Tag Archives: Elizabeth Laird

Able to Participate: Disability and Race in British Children’s Books

This fall, when I participated in a daylong symposium at Amnesty International UK on children’s books and human rights, the author Alex Wheatle spoke about how he pitched a book to a children’s publisher about a Black British boy growing up in a care home; the publisher worried that there were too many issues to the book.  In other words, a kid can’t be in a care home AND Black AND in a children’s book.  Being Black, for many children’s publishers (even now) is “problem” enough.  The idea that not being white is a problem in British society is also likely to be one of the reasons that the CLPE Reflecting Realities report found that only one of the books with BAME representation could be classified as a “comedy”; if you are a problem, you, and your life, can’t be funny.  For years, it was seen as a generous, liberal white attitude to suggest—as one character does in Josephine Kamm’s 1962 Out of Step—that “there’s nothing wrong in being a West Indian or an African or an Indian.  They’re every bit as good as we are; they look different, that’s all there is to it” (20).  To argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with being yourself suggests that someone else thinks that there is.

Out of Step

And yet—as the Amnesty symposium emphasized—children have the right to be represented in all aspects of society, including children’s books.  And that means all children, including those who are experiencing either a temporary or permanent disability.  The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has, as its fifth point, “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf). Special education and care should not mean isolating the child and making them feel “othered”, but helping them find ways to participate in society.  British children’s literature has made great strides in the last few years in depicting disabilities in a broad spectrum of books, including the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner, One, by Sarah Crossan about conjoined twins.  But it is unusual to find a main character of colour in a British children’s book who is also disabled—too many “problems” for one book!

The issue is not just academic, or a fictional scenario.  Amelia Hill, writing for the Guardian, highlights the case of two disabled children that the Home Office is trying to deport to Pakistan despite the children being born in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/12/home-office-disabled-children-leave-country). Disabled children often suffer discrimination; disabled children of colour can experience a double discrimination due to racist attitudes that a person’s “race” is a problem.  And being a person of colour doesn’t necessarily mean you are more sensitive to the “problem” of disability–most people need to learn to look for ability and strength in disabled people rather than othering them.


Brahmachari’s main character, Laila, thinks she understands her best friend Kez–but sometimes all she see is her disability and the way it interrupts their friendship.

It is therefore encouraging to see more books being published that include disabled (temporarily or permanently) characters in books with or by people of colour.  The disabled characters are not just window dressing, but play major roles in the books.  Sita Brahmachari’s character Kez, in Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) is Laila Levenson’s best friend, but that friendship is tested because of Kez’s disability.  She is in a wheelchair, and although she and Laila have been friends since primary school, Kez decides she won’t come over to Laila’s house any more when they start secondary school after Laila’s father carries her down the stairs.  “I never want to be carried” (58), Kez tells Laila.  Laila thinks of herself as being the only one who understands Kez, but has to learn to see her in new and capable ways, and also learn how to make accommodations for her friend without patronizing her, before they can be close again.  Kez is white British, but makes up part of Brahmachari’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-able cast of characters, because as she herself puts it, “These ‘different’ characters populate my books because I know that they’re all ‘here!’ and more than anything I love to give each of them their “rites of passage” moment when they find a voice” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names).


Depression is a disability that affects all kinds of people–but it’s not always a result of racism for people of colour.

Bali Rai’s Stay a Little Longer (Barrington Stoke 2018) deals with a different kind of disability, the emotional and mental disability of depression.  Rai distinguishes between forms and levels of severity of depression in his novel. Aman, the main character, is thirteen and grieving the death of her father. Although she considers herself “messed up” (69) for still grieving after a year, her friend Lola points out that “It’s not a competition to see who recovers the fastest” (69).  Aman’s grief affects her every day, but it is clear that she will return to her old self, more or less, eventually.  However, an older man that Aman meets, Gurnam, has a more serious form of depression that leads him to attempt suicide.  Aman, who has friends and family supporting her through her grief, wants to be supportive to Gurnam as well, but she has to learn to go about it in the right way.  She learns that love helps, but love alone is not enough; disabilities, even when they are not physical, require medical treatment.  Race plays an interesting role in Rai’s book; Gurnam is harassed by some local boys, but Aman cannot understand why because “The lads are Asian, just like Gurnam” (90).  She assumes that racism is the only reason a man would be harassed in Britain.  However, it turns out that racism has nothing to do with it.  Gurnam is gay, and the boys think that homosexuality is “Against nature” (58).  Rai’s book highlights the way that being “othered” can lead to disabling depression, but in doing so he also reminds readers that race is only one piece of a person’s identity—and not always the “problem.”


Disability doesn’t mean un-ability; Laird’s character Musa has strengths his brother Omar wishes he had.

