Tag Archives: Errol Lloyd

The Unexamined Life: What the Reflecting Realities Project from CLPE Tells Us

Plato, in a collection of Socrates speeches, wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living.  Of course, he (or they, I suppose) meant that not examining your OWN life gives you an empty, meaningless existence.  But what happens when you fail to examine the world around you, fail in fact to see the other people who make up your world?

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Does David White’s book help kids wonder about the unexamined lives in children’s book publishing?

There has long been a suggestion (to put it mildly) that British children’s publishing produces, in the main, books for and about white, mostly middle-class children, leaving those from other racial and socioeconomic groups largely unexamined—but because publishers in Britain have never put out industry statistics that would allow them and the public to examine their record, no one could ever say so with authority.  And to be fair to the publishing industry, even had an individual publisher wanted to produce these statistics (and some publishers, like Chicken House, Alanna Books, Firetree Books, Knights of, and Frances Lincoln have been very proud of their record on publishing for diverse child audiences), it still would not have given an industry-wide picture.  When I wrote my book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015, I struggled to find statistics to back up what I innately felt—that BAME readers were not represented very well or sometimes at all by the many children’s publishers in Britain, particularly the mainstream publishers.

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Are BAME children like the one on my book’s front cover doomed to only see white children as book characters?

Last year, however, I was asked to help create a framework for determining the number and quality of BAME representation in children’s books by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).  CLPE then took the framework suggested by me and several other experts and asked publishers to submit all the books that they felt qualified as including BAME representation.  I was not involved with the evaluation of the books by CLPE, but once they had completed the evaluation and statistical analysis, they invited us back to hear the overall results.

You can (and should!) read the full report at the CLPE website (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research) but in the short space of this blog, I just want to highlight a couple of the results.  Keeping in mind that this was not a shaming exercise, but rather one to raise awareness; and also keeping in mind that I did not examine the books sent to CLPE myself, I am going to use some older books as examples of the kinds of things CLPE found.  This works because, at the end of the day, one of the results of this survey is not much has changed in children’s publishing since Britain’s population started changing.  The anecdotal evidence I found for Children’s Publishing and Black Britain played out in the statistics produced by CLPE for last year as well.

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Leila Berg tried to Represent Reality in her reading scheme, Nippers. At first, this meant only background characters with no speaking parts.  Illustration for Julie’s Story by Richard Rose.

One striking result from the survey is that 25% of the books submitted featured BAME characters only in the background.  This statistic can be read cynically—i.e. that “diversity” is a tick-box exercise for book producers and as long as you color some of the faces brown, you’re done—or it can be seen as an honest attempt to include more of the world in a book that would otherwise center on white people only.  Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series from the late 1960s initially had only this kind of representation; she had illustrators and photographers go down to Brixton Market (where many Afro-Caribbean people lived) to make sure that the crowd scenes in her stories about a white, working-class family were accurate.

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But Berg went on to find BAME authors to write for her series. Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

However, Berg did not stop with background representation; as she continued to produce Nippers, she sought out BAME British writers, like Beryl Gilroy and Petronella Breinburg, to write stories that accurately reflected and represented the lives of BAME children.  This suggests to me that an honest desire to change will produce results—if publishers are sufficiently aware of the need and thoughtful about how to address it—even if that change takes time.  The results of the Reflecting Realities survey by CLPE will, we hope, raise some of that awareness for publishers.

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Breinburg also created successful picture books (this is the American version, as you can tell by the spelling of Sean) with illustrator Errol Lloyd, but middle grade books were harder to place with publishers.

Another of the statistics that mirrored what I found in my work was that both picture books and nonfiction had a better level of BAME representation than chapter books.  (Note that the CLPE survey only encompassed books for readers under the age of 11, and not YA literature.) This suggests two things to me: first, that book producers (in which I am including authors, illustrators, publishers and editors—and maybe marketing teams and booksellers as well) feel more comfortable with pictures than with descriptions of BAME people; and second, that they value BAME representation in educational texts and settings more than they do in mainstream middle grade fiction.  I might here highlight the work of Petronella Breinburg, who although she had great success with her picture book series about a little boy named Sean, and wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers reading scheme to be used in schools, she struggled to get her middle grade fiction published and marketed.  There are many conclusions to draw from these results, but the one that I would focus on is the loss of the BAME reader.  If a BAME reader ready for longer, more complex texts only sees her- or himself in books connected with school and not with pleasure reading, they are not going to read for pleasure.  And once readers are lost, it is hard to convince them to come back to reading for pleasure—particularly when many of the YA books they will encounter see racial issues or even racial identity as “problems” to be solved.  I once read a memo from a publisher in the 1980s (I won’t name the publisher) who said that the bottom line was that publishing was a money-making business and “certain groups” didn’t read, so they needn’t be catered for.  I do believe that is the very-small-minority opinion (then and now), but even if true, perhaps the Reflecting Realities statistics will help publishers think about ways they might increase their market share and readership by producing quality chapter books for and about BAME British children.

