Tag Archives: carnival

A Global Post-Christmas Stroll


The cover of Walk this World at Christmastime, showcasing a global celebration.

Christmas is over, and today many people head back to work, a little dissipated and not quite ready for heavy intellectual thinking. I myself have a pile of work to get back to, but I’m not really eager to jump from mince pies and cranberry sauce to my promised chapter on police brutality in children’s books. So instead, I thought I’d take a look at a book that arrived in the Christmas Eve post by illustrator Debbie Powell, Walk this World at Christmastime (Candlewick 2015) and extend the holiday a bit more.


Powell’s books try to engage multiple senses, particularly touch.


Powell has previously produced (like many children’s book illustrators) greeting cards and illustrated maps, but her specialty is board books with special features (shiny trucks and animals, for example) and lift-the-flap books, books that encourage a child to interact with the material presented. The theory behind these books is that their multimodal nature will spark increased learning through tactile, as well as visual and/or auditory senses. Walk this World at Christmastime is no exception, being a “Christmas around the world” book that is primarily visual, but includes factual information (written, not by Powell, but by the uncredited—on the front cover—Zanna Davidson and Mary Sebog-Montefiore) behind the multiple flaps on each page. There are 25 numbered flaps (like an advent calendar), but each page also has several unnumbered flaps. The flaps, numbered or not, contain information about traditions in various parts of the world; many of the numbered flaps describe traditional gifts or food, particularly toys and sweets.


The book’s single Jewish family lives in America; there are none depicted in the Middle East.


These kind of books are always interesting to me for the stories that they tell, as well as the stories they don’t tell. European countries get four of the book’s double-page spreads, as much as Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America put together. The book begins with the US and Canada, the only double-page spread that nods to other traditions (Hanukah and Kwanzaa); the Middle East (represented by Lebanon and Iraq) is filled with Christians in this book, as are India and Pakistan. The page showing Chinese and Japanese traditions looks, except for the elephants and a couple in kimonos, curiously European (partly because China is represented by Hong Kong, long a British territory). Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are not mentioned in the book at all, even in the places where they are the dominant religions. I understand that the book is representing Christmas traditions, but Jewish people celebrating Hanukah are represented, so it seems odd to leave other traditions out.


Additionally, the fact that the Jewish people are in America is not incidental to the book. Although Walk this World mentions Christians on the Middle Eastern page, it mentions neither Jews nor, somewhat surprisingly, Bethlehem. And this brings me to another observation about this global stroll: it strives for a non-confrontational global harmony that only works if the reader is ignorant of the world. In addition to the absence of Bethlehem, I would highlight two countries that are present in the book, and the pictures that present an idealized picture of holiday reality.


Nigerians leaving towns and cities by the busload for “home” in the poor and rural areas of the country.


The first is Nigeria, which, like several other of the represented countries, is over half non-Christian in its population. Leaving that aside, and the likelihood that Christmas celebrations might be interrupted by insurgents in the north, the two-page spread highlights Calabar Carnival as one of the ways that Christmas is celebrated. The carnival, although it is held in December and includes some Christmas events (such as carol singing) is not actually a Christmas event. While many places around the world do have Christmas carnivals, including some in the Caribbean that are connected with a past history of slavery and rebellion, these are not highlighted (no Caribbean countries are represented in the book), and the Nigerian carnival is relatively new. According to tourist information sites, “Ever since its inception in 2005, the Calabar Carnival has grown from just a state festival to a national brand” (http://infoguidenigeria.com/calabar-carnival/), and the aims of the carnival are primarily revenue generation and job creation, rather than celebration of Christmas.


The Calabar Carnival, in Powell’s book, is part of the Christmas celebrations that take place in this rural Africa.

Even though Calabar is a city of more than 350,000 people, the picture in Walk this World associates it with the rural villages to which urban Nigerians “return” at Christmastime. Most of the global south is depicted as celebrating in the countryside villages and markets, while the global north celebrates in cities and shops. This is a common depiction of the world in “global” picture books written by people from the US or Europe, and it suggests to readers that the global economic status quo, where the global south does the best it can to imitate European traditions despite their lack of access to economic and technological power is both normal and desirable by all.


Anyone can be St. Lucia in Powell’s Sweden . . .


The other picture that stood out to me was from Sweden, showing girls “dressed in white” for a St Lucia day parade. The picture stood out to me for positive reasons, unlike the African pictures: because it is pleasantly inclusive, with Black girls as well as white girls are dressed as the saint symbolizing light in the dark of a Swedish December. Unfortunately, this is a harmony that doesn’t always exist in Sweden. A Swedish department store who depicted a dark-skinned boy dressed as St Lucia in an advert this year was forced to pull it after racist abuse was directed at the boy (http://www.thelocal.se/20161205/swedish-festive-ad-pulled-following-racist-abuse-of-child).


Screenshot of the boy the Swedish department store chose to be among its “Lucias”. Photo by Janerik Henriksson.

