Tag Archives: Calypso

Decolonizing Children’s Literature

This week, (another) row erupted over Oxbridge’s university curriculum, but this one hit the front pages of the Telegraph and Mail in a particularly disturbing way.  The Telegraph had a photograph of Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge’s student union, with the headline, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/25/decolonise-cambridge-university-row-attack-students-colour-lola-olufemi-curriculums).  To be honest, when I first read it, I laughed; the day that a BAME woman “forces” Oxbridge to do anything will be the day that Queen Elizabeth will hand over her crown to Paddington Bear.  But these papers (I have a hard time attaching the word “news” to them) do not believe what they are printing either; it is a good headline that fuels the hate and suspicion of “foreigners” trying to “destroy our way of life”.  In fact, the letter signed by Olufemi—and about 100 other students, by the way—did not call for the dropping of white authors, but the inclusion of marginalized authors.  A similar “threat” was, according to Sky News, posed by Malorie Blackman when she called for more diversity in children’s books.  Sky reported her comments, erroneously, as children’s literature having “too many white faces” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/26/malorie-blackman-racist-abuse-diversity-childrens-books). Blackman faced a volley of racist abuse on Twitter following the Sky report, which is of course ridiculous—since Blackman’s own work often references “canonical” literature, such as that sort-of-famous writer William Shakespeare.


The Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which they promoted as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

Why is it that literature is such a focus of fear when it comes to decolonization?  Music has always been open to crossover influences.  In Britain’s relatively recent history, music has even been a catalyst for societal change.  In the 1950s, calypso musicians helped London clubbers cross racial lines (see http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/uncategorized/co-existence-through-calypsos-and-cockney-cabaret/ for a discussion of this, with a link to a British Pathé newsreel of one such event).  White jazz artists and Black calypsonians learned from each other. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk and reggae artists united to fight the National Front in the organization Rock Against Racism; the Clash began incorporating reggae influence into their music and no one worried that British punk would collapse.  Literature, like music, involves dialogues with other works of art and with society at large.  New books do not replace old books, they expand our understanding of life.  More is more, not less.


Members of the Clash and Steel Pulse did not think twice about decolonizing music.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest some ways that books by white Britons, often canonical, can be introduced to readers in tandem with BAME writers in order to illuminate both—and more importantly, to light up the minds of young readers.  The first comparison I’ll suggest is one that I stole from Lissa Paul, who in Beverly Lyon Clark’s and Margaret Higgonet’s Girls, Boys, Books, Toys suggests pairing Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with Grace Nichols’ Come on into my Tropical Garden (A&C Black, 1988).  This works nicely, but then, most of Nichols’ collections can be thought about sitting comfortably alongside canonical British poets, as Nichols was of the Caribbean generation brought up reading Wordsworth and others—particularly the romantics and Victorians.  Nichols’ poems can also be used to give depth to a study of art—but that is another story (or painting).

The picture book canon in Britain might also be radically revisioned by looking at BAME authors.  I am a great advocate for teaching young readers the politics of ABC books, for example.  “A” is only for apple in certain parts of the world, as putting Brian Wildsmith’s beautiful ABC book from 1962 next to Valerie Bloom’s Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo (Bogle L’Ouverture, 1999) will instantly reveal.  That doesn’t make Wildsmith’s apple any less beautiful—but it does allow young people to think more flexibly about what language (and not just letters) are for.

Google Image Result for http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-wYLqa-RER20/TrCax2FX3iI/AAAAAAAAByk/BLXotVLZZkw/s1600/Brian%2BWildsmith%2BA.jpg


A is for Apple–or Ackee. Illustrations by Brian Wildsmith (apple) and Kim Harley (ackee).

One of my favorite books growing up was Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and of course this can be discussed with any of the many refugee books that have appeared about characters from Africa or the Middle East in recent years.  A book such as Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (Bloomsbury, 2001) shares some similarities with Kerr’s book, but has key differences too.  Having kids think about the difference between being a refugee family and being a refugee on your own, for example, can help them think about what it means to belong, and what helps a person cope with trauma.