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Rats, yes. BAME figures, not so much. Terry Deary’s and Martin Brown’s amusing version of British history does not include the West Indian troops who participated, nor the Black Britons like Walter Tull.

One place publishers might start producing middle grade literature is with funny books, which many children of all ages, classes, genders and ethnic groups enjoy.  The Reflecting Realities report demonstrated that BAME characters almost never appeared in books classed as comedies.  Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series rarely includes BAME people in the long stretch of British history, though they laugh with and at just about every group of white Britons (and pre-Britons for that matter).  I think it’s safe to say that most kids are goofier than most adults, and the goofier the kid, the more they want to read about other goofy kids.

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Is Mary Seacole a great Briton, or a great Black Briton? Biographies of Seacole always mention her white contemporary, Florence Nightingale, but biographies of Nightingale rarely mention Seacole.

And that highlights another idea that all of us on the Reflecting Realities team believe: books about BAME characters are for all readers.  I recently had someone—meaning to compliment me—tell me that my work on BAME children’s books was “niche” (he was saying we needed more interesting “niche” projects like mine).  The more that children’s books reflect the reality of the British population, the less “niche” books with BAME characters will appear—and the more readers will feel that other people think their lives are worth reading about too.

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Insistence on Existence: Ontology as Mental Health in Children’s Books

“when we are worn out by our lives . . . we will turn to you as we do to our children—to the innocent, the ingenuous, the spontaneous.  We will turn to you as to the childhood of the world.  You are so real in your life—so funny, that is.  Let us run away for a little while from our ritualized, polite civilization and let us relax, bend to those heads, those adorably expressive faces.  In a way, you reconcile us with ourselves” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks 132).

“Lay aside your history, your investigation of the past, and try to feel yourself into our rhythm.  In a society such as ours, industrialized to the highest degree, dominated by scientists, there is no longer any room for your sensitivity.  One must be tough if one is to be allowed to live” (Fanon 132).

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Fanon, from Martinique, concerned himself with the effect of racism on the colonized subject’s identity.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and it is interesting to consider this in conjunction with recent and current events.  News headlines over the past year have often concerned the #MeToo movement; over the past few weeks, at least in Britain, they have focused on the Windrush Generation speaking up over deportations.  Both movements showcase how easy it is for people in power to deny the existence of people without that power.  Powerful people use the strategies of objectification and isolation, as exemplified in the quotations from Fanon above, to enhance and reconcile their own existence at the expense of others, who are not allowed to escape the role assigned to them—or to express their feelings about that role.  In both #MeToo and the Windrush protests, it has been the ability of groups (women or Windrush citizens and their children) to speak out collectively that has won support for individuals.  Mental health is an insistence on existence—both a refusal to be silenced and an ability to access your connections with communities of the past and present.  I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that many people have criticized #MeToo for its focus on white women, emphasizing the what Hazel Carby argues when she writes that “white women stand in a power relation as oppressors of black women” (“White Woman Listen!” 112).  So while #MeToo has resonance with the Windrush protests in terms of their effects on people’s mental health, it is also important to recognize that they are not the same.

It is also important to be alert to how people are often distracted from the silencing and isolating of individuals through society’s acceptable narratives.  The headlines on today’s BBC news demonstrated this nicely; the UK page on their website mentions “Sixty-three Windrush migrants ‘removed’” by the British government, but you must click on the headline to find out more.  Right next to this headline, in larger font and with a picture, is the story that “Markle’s sister hopes dad will go to wedding” (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk; accessed 13:09 EST 5/15/18).  There is a caption under the headline and picture.  The story of Meghan Markle, the new “black princess” is one that is being touted as proof that Britain has moved on from its racist past (https://www.buzzfeed.com/sandirankaduwa/itsamodernmarkle?utm_term=.wcm5P0XGO6#.lkobvK3AXw), but as with any royal wedding, it is also a way to distract the public from serious news—news which includes Windrush deportations and former Grenfell Tower residents, mostly poor and many of color, who are still struggling months after fire caused by unsafe appliances and construction materials destroyed their building.  (But hey, Prince William helped paint their community centre: https://www.aol.com/article/entertainment/2018/05/15/prince-william-helps-paint-community-center-for-grenfell-tower-fire-victims-ahead-of-royal-wedding/23435180/).