Powell’s book does a good job of depicting Europe and the US as racially mixed, but given this and the controversy about the Mall of America’s Black Santa that I wrote about a few weeks ago, it is not an image that white Americans and white Europeans accept as harmoniously as Powell presents it. Walk this World at Christmastime is a lovely book, and I can attest to the fact that pretty much everyone likes lifting flaps to find secrets no matter what their age . . . but “this world” of Powell’s creation is very different from the one we all have to live in.

And the Band Played On? The Steel Band, Carnival and Children’s Literature

Last week at Seven Stories’ archives I came across a book of poetry by Marian Lines with illustrations by the award-winning Charles Keeping. It stood out to me because of the pictures—which, though in Keeping’s distinctive style were, unusually, in the kind of garish colors that hurt one’s head after a while—but also because of the title: Tower Blocks (Franklin Watts, 1975).


The colors of Keeping’s illustrations prevent you from remembering the grim greyness of the post-war tower block.

I’d just recently seen the film version of J. G. Ballard’s novel, High Rise (which for those of you interested in the depiction of childhood, has some interesting portrayals of childhood and class), depicting a degenerating society living in a very 1970s cement tower block such as proliferated in Britain after World War II. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, tower blocks also regularly appeared in British children’s literature of the city, often symbolic of the poverty, isolation from nature, and social immobility of the working class (White and Black). Eric Allen’s The Latchkey Children (OUP, 1968) is one of these that I discuss in my book Soon Come Home to this Island: West Indians in British Children’s Literature; the tower block kids in the novel are trying to save a tree which is to be replaced with a cement railway to climb on instead.


So the vivid colors and depictions of movement (of people, transportation, rivers) of Keeping’s illustrations for Tower Blocks provided an unexpected contrast to my expectations. But the London that Keeping depicts is also remarkably monocultural. This may be partly due to the printing; crowd scenes and people on buses might include non-whites, but it is unclear. The only evident depiction of multicultural Britain is on a two-page spread with a poem about “Street Bands”. This poem contrasts a brass band made up of elderly white men (“the Old Retainers”) with a group of much younger Black men playing in a steel band. The way that Keeping has depicted the older men walking “off-stage” as it were while the majority of the younger men face the viewer of the illustration, and the poem’s labelling of the brass band players as “old retainers” suggests a changing of the guard, a new London that is not portrayed anywhere else in the book of poems. It’s a hopeful vision.

Unfortunately, the place where most Londoners would have seen a steel band (including Charles Keeping) would have been at the Notting Hill Carnival, and the very year after Tower Blocks was published, Notting Hill became a contested space. The carnival, which had moved to Nottting Hill (from the indoor celebration at St Pancras Town Hall initiated by Claudia Jones in 1959) in the early 1960s, became the site of a riot (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/30/newsid_2511000/2511059.stm) and was shut down early by police. As Alex Pascall put it in his poem, “We Ting,” “music stop, mas stop, road block, riot start/ Mr Speaker the year 1976 was Blue, Bottle and sticks”. Although Notting Hill Carnivals continued to take place every year on August Bank Holiday weekend, tension between police and carnival attendees continued throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. In children’s literature, books such as Nini at Carnival by Errol Lloyd (Bodley Head, 1978) depicted all-children carnivals in unspecified locations rather than the grown-up steel bands of Keeping’s illustrations.


Lloyd’s children are in a utopian setting–if you take the original meaning of utopia, that is, no place. They are surrounded by white space.

In the early 1990s, the idea of carnival and the steel band began to reappear in children’s books published in the UK, but these books—such as Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies (Macmillan, 1993)—were about carnival in Caribbean islands, not Notting Hill. It is not until after the turn of the twenty-first century when the Notting Hill Carnival is once again depicted as a vibrant and joyful part of British life. James Dunn and Helen Bate’s ABC UK gives the letter C over to carnival in an illustration that rivals Keeping’s for color vibrancy. Although the steel band is not present in the illustration, the section at the back that gives further detail about each letter says that carnival “is a noisy, colourful celebration of Anglo-Caribbean culture with costumes, calypso, soca, steelpan and sound systems” (n.p.).


Carnival is colorful again in Dunn and Bates’ ABC UK.

Any child interested in a more in-depth and serious discussion of the steel band would do well to look at The History of the Steel Band by Verna Wilkins and Michael La Rose, with illustrations by Lynne Willey (Tamarind, 2006). The book is for the most part about the history of the steel band in Trinidad, where it originated, but it starts and ends with Notting Hill. The photograph opposite the introduction is of the Nostalgia Steel Band at Notting Hill in 1998. And the final photograph in the book is of Sterling Betancourt and his steel band in 1963. Betancourt, according to Wilkins’ text, had played at the Festival of Britain as far back as 1951, and afterwards settled in the UK and taught steel pan to children and adults. The photo from 1963 has strong visual links with Keeping’s illustration—note the hats!—but with one difference: Betancourt and his band (all male, as in Keeping’s illustration) are joined in their parade by two children holding hands: one dressed up in costume, one not; one white, the other non-white. This image of an inclusive, community-based and ebullient event is at the heart of what carnival represents—and it is the sense of community and joy that will keep the steel band playing on long into the future.


Sterling Betancourt in Wilkins and La Rose’s History of the Steel Band.

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.