final Jeopardy comes on, or you were wondering what the lyrics were to a 19th Century folk song, just ask my dad. This broad-based, encyclopedic knowledge in the person of my father is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, growing up in the days before the internet, I didn’t need to worry about the library being open to finish my homework. On the other hand, after I reached the mature age of, say, eight or so, I began to suspect that if I didn’t know everything too, there might be something wrong with me. “How do you get to know so much?” I would ask. His answer was usually, “Good liberal arts education.” I had no idea what that meant.


My dad and Diego Rivera taught me that art IS history.

What he meant, he practiced. My dad supplemented my education by taking us to jazz concerts, black and white movies, the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Kellogg Cereal Factory (okay, any factory he could get us into), and through countless houses old (describing their architectural features) and new (describing their shoddy construction and shortcuts). I learned to suck up this knowledge. In school, and with my dad, you never knew: there may be a quiz.

But through this eclectic mix of educational field trips, I also learned that subject matter was not isolated, and that you could contain more knowledge if you lived it, sang it, saw it, ate it. So part of my Civil Rights history came from listening to Motown; my knowledge about Cesar Chavez from school was reinforced when we stopped buying grapes at home. The art museum and the cereal factory did not have to be worlds apart. Paul Robeson was not just a singer.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to get these multiple levels of learning in small packages is through what Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news”: literature. Black British poets, particularly, have long been interested in conveying more than just the music and rhythm of words. Many of them have tried, through their children’s poetry, to teach a specific history, a history not taught in most history books: Black British history. They do this in many ways, but John Agard, Valerie Bloom, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah all have poems that reference a specific history: they all write about other Black British and Caribbean literary characters and authors, and they do it in a way that integrates with other cultural and literary histories.


Bloom’s poetry starts with the familiar, and gives readers some history to wonder about.

Many Caribbean and Black British authors write about Anansi, for example. The trickster spider whose tales originally came from West African mythologies and have been changed and modified to fit first Caribbean and then Black British situations is a popular way of introducing young children to their cultural roots. But both Zephaniah and Bloom use the familiar figure of Anansi to link with other figures connected to Caribbean history. Bloom, in “Tell Me a Story” (Let me Touch the Sky Macmillan 2001) has her poem’s speaker ask for stories from her grandmother. “Tell me a story please, Granny,/ ‘Bout Anancy and Tacoma” (64) the poem begins. But it ends with another, lesser known trickster—a real-life escaped slave who went on to lead the Maroons in raids against the British, Jack Manson. “Tell me a story, please, Granny/ Tell me ‘bout t’ree finger Jack” (64). Bloom’s poem does not explain Three-Fingered Jack’s story, but instead encourages the reader to find it out.


Zephaniah’s world links history and music, Anansi and Marley.

Zephaniah’s poem, “Everyone’s Friend” (Wicked World Puffin 2000) connects Anansi with Jamaica’s most famous singer ever, Bob Marley. The poem, a commentary on the cult of celebrity, argues that everyone now claims to have been a close personal friend of Marley, even “A smart spider known as Anansi” (32) and “Freedom fighters called Maroons” (32). Even though Zephaniah’s name-checking is ironic, since both Anansi and the Maroons existed long before Bob Marley’s rise to fame, his use of these two groups is not accidental. In using these figures in his poem, Zephaniah is linking Marley’s music to the history of resistance to oppression that both Anansi (as a trickster figure) and the Maroons represent.


John Agard wants the name Mary Seacole to be as familiar to children as nursery rhymes.

Both John Agard and Grace Nichols introduce specific Caribbean authors to their readers through their poetry. Agard, in his popular poem, “Checking Out Me History” (Half-Caste and Other Poems Hodder 2004), highlights the deficits of a British education that teaches “bout ole King Cole” (61) but “never tell me bout Mary Seacole” (61), the Jamaican nurse who wrote her autobiography about her experiences nursing in the same war as Florence Nightingale. Like Zephaniah’s and Bloom’s poems, Agard’s encourages readers to use poetry as a starting point for learning, and reading, more.


Grace Nichols’ valentine to Sam Selvon–and her child readers.  Illustration by Kim Harley.

The Grace Nichols poem that I want to end with is the most indirect “name-checking” of all these poems, and the child reader might take years to make the connection. “‘Summer is Hearts,’ says Sammy Selvon” (Give Yourself a Hug Puffin 1996) is a direct reference to the novelist Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and its most famous passage, the ten-page stream of consciousness about the brief joys of an English summer for West Indian immigrants. Selvon’s “summer is hearts” passage could not be read to children; it is full of sexual exploits. Nichols’ poem distills the emotions from Selvon’s novel into two-word lines, including (perhaps referencing the sexuality) “folks bolder” (23). In Nichols’ poem, Sammy Selvon is a boy, not a man, not a writer—but a boy who will one day become both. The poem plants seeds of knowledge about history (Sammy Selvon may ring a faraway bell when a child grows up and sees a book in a bookstore) and about literature (made up of words that describe the beauty of being alive). For Nichols, as for the other poets I mention here, poetry is a way to tell the history that they love and they want readers to embrace.

Words of Danger, Words of Power: Radical Bookstores and Children


One of the longest-running Black British bookshops, started by John La Rose; the George Padmore archive is above the shop.