The “desert island adventure story” has not really been the same in Britain since William Golding’s dreary, dystopic 1954 Lord of the Flies, a re-imagining of Ballantyne’s 1858 Coral Island (itself a “boys’ version” of Robinson Crusoe).  LOTF is a text that can stimulate discussion about community, leadership, gangs, bullying and violence.  So too is Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom, 2016); and Crongton can be seen as an “island” in the midst of London, since most of the main characters never leave its confines.  Does Wheatle’s book present an urban dystopia similar to Golding’s dystopian island?  Or do the Crongton boys have skills, resources, values and attitudes that help them survive better than Golding’s post-war public school boys?  Or both?


Perhaps she’s looking so grumpy because she’s about to be decolonized . . .

But books do not have to be of the same genre to be compared.  Take Alice in Wonderland—you can’t get more canonical than that—and think about Alice, a girl in a world that makes no sense to her, where the rules seem arbitrary and designed to threaten everyone in general but her in particular.  Even if you don’t discuss the commentary on Victorian society that is highlighted through John Tenniel’s illustration, you can still compare Alice’s situation with a character such as Mary Wilcox in The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Penguin 2015).  Both girls face threats to their own existence and both survive through refusing to accept society’s arbitrary rules.  Maybe it’s time we stop applying our own arbitrary rules to literature, and start decolonizing our minds.

This is London? The ABCs of Diversity

In the last few years, a number of picture books have appeared that purport to give an introduction to the city of London. London is both a global and a very local city; a city of vast wealth and incredible poverty; a tourist city and a place that many groups with their origins elsewhere call home. I was interested in the ways that picture books did, or did not, capture the diversity of London—and what kind of city they presented to children.

I started thinking about London’s image when preparing a lecture on alphabet books for my children’s literature students. Elsewhere I have written about imperialist alphabet books for children from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, books such as Mrs. Ernest Ames’ An ABC for Baby Patriots (1899–but it was republished in 2010) which depicts African kings “subdued” by Britain “because they’d been naughty.” It was because of that book that I purchased a copy of Christopher Brown’s An Alphabet of London (2012) recently. The book is a dual audience book, which in this case means “design majors” and “children of university professors,” because it is not a children’s ABC book in the traditional sense. It comes with a foreword (about living in London) and an afterword (about creating linocuts) that are almost as long as the alphabet itself. Still, the back cover blurb made the bold claim of “more than 200 superb images showing every aspect of London past and present” so I thought it might prove an antidote to the alphabets of imperialist Britain.

As a children’s literature professor, it was pleasant to see the letter P and find both Paddington and Poppins (as in Mary) represented, but another P, Peter Pan, was nowhere to be seen. I mention this because An Alphabet of London could never live up to its back cover blurb, of course. Still, I must say it was disappointing to find that “every aspect of London past and present” did not include a single Black face. I checked under W for West Indian, N for Notting Hill Carnival, O for Olaudah Equiano, even K for Lord Kitchener, calypso-ing off the Empire Windrush, all to no avail.

Ice skating Indian and "the Jewish community" in the corner of Brown's Alphabet.

Ice skating Indian and “the Jewish community” in the corner of Brown’s Alphabet.

To be fair, there is some diversity represented in An Alphabet of London. The letter I has an (inexplicably) ice skating Indian and J represents the “Jewish community” by a gentleman who looks vaguely like a Turkish sultan. Both of these are corner illustrations and they are far from depicting diversity as normal or non-exoticized. The letter M is the only one to give the main illustration to a diverse group; it shows the East London Mosque with some Muslims outside of it. But given that according to the 2011 census, just over 13% of Londoners identified themselves as Black (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/blog/2012/dec/11/census-data-released-live-coverage#block-50c71da495cbcfe457e3dbef) their absence in Brown’s book is surprising.