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One of the Windrush Generation threatened with deportation, Glenda Caesar points at a picture of her parents’ wedding that took place in 1968 in the UK. Credit: ITV News (http://www.itv.com/news/2018-04-11/windrush-generation-nhs-worker-lost-job-and-faces-deportation-despite-living-in-the-uk-for-more-than-50-years/). 

Even if you accept the royal distraction, the wedding might not have the post-racial effects hoped for by some.  Becoming a “princess” might not protect Markle from being silenced and isolated by British society.  She could look to British children’s literature to find out what it means to be Black British “royalty”.   Two books which highlight the mental health and identity formation of young black girls labelled as royalty are Nina Bawden’s Princess Alice (André Deutsch, 1985) and Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978), and they offer radically alternative visions as to how to survive as a Black British princess.

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Being a Black British princess is not all it’s cracked up to be in Bawden’s Princess Alice.

White British Bawden (best known for her novel about WWII evacuees, Carrie’s War) tells the story of a Black girl named Alice, adopted into the white Maclusky family along with several other children (none of the others are Black, though two are Asian).  The cover illustration by Phillida Gili makes Alice’s place in the family clear; she is looking after the baby while all the other children are playing with toys or pets.  Cinderella-like, she also cleans the house.  Her family are grateful, but not to the extent that they help her.  Despite this, when her biological father turns out to be an African prince, Alice fears “He might kidnap her and lock her up in his palace in Africa” (n.p.).  She prefers to stay and clean house for her adopted family.  Her adopted father tells her, “All my daughters are Princesses to me” (n.p.); by equating his “real” and adopted daughters, Mr. Maclusky erases Alice’s history and need for community; he affirms her place in the family, but at the expense of Alice’s identity formation as a Black person.  She cannot belong to a British family and accept her Africanness.

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Errol Lloyd’s Nini finds being queen a joyful thing, because she is a part of the community.

Black British Errol Lloyd’s Nini, on the other hand, is denied neither history nor community.  She wants to join a multiracial carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume and sits alone, crying.  Her friend, dressed as a fairy godmother, does not tell her she has to toughen up or remain outside the carnival community; rather, her friend gives her a costume.  “It was only a piece of cloth, but it fitted Nini perfectly” (n.p.) the text states.  The cloth is not any random piece of cloth, but one resembling Kente cloth, the royal cloth of the Akan people; in it, Nini is able not only to join the community, but because of her costume, becomes Queen of the Carnival.  The last line of the book is telling: “Nini talked about it all the way home” (n.p.).  Her connection to community and history, unlike Bawden’s Alice, gives her a voice; she is not silenced or made to accept her place as less-worthy outsider.

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Benjamin Zephaniah’s Britain includes variety and equality. Illustration by Sarah Symonds.

This emphasis on the Blackness and Britishness of Black Britons is the only way to ensure a unified Britain. Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem, “The British” (Wicked World, Puffin 2000), not only highlights the mixture of people in Britain, but values all their contributions to Britain.  “As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish/ Binding them together with English./ Allow time to be cool” (39).  The poem does not, however, suggest that just mixing people will necessarily result in a nation.  Zephaniah’s poem ends with a warning: “An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all” (39)—from the Empire Windrush to the tower block to the palace.

Letters for Lettie and Words for Shona: John Agard’s chapter books

It’s April, which means poetry month; but this year I thought I’d do something a little different with the blog, which is to look at poets who write in prose and vice versa.  I’ll start with someone known almost exclusively for his poetry.  When I think of John Agard, I picture him introducing the world to John Blanke, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the many unknown Black British people who have come face-to-face with white British curiosity, hostility or confusion.  His early poem, “Listen Mister Oxford Don” (1967) focuses on the English language in its many variations—from the “Oxford” version to patois.  Agard has, with Grace Nichols, produced collections of nursery rhymes that twist the “standard” English version with a Caribbean spin as well.  His attention to language makes Agard a great poet, even better when you can hear him speak it in his Guyanese lilt.