I have a collection of about 1000 children’s books specifically related to the Caribbean and Black Britain. They date back to the 1700s, but the bulk of them come from the twentieth century. This collection started when I discovered the radical Black bookstore, New Beacon, in London. New Beacon opened in 1966, and their children’s collection included both new books and impossible-to-find-anywhere-else books, pamphlets, educational texts, posters that they had offered for sale since the early seventies. Many of the items had been available for Black British supplementary schools, after-school or Saturday programming that aimed to solidify necessary skills as well as teach the history and literature that the mainstream British schools ignored. I could find anything here, from a 1971 poetry anthology to introduce secondary school students to poets like Martin Carter, Edward Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, to a Black History poster from around 2010 highlighting famous (and not-famous-enough) Black Britons. The major chain bookstores in Britain often kept new Black British titles only a few months at most, and even they usually only stocked such titles in London or Birmingham. If I had been out of the country when a book first appeared, I knew I would have to get to New Beacon. I spent tens of hours and hundreds of pounds there from the time I discovered it in the late 1990s.


I bought AN Forde’s 1971 anthology of (mostly Black Caribbean) poets at New Beacon for two pounds, sixty-nine pence.

By that time, New Beacon was one of the last remaining Black British bookstores in London. During the 1970s, New Beacon was one of many Black and radical community bookstores; others included Bogle L’Ouverture Press founders Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Walter Rodney Bookshop, Centerprise in Hackney, and the Peckham Publishing Project. All of these sold children’s books designed specifically to connect African, Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, and Black British children to their roots. Often, the bookshops encouraged radical activity, particularly with the rise of the National Front in the 1970s. Bookshop owners John La Rose and the Huntleys, for example, organized marches against the police after the New Cross Fire. The community bookshops published books from members of their community. Centerprise published the poems of Hackney schoolchildren, and Peckham Publishing Project produced (among other books) Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, a book about a child with dreadlocks that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. In a hostile climate, Black British and radical community bookstores were safe havens where children could learn about their own history, culture, and place in British society.


Young Black Britons might know Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah, but this poster I bought at New Beacon also introduces them to the first Black Briton to write his life story, Briton Hammon.

The tradition of the Radical Black Bookstore is not, of course, just a British one. Recently I came across a children’s book that celebrates the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda 2015) is Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s tribute to her great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who started the bookshop in the 1930s. The bookstore’s exuberant façade is captured in pictures by R. Gregory Christie, in which it is clear that Lewis Michaux was influenced by thinkers such as Marcus Garvey. His bookstore influenced others as well, both the ordinary reader and the famous, and Micheaux Nelson discusses visits by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. And through the viewpoint of the young son of the bookshop’s owner, Micheaux explains both the history of oppression of the African-American community and the need for African-American-specific bookstores. The young narrator tells a story familiar to anyone connected with books and the Black community: “When Dad went to a bank to borrow money to open a bookstore for black people, the banker said no. He said Dad could have a loan to sell fish and chips or fried chicken, but not books. The banker told him, ‘Black people don’t read’” (n.p.)


Black Bookstores do so much more than scratch a book itch, as Micheaux Nelson’s book attests.

The banker might have told Michaux that some in white society prefer it when Black people don’t read. When Michaux finally gets his bookstore, his son comments that every time he looks out the store window, “There are some squad cars . . . Dad jokes, ‘Anytime more than three black people congregate, the police get nervous’” (n.p.). Michaux’s experience of the suspicion of white society is mirrored in other Black bookstore owners; the Huntleys’ Walter Rodney Bookshop, for example, was regularly sprayed with racist graffiti, and according to Margaret Andrews, “Racist material including National Front literature and animal excrement were pushed through the letterbox” (Doing Nothing is Not an Option 137). But despite the surveillance and the racist attacks, Black bookstores in the US and the UK stayed open through some dark periods in history because, as The Book Itch concludes, “WORDS. That’s why people need our bookstore” (n.p.).

Michaux’s bookstore closed in 1975, according to his great-niece. “In 1968, the area of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was chosen for construction of a new state office building. Some felt that officials had purposely targeted this site to disrupt bookstore activities. Lewis was forced to relocate his store . . . It remained open for several years until Lewis received notice from the state that he was being evicted”. Washington DC’s Black bookshop, Drum and Spear, had closed a year before Michaux’s. The Walter Rodney Bookshop hung on until 1990, by which time rental costs in London had begun their sharp climb upwards, and years of the Thatcher government had reduced funding for multicultural initiatives.


R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations make it clear that Lewis Michaux had no intention of hiding his radical ideas, even when the police were right around the corner.

John La Rose’s New Beacon bookshop made it until their fiftieth anniversary, but now they too have closed their bookshop doors (they continue to maintain the George Padmore Institute Archives on the bookshop site, 76 Stroud Green Road—and it’s a vital archive of post-Windrush Black British history). For decades, the Black bookstore has provided history, culture and radical politics to populations that often have nowhere else to go to access these things. As we enter a new political era, I would argue that these spaces are more needed than ever. If you have a Black, radical, or community bookshop near you, no matter what your own background, go patronize it today. That bookshop’s existence may save the life of or provide the support for a young reader who will grow up to challenge our increasingly unequal society.