Or perhaps not. London has been represented as populated by white people only for a long time. The Ladybird Book of London (1961) has few clearly visible people, as its focus is mainly on the massiveness of British monuments and technology. But St. James Park, the British Museum, and the zoo are not visited by non-white tourists or school groups. In Roxie Munro’s The Inside Outside Book of London (1989), buses, trains, and the crowds around the Queen’s parade show no diversity either. Both the 1960s and 1980s were time periods when the Black British population was growing and very much in the news, and yet popular forms of culture tended to ignore them.

The Ladybird version of London (illustrator John Berry)

The Ladybird version of London (illustrator John Berry)

Roxie Munro's insider London

Roxie Munro’s insider London

Yet there are exceptions in picture books about London where diversity is present as an ordinary aspect of everyday London. In the early days of the Windrush generation, it took an outsider to see Black British people (at least in mainstream picture books offering a tourist vision of the city). Czech-born illustrator Miroslav Sasek published This is London in 1959, the year after the Notting Hill Riot. His book, like the others discussed here, had all the expected tourist destinations. But it also showed London as vibrant and diverse, with non-white people living and working happily in the city. More recently, Salvatore Rubbino, who lives in the city, published an equally diverse introduction, A Walk in London (2011); this book is the first of the genre that I’ve seen to show a Black Londoner in suit-and-tie, on a cell phone and presumably on the way to the office. These depictions are very different from Brown’s, who even in his few instances of diverse illustration emphasizes the exotic rather than the ordinary.

London from Sasek’s outsider perspective.

Rubbino's Black Britons are just part of the scenery

Rubbino’s Black Briton is just part of the scenery

How London looks matters to Brits and non-Brits alike. Cultural production helps people understand what the people of that place value and want to embrace. Just within the last two weeks in London, the television soap “Eastenders” has been criticized—again—for not representing the ethnic diversity of the city, and students at UCL and LSE have wondered “Why is my curriculum white?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dscx4h2l-Pk&feature=youtu.be). The critics of all-white London cultural production point out that by leaving out minority groups, whiteness becomes ever more normalized. The more representations people—children—get of an all-white London, the more likely they are to believe that’s the way that London was, is, and ever shall be. People who don’t fit the vision of a “normal Briton” feel invisible and unwelcome in society. Christopher Brown’s An Alphabet of London cannot be responsible for representing every member of society. But picture books, which are often a child’s first encompassing vision of a place or group of people, deliver critical messages about diversity. As adults, we should care which London our children see.

Calypso in London

Nearly twenty years ago, writing my PhD thesis in Cardiff, Wales, I had a look at Michael Bond’s Paddington books and concluded that Paddington, a foreigner and an illegal immigrant to Britain, sacrifices everything from his past to achieve a desired kinship with Britain.  He gives up his homeland, his language, and even his name (trading it for the name of a railway station, the ultimate symbol of British imperial progress).  The British Empire, which once ruled over a quarter of the world’s population, was by 1958 (the year A Bear Called Paddington was published) officially a dying entity.  More and more former colonies were becoming independent nations. But in children’s books, I argued, the Empire was not only alive, it was revered.

What I did not know then was that Paddington’s journey was one followed by thousands of people from the British Empire (and, in some cases, former Empire) to the “Motherland” with the same sense of hope and reverence for all things British.  During the 1950s and early 1960s, before an anti-immigration backlash by members of Parliament such as Enoch Powell, people from the British West Indies flocked to London in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families.  Many found themselves in a love-hate relationship with the metropole, as they worked long hours at low-paying, undesirable jobs while the promise of a better life dangled always just out of reach.  Some, like my mother-in-law, worked those hours and hoped for a better, and typically British, life for their children.  Others used their perceived exoticism to succeed and thrive on their own terms.

West Indians arriving in London looking for acceptance often faced the opposite, as doors to housing and jobs were shut in their faces.