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Errol Lloyd’s illustrations for John Agard’s Letters for Lettie capture middle-class Georgetown, Guyana in the 1970s.

But Agard started out publishing in Britain with something quite different.  His first children’s book, published by Bodley Head in 1979, was a middle grade chapter book about an eight-year-old girl in Georgetown, Guyana, who loves writing letters and delivering the post.  Letters for Lettie takes the reader all around Georgetown, from Lettie’s home to school to a Christmas-time carnival.  “If a day passed without Lettie writing a letter, then something was wrong” (7), Agard writes.  The book is important because it gave readers—both those who had a home connection to Guyana and those who didn’t even know it existed—a sense of the modern Caribbean.  The illustrations by Errol Lloyd present a picture of middle-class Georgetown, with single-family homes and children riding bikes.  This may seem unimportant, except that the British Caribbean community in 1979 was often seen as connected with urban tower blocks and poverty, unable to succeed in the British education system, and Lloyd’s illustrations and Agard’s text remind readers that many Caribbean people came from educated backgrounds.  This is underscored in Letters for Lettie because the main character does not just write letters to people.  She has a poet’s mind, and writes letters to inanimate objects and even abstract concepts. Lettie writes a letter to blue and then one to green, calling the latter “the most beesybody colour I’ve ever seen” (56).  Agard’s book in many ways acts as a companion to Agard’s partner (and fellow poet) Grace Nichols’ early novel, Leslyn in London, which describes a young girl’s bewilderment upon arriving in cold, gray London after living her childhood in warm and colourful Georgetown.  Both Lettie and Leslyn are in love with words—Lettie writes letters and Leslyn compares language in Georgetown and London.  The manuscripts (in several versions!) of both these novels have just been added to the archived collections at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and I’m looking forward to examining their collections more closely.

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Writing, listening, capturing words and ideas are all part of being Shona, Word Detective in John Agard’s most recent chapter book (pictures by Michael Broad).

Almost thirty years after he published Letters for Lettie, Agard produced another book about a young girl in love with words, Shona, Word Detective (Barrington Stoke 2018).  Although Shona is of a similar age as Lettie, the book itself is aimed at a different kind of reader.  Agard’s Letters for Lettie has about 100 pages of dense (though not generally complicated) text, with carefully spaced, realistic illustrations; Shona, Word Detective is considerably shorter, about half as long, and with frequent, cartoon-like illustrations (by Michael Broad).  Shona, like all Barrington Stoke titles, is designed to be dyslexic-friendly, and to provide high interest reading for the young person who might otherwise be reluctant to pick up a book.  Despite this, however, Agard does not suggest that reluctance to read might equate to disinterest in literature.  The book centers on a girl who is in love with words—spoken and written.  In many ways, Shona has much in common with “Listen Mister Oxford Don,” as both poem and book examine words and language as flexible, changing, and not the purview of experts but of ordinary people.  Shona sees a news programme about dying languages and begins to think about what it means to keep language alive.  With the help of her teacher, Shona realizes that she can play a role in maintaining and growing a language.  She and her classmates, who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, bring items into school; the names of these things (and their pictures) are added to a Language Tree, a symbol of the living nature of language.  Many of the items that students bring in have names that bring to mind other meanings or other cultures.  For example, one student brings in a Maang Tikka and notes that most of the children might be thinking they were going to get something to eat because of the connection to Chicken Tikka Masala—but this Tikka is a jeweled headdress suitable for a wedding (38).  Another student brings in “the figure of a spiderman” (40), Anansi, the spider trickster.  Although the student who brought in the Anansi has Ghanaian relatives, Anansi is a trickster throughout the parts of the world affected by the transatlantic slave trade, and his name and character changes as he moves from place to place.  The flexibility of language is a key lesson of the book; without flexibility, the language dies just as readily as if the people who speak it die out.

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Shona’s class creates a “Language Tree” to show words that have roots in cultures belonging to the class–and to remind each other that language is a living thing.