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere might reasonably be expected to deal with a similar emotional disability, as the novel concerns a Syrian family who become refugees in Jordan before eventually being given asylum in Britain.  Refugees and migrants have formed an ever-increasing part of children’s literature over the past decade, but generally the stories have concerned able-bodied characters; again, the idea that being a refugee is enough of a “problem” for a single book applies.  But Laird includes two disabled characters who play pivotal roles in the story: the main character Omar’s older brother, Musa, who has cerebral palsy, and their younger sister Nadia, who has a heart condition.  Musa’s cerebral palsy affects the plot—his movement is restricted, and at times Omar has to carry him.  But he is also a “total brainbox” (15) who gets involved in the rebellion and has to be saved from being shot by Omar.  Musa uses his disability to his advantage when soldiers approach them, “making babbling noises” (57) and flailing his arms “wildly” (57) to make the soldiers think he is harmless.  His condition and Nadia’s heart problems put them on top of the list for asylum in Britain.  It is only at the end of the novel that race/ethnicity come into play, however.  Musa does not want to leave for Britain, arguing, “You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims?  They think we’re all crazy terrorists” (315).  Laird concludes her story with questions that acknowledge that attitudes toward “others” are still a “problem” : “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen next . . . How will they get on in their new life in Britain?  Will people welcome them? . . . Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams?  The answer to those questions lies with you” (334).  At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to ensure that every person is able to participate in society, and stop closing doors because of what we perceive as their “otherness”.

What’s the use of the British Nativity play?

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting friends in Wales. They live in a part of Wales where Welsh is regularly taught and spoken, and they are learning Welsh, so we went to a Welsh shop in the market while I was there. Now, I lived in Cardiff for a couple of years, but (at least at the time) Welsh was unnecessary, so my vocabulary extends only as far as “iechyd da” (cheers!), “diolch” (thank you), “nos da, cariad” (good night, sweetheart), and “dim parcio” (no parking). Nonetheless, when I saw the following book, I thought I had a pretty good idea what it was about.



“Nadolig” means Christmas in Welsh.

I was very excited, because I recognized the illustrator, Alex Ayliffe, whose pictures I like very much, and because it was a deliberately casual depiction of the Nativity as a multicultural scene. For centuries, there have been depictions of the Nativity scene in books for children as EITHER a white family with white visitors (except for one or possibly two of the kings) OR a nonwhite family with nonwhite visitors. Elizabeth Laird’s The Road to Bethlehem, for example, uses pictures from a medieval manuscript showing an Ethiopian version of the Nativity. The pictures are lovely, but Laird’s purpose is partly to indicate how far back the idea of a Black Jesus goes.



A medieval Ethiopian Christmas story, repackaged for a child audience.

In any case, I determined to look up Ayliffe’s version of the Nativity in English and buy a copy for my collection. So imagine my surprise when I googled “Ayliffe” and “nativity” and this is what appeared:


What happened to the diversity?

Did diversity only exist in Wales? It seemed improbable. So I kept looking and then I realized the misunderstanding caused by my lack of Welsh. The book that I saw was not a book of the First Christmas. It was a book of a Nativity Play.


Diversity explained: It’s not the Nativity, it’s a nativity play.

Being American, I did not grow up with Nativity plays in school; we had nonreligious Christmas singalongs and made Rudolphs out of clothespins and red pompoms and gave plays with titles like “The Night it Rained Toys” (I was the female lead of this production, a queen with a costume change, in the days when the ability to learn lines was more important than how one looked). It is true that one year we did Menotti’s opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” but it was understood that this was a one-off affair because of Jackie Eastman, who even at the age of ten could sing well enough to (almost) make up for the rest of us. So when I came to Cardiff, I remember being surprised that some child-friends of mine were in a Nativity play on the last day of school.

“I didn’t know they went to a religious school,” I said to their mother.

She looked at me, puzzled. “They don’t,” she said, “every school has a Nativity play.”

“But what about the Jewish kids? Or the Hindu kids?” I persisted, in my separation-of-church-and-state mindset.

“They’re allowed to be in it too.”

There are certainly many schools in Britain now where they don’t do a Nativity play, but it remains a common occurrence this time of year. And the media does its best to support this activity by interviewing non-Christian (and predominantly non-white) parents pleased over their child’s ability to participate in this “British institution”. This media push includes children’s literature, which for decades has seen the school Nativity play as a way to integrate non-Christians into British (Christian) society.

Take Geraldine Kaye’s contribution to Leila Berg’s Nippers series, Eight Days to Christmas (1970, above). Illustrated by Shirley Hughes, the story tells of Miss Lee’s class who are doing “a play” (the text never uses the word “nativity”) for “the visitors” eight days before Christmas. The class is diverse, but there is no discussion of whether or not children with names like Deepak or Devi should be doing a Christian story. Typically, for 1970, although everyone participates, the main family (Mary, Joseph, and even the baby-doll Jesus provided by the Black narrator of the story, June) is white. Non-white participants are angels or kings, and the white king leads the procession to the manger. Eight Days to Christmas is unusual for its time, in that it portrays (what was presumably becoming more common at the time) nonwhite participants in the Nativity play, but they only had supporting roles.


This is generally the pattern of books that depict nativity plays, although now many use photographic illustrations instead of drawn. This is from a series entitled “Special Days”—one which includes Mother’s Day and Poppy Day—which does include a multiracial family, including a Black baby doll for Jesus, but this is the exception rather than the rule.


Who is the Nativity play for? Maybe not for these bored (but diverse!) looking kids.

In the end, depictions of British school nativity plays seem to be offering a message. That message isn’t really about Christianity; last week a report suggested that not only is Christianity declining, over half of Britons do not identify with any religion at all (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35029924). Instead, British nativity plays in schools are about tradition, and including everyone who lives in Britain as part of that tradition. And this is, I think, mostly a good thing (although the American in me says you could do this just as well with Father Christmas as with a nativity play). But it also makes me wonder: if the nativity PLAY as depicted in books is about inclusiveness, and saying that everyone has a share in British tradition, then why did Alex Ayliffe need to illustrate two different versions of the Christmas story?