The novelist Sam Selvon, originally from Trinidad, was one of the West Indians who came to London, and he chronicled the lives of West Indians in the capital, the hard-workers and the tricksters.  Selvon’s work was popular in the West Indian community in London and throughout the Caribbean, and was often used in school reading anthologies.  Clive Borely’s Breakthrough reading series, for example, includes an excerpt from Selvon’s Ways of Sunlight, entitled “Calypso in London.”  In it, a former Trinidadian oil-rig worker tries to become a Calypsonian like his friend because this is the way to “make money and come rich” (120).  He writes about losing his London job, but his friend mistakes the lyric as being about Trinidad: “It had a time in this country/ When everybody happy excepting me/ I can’t get a work no matter how I try/ It looks as if hard times riding me high” (120).  His friend tells him the only way to succeed is not to write about Trinidad, but about the Suez crisis, negating both their past in Trinidad and their present experience in London.  Londoners, Selvon implies, only want to hear about foreigners as long as they stay foreign.  Or, in Paddington’s case, as long as they learn to be British (no matter how comic the results of a foreigner trying to be British might be).

Selvon's West Indians discussing calypso in a tailor shop--like the one in which real-life calypsonian King Timothy worked.  Illustrator Jennifer Northway.

Selvon’s West Indians discussing calypso in a tailor shop–like the one in which real-life calypsonian King Timothy worked. Illustrator Jennifer Northway.

Given all this as background, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Calypso band used as Greek chorus in the new “Paddington” movie.  Director Paul King, interviewed by BBC arts reporter Tim Masters (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-30196290), said that he made a connection between Paddington’s journey and West Indians when his wife introduced him to calypso: “This is the music being made in the place where these books were written, by people who arrived on these shores” in much the same way Paddington did.  He goes on to say that his discovery, “felt like such a glorious gift – they are really upbeat positive songs – for the most part – all about that experience.”  And the music in the movie mirrors Paddington’s encounters in London: when he first arrives, for example, the calypso band appears on the streets of London and plays Lord Kitchener’s famous arrival-from-the-West Indies-tune, “London is the Place for Me.”

But actually only two of the songs played by the band D Lime (a group of four calypsonians featuring Tobago Crusoe created specifically for King’s film) are “all about that experience” of coming to London, Kitchener’s tune and King Timothy’s bebop-inspired “Gerrard Street” (which includes a mix of nationalities dancing together and “going crazy” for jazz).  The other two songs in the film were written and performed by people who never came to London at all.  “Savito” is credited to the most successful female record producer in Jamaica, Sonia Pottinger, and was most famously performed by the Heptones, a Jamaican rocksteady and ska band, in the late 1960s.  The final song is the exception to King’s description of calypso as upbeat and positive; it is “Blow Wind Blow” by Lionel Belasco.  Belasco, born in Trinidad, made his first record in 1914, was best-known for performing for high society in New York and Venezuela in the 1920s and 1930s.  Belasco’s tune sounds downbeat and negative, but like most calypso tunes, the surface message often masks another; one line in “Blow Wind Blow” has the down-but-not-out speaker guaranteeing that he will soon be “Trampling ten thousand enemy”.

By assuming that all these songs describe the experience of foreigners in London, King both misses and makes his point that calypso—like Paddington—belongs in London.  In truth, the various musical styles and musicians that came out of the Caribbean during the twentieth century are, like Paddington in both book and film, products of a British (not to mention other European and American) Empire(s) that explored, exploited, and abandoned the region to its fate, after firmly implanting the idea that civilization was at its height wherever the British could be found.  Darkest Peru was never, of course, part of the British Empire, but the movie shows a pith-helmeted Brit exploring the region, leaving behind his hat as a symbol of civilization that Aunt Lucy and Paddington long to fully embrace by going to London.  Paddington and D Lime stand out in London, appearing to disorient the British public.  Although this British public never fully understands the “foreigners,” it is encouraging that (unlike in Selvon’s novels) the foreigners are accepted, even embraced, and calypso in London is no longer an anomaly.

Hand-in-hand: foreign-born Paddington and British-born Judy Brown.  Illustrator Peggy Fortnum.

Hand-in-hand: foreign-born Paddington and British-born Judy Brown. Illustrator Peggy Fortnum.