Agard’s book also examines the science of language, though in a reasonably simple fashion.  A female scientist—the one that Shona saw on the news report that got her thinking about languages in the first place—has made it her mission to save dying languages, and one of the ways that she does this is through teaching parrots to learn the pronunciations of words.  Professor Crystal-Bloomer has made it her mission to locate and save dying languages.  She will do this scientifically when she can—but she also uses activism of varying kinds, staging protests and having a friend play a narrow-minded “expert” on television arguing that everyone should speak the same language (English) to highlight how dreary the world would be without language variation.  Agard subtly teaches children that not only are there multiple ways to describe a thing, there are multiple ways to stand up for something you believe in.  Agard’s Shona teaches children to care about words because words are powerful.

Although Agard is best known for his poetry, his novels for children embrace a similar sensibility to his poetic work: words matter.  And even if you are only armed “wit human breath” (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=listen+mr+oxford+don&view=detail&mid=16D8BC8D927AEBA9925116D8BC8D927AEBA99251&FORM=VIRE), as Agard says in “Listen Mr Oxford Don,” you can change the world with the words you choose and the stories you tell.

When It’s Safer to be Someone Else: BAME characters and “dressing-up”

The “revelations” this past week over Harvey Weinstein’s repeated assaults on women brought up some very troubling conversations about women.  Many of the news reports showed Weinstein with various actresses who have accused him of sexual assault; the actresses were often smiling and near enough to Weinstein for him to have his arm around them.  But as anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted by someone more powerful than them knows, smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy.  It means you are being someone else, trying to survive.  An article in the Independent this week (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/harvey-weinstein-sexual-harassment-mental-health-women-suffering-anxiety-a7996511.html) suggests that most women, once they hit puberty, have to learn psychological coping skills to deal with the gaze of powerful men—and even then may be labelled as anxious or depressed.  The reaction to the hashtag #MeToo (tweeted over half a million times as of Monday, according to CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/15/entertainment/me-too-twitter-alyssa-milano/index.html) shows that sexual assault—for men as well as for women—is all too prevalent in our society, and yet those assaulted feel so alone and so threatened that it is hard to speak up about it.  For many of us (yes, #MeToo), it is safer to smile if we want to survive.  It is safer to be someone else.

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In Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival, Nini gains power through the act of dressing up as an African queen.

This coping mechanism of being someone else has various translations in literature; in children’s books, it is often through the trope of dressing up.  Dressing up can simply allow a character to try out a different persona and see if it fits; but it is interesting to look at how BAME characters in books “dress up,” especially female characters.  Prior to puberty, dressing up is about becoming powerful.  Two very different notions of power can be seen in comparing Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978) with Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (Frances Lincoln, 1991).  In Lloyd’s book, the titular character is part of a carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume.  Her “fairy godmother” (really her friend dressed up in a fairy costume) comes along and gives her a piece of cloth in a pattern that could be intended as a Kente cloth (the royal cloth of the Akan people in Africa), wrapping it around her like an African ceremonial dress  and saying that Nini is now “pretty enough to be Queen of the Carnival” (n.p.) which Nini, in fact, then becomes.  In Hoffman’s story, on the other hand, Grace likes to dress up as story characters; “she always gave herself the most exciting part” (n.p.) according to Hoffman—which in most cases, happens to be the male part.  Lloyd invests power for his Black female character in the historical traditions of African civilizations; Hoffman invests it in male characters, and often those male characters as written by white male “classic” authors such as Kipling, Longfellow, and of course J. M. Barrie.  Guess which one of these two books has never been out of print since publication?  No wonder World Book Day costumes are fraught for BAME Britons.

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Grace in Mary Hoffman’s book feels powerful when she acts out stories of white and/or male heroes. Illustrations by Caroline Binch.

In YA books, dressing up changes from a focus on power to a focus on survival, particularly for BAME young women.  Two different approaches to dressing up can be seen in Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke, 2017) and Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Corgi, 2015).  In both books, the main female protagonist must escape those who have the power to destroy her happiness and security by becoming someone else.  Rosa, in Landman’s book, is light enough to “pass for white” because she is the daughter of her slave master.  Her master wants to keep Rosa enslaved, and destroy her family life and chances for happiness.  And as Rosa and Benjamin, another slave with whom she falls in love, knows, “White folks can do whatever the hell they pleased . . . And then they’d say it was your own damned fault” (3).  So Rosa dresses up in the most powerful costume she can think of: that of a rich, elderly, white man, with Benjamin as her slave, in order to escape to freedom.  A colleague who teaches slave narratives said that students often argue that passing for white is being a “traitor to your race”—but such attitudes are similar to those who say that women who accept contracts in Hollywood after being assaulted were “trading on sex”.  Survival in the face of overwhelmingly powerful enemies sometimes depends on pretending to be like the powerful.

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For BAME characters in YA novels, “dressing up” was not just fun and games.

Johnson’s book addresses sexual assault head-on, also in a historical novel, by opening her book with the main character’s rape. Mary Wilcox, alone and friendless, is raped by two farm boys even though she is dirty, weak, and “looked like a savage” (2).  Mary knew that rape happened to women “acting the coquette and suffering the consequences” (1) but when she is raped that night, she understands that it is not about women “asking for it” but about men exerting power.  And while she rejects that kind of power, she still knows that to survive, she would have to be somebody else: “an Amazon warrior woman who could turn on her attackers.  Better still, a fighting princess, a beautiful girl with a dagger at her waist and a quiver of magical arrows.  They would not dare touch her then” (4).  Mary does not become a warrior, but she does become a princess from an exotic land, the Lady Caraboo, who speaks no English but reflects back “only what your people wanted me to be” (193)—the beautiful, the strange—to a white family who takes her in.  In becoming someone else, she survives; but her disguise also allows her “to be something other than who I was; something fresh, something good, something capable of love and being loved” (194).  This heartbreaking statement—that Mary thinks she has to be someone else to be loved—rings true for many women who think that their broken self will never be good enough to be worthy of love.

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Becoming “what they want you to be” is another way to survive, as in Catherine Johnson’s novel. Cover photo by Bella Kotak.

Historical fiction is perhaps the easiest genre in which YA literature can represent the concept of becoming someone else for survival, but I want to end with one last example from fantastic fiction.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday, 2001) concerns a world where the power positions between Black people and White people are reversed from contemporary society.  But Blackman’s novel is less about race and more about power; both Crosses (Black people who hold most of the society’s power positions) and Noughts (White people who generally have to serve the Crosses) suffer from unequal power relations, but Noughts suffer far more.  Callum, the Nought protagonist, has a sister named Lynette, who was “beaten and left for dead because she was dating a Cross” (124).  Her way of coping with her powerlessness is through disguise: she tries to convince those around her that she is a Cross.  As a blonde, White girl, her disguise is only self-deception.  When forced to confront her despised whiteness, Lynette commits suicide, knowing she will never be able to cope with “a return to reality” (170).

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From Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s graphic novel version of Noughts and Crosses–Lynette’s “madness” is her only chance at survival.

Everyone, at every age, practices “dressing up” to be a little bit different from our ordinary selves sometimes.  But we need to be aware that dressing up can also be a way of hiding—or of surviving.  Literature for children can remind us that sometimes it is safer to be someone else in societies where powerful people get away with crimes against the powerless.

Black Gold: What a Black Bookstore Can Be and Do

Last week I was in the UK on various projects, and on my last day before returning to Buffalo, I went to New Beacon bookstore in Finsbury Park. Originally when I had planned my visit, I thought it would be my last time, as the bookstore was set to close after its 50th anniversary. However, thanks to a populist campaign, the bookstore has raised enough money to revamp itself (see Natasha Onwuemezi’s article in the Bookseller: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/swell-support-new-beacon-books-helps-raise-10k-513551); it plans a new storefront, a different layout, and most importantly, more room and plans for community space and activities. I’m looking forward to going back with some of my postgraduate students in July to see how it is all coming along.

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Educational essays by writers such as Gus John are not usually available at your local bookstore–unless that bookstore is one like New Beacon.

But of course this reprieve did not stop me from a few (ahem) purchases, especially since, in order to make room for new stock, they were selling off some of their old stock at deep discounts. New Beacon is not primarily a children’s bookstore, but they have throughout my relationship with them furnished my shelves with many gems. This is partly because of founder John La Rose’s connection with the supplementary school movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black British children (especially boys) were being placed into ESN (educationally sub-normal) classrooms or excluded from school altogether at an alarming rate. John La Rose, like other activists, tried to counter the effects of this travesty. He did this partly through supporting and publishing educational experts in the Black community, including Bernard Coard and Gus John (and I found a couple of Gus John’s essays at the bookstore this time).

But La Rose was also one of a number of Black British and West Indian activists who began supplementary after- or Saturday school programs, where kids could learn basic skills as well as Black history that the mainstream schools ignored. I have purchased many basic reading texts here over the years that feature Black characters, some from traditional publishers such as Macmillan Caribbean or the Evans English Readers, who had branches in Africa or the Caribbean. These readers were imported specifically by many supplementary and mainstream schools who wanted to be sure that their children found mirrors that reflected them in the books they read.  The one I found this time (above) is from Sierra Leone; the illustrator is Tom Simpasa.

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Independently published stories range in quality, from pamphlets stapled together to hardcover books; but all need independent outlets like New Beacon to provide a market.

Other reading texts came from independent and community publishers, such as Centreprise, the Peckham Publishing Project, or the one I found this time from a group called Brockwell Books. Often these books were “home-made” in quality, created by teachers or even by the students themselves. These are not the kinds of books that are found in mainstream bookstores, or even in places like the British Library—their fragile nature means that few exist anymore, making New Beacon a critical resource. I also found a book of poetry, written by a 14-year-old British Bangladeshi girl, Faryal Mirza, and published in 1987 to an unusually high standard for a self-published book. It still has its original dust jacket, with the photograph of Mirza looking seriously out of glasses she probably would prefer to forget now.

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This book, published by New Beacon Press, “is intended for use in schools and colleges or for individual and collective study.”

At New Beacon I’ve also found Black history, both older works published by New Beacon, such as Roxy Harris’s Being Black (complete with study questions and vocabulary), and more recent works of the kind that too quickly go out of print. This is one of the key features of an independent bookstore like New Beacon—books that either never reach the mainstream chains or are only available for a few months are much easier to obtain at an independent bookstore. Clive Gifford’s The Empire Windrush (Colllins Big Cat: 2014), Errol Lloyd’s Celebrating Black History (Oxford Reading Tree 2007) and Dan Lyndon’s Resistance and Abolition (Franklin Watts 2014) are all still available, but have you ever seen them in a bookshop? I found all three on Saturday.

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Black History texts such as these go out of print quickly–and often are not replaced by anything else.

New Beacon also had books that preserve and teach history in other ways. For example, I bought one of photographer Joan Solomon’s beautiful multicultural books from her The Way We Live series, first published in the 1980s. Sweet-Tooth Sunil is a story of a British family celebrating Diwali; other books in the series include Sikh, Jewish, Caribbean, Chinese, and Japanese families.

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Solomon did a series of photo picture books in Britain’s multicultural communities.

And finally, I bought books that I’ve been meaning to pick up for some time, before they disappear completely (and other than used book sites, New Beacon is the only place I’ve ever seen them). The independent publisher Verna Wilkins produced a series at Tamarind around the turn of this century called “Black Profiles” that showcased Black Britons who had achieved success in their fields despite any setbacks they may have encountered. These books were meant to inspire young Black Britons to do the same, and the books covered a wide range of people. When Tamarind became a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, the Black Profiles series was revamped, changed from a hardcover series with watercolor illustrations designed for the library market to a trade paperback series for the general market, with cover photographs instead of illustrations. The PRH version was perhaps more appealing to the young reader, but one of the editorial decisions made about the revamped series was to change the name, from Black Profiles to Black Stars. This new name made a subtle allusion to Black History, but it also meant that successful figures like the surgeon Samantha Tross disappeared from the series. New Beacon had both for sale.

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Verna Wilkins of Tamarind published the Black Profiles series before the company was bought out by Penguin Random House.

I’m delighted that New Beacon will remain open, even if the changes they make may mean I won’t find quite so many older treasures. It will nonetheless remain one of the few places in Britain where you can find children’s books for and about BAME people in every imaginable category and by every kind of writer. And that is something that everyone in Britain (and outside it) should celebrate.

A Good Immigrant of another Time (But the Same Story)

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Salkey’s Danny Jones thought leaving Britain might be the only solution. Illustration by Errol Lloyd.

This week, Nikesh Shukla’s edited collection, The Good Immigrant, appeared, a volume of 21 essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers about their experience in Britain. He edited the collection because, as he writes, “while I and the 20 other writers included in this book don’t want to just write about race, nor do we only write about race, it felt imperative, in the light of . . . the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country, that we create this document” (“Editor’s Note”). Too many white Britons (and Americans, for that matter) see BAME Britons (or Americans) as bad immigrants—thieves of one kind or another, prompting those white Britons (or Americans) to “want their country (or their job or their girl/boyfriend or their place at university) back.” This attitude persists even when the writers are not, in fact, immigrants, but born and bred citizens. White people are entitled, but everyone else has to earn their rights, prove their worth.

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Shukla’s Good Immigrant appeared to excellent reviews–and, hopefully to a more receptive audience than some Windrush Generation authors experienced in the 20th century.

This has all happened before. Multiple times.

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The writer Andrew Salkey, who came to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation. Photo Caribbean Review of Books.

I could write (and have written) about many different examples, but I’m going to highlight just one today in this blog, the writer Andrew Salkey. Salkey came to Britain from Jamaica in the early 1950s, part of the Windrush Generation. The Windrush Generation encompasses migrants from all parts of the English-speaking Caribbean (as Sam Selvon pointed out in Lonely Londoners, white Britons had a habit of lumping all Caribbean people together and calling them, collectively, “Jamaicans” as if there were no other islands or political differences between them) who came to Britain between 1948 and the early 1960s because the UK had asked them to come to fill postwar labour shortages. Salkey, like the other migrants, was British—he had British citizenship as part of the colonial system—and he came to the “Mother Country” to work. He should have been seen as a model citizen. The colour of his skin, however, meant that Salkey had to earn respect through hard work.

And he did. He not only worked for Henry Swanzy’s BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, contributing stories and commentary and interviews, he worked for other parts of the BBC as well, including the African Service, the Pacific Service and the General Overseas Service. He got broadcasting jobs because he was extremely well-spoken (you can hear him speak in a documentary on Caribbean Voices, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02sbplt ) and—in terms of his own stories—he followed Swanzy’s dictates for what a good contributor should do. Philip Nanton, in his article “What does Mr Swanzy want?” (Caribbean Quarterly 46.1, 61-72) says that the answer to this question is simple: Henry Swanzy wanted local colour in work that was publishable by British publishers. That meant that the stories presented on the BBC had to be comprehensible (at least mostly) to a white audience, as well as giving them the ocean breezes, calypso, and other acceptable tropes of the Caribbean that white listeners expected. Most of the contributors, including Salkey, praised Swanzy for the work he did in editing their stories and poems to a “metropolitan standard” because they wanted to be published where it would matter—meaning London, not the Caribbean.

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Salkey’s “disaster sequence” from Oxford University Press allowed him to present a broader picture of the Caribbean to children. Illustration by William Papas.

It was through Salkey’s work on Caribbean Voices that he caught the attention of Oxford University Press, who published Salkey’s “disaster sequence” for children, Hurricane, Drought, Earthquake and Riot. Like his Caribbean Voices work, these novels were set in the Caribbean and were full of local colour. But, because of his earlier success, he was able to do something different. These books showed that life in the Caribbean was not all calypso music and coconuts on the beach—the natural disasters that strike the area affect the economy and its ability to grow. Caribbean people were not all poor and rural (the books center on middle-class families in the capital city, Kingston). The last book in the sequence, Riot, shows labour unrest in Jamaica, subtly laying the blame for problems of continuing poverty and a breakdown of community on the colonial system. Salkey continued in these novels to be well-spoken (they are mostly written in “school” English, not patois) and provide a vivid picture of his “exotic” homeland. But his children’s work shows him starting to become a “bad” immigrant, or at least a “less good” one.

Salkey stopped publishing children’s books with Oxford after Riot, but he continued to write for children, and to support other Caribbean writers. He was one of the founding members, in 1966, of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM), along with John La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite. By 1968 he was an editor and advisor to Jessica Huntley, a Guyanese migrant who had come to Britain ten years earlier and who had started Bogle L’Ouverture press with her husband Eric Huntley. Bogle L’Ouverture came out of Jessica Huntley’s desire to produce books for Black people, by Black people, in Britain. Salkey advised her on publishing work by Walter Rodney, Bernard Coard, and Linton Kwesi Johnson—all of whom were or became revolutionaries of one kind or another. He also offered Huntley his own work for children, literature that was very different from what he had produced for Oxford, much more overtly political. Joey Tyson (1974) is a fictionalized account of Walter Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica from a child protagonist’s perspective; The River that Disappeared (1979) details American imperialistic attitudes and drug trafficking in the Caribbean (not the kind of local colour usually looked for in a Caribbean story for children), and Danny Jones (1980) discusses the difficulties of being Black and British in contemporary London. At the end of this last novel, the title character is pondering a “return” to Jamaica, the country of his parents’ origin, thinking it might be the “more hopeful” option than being hassled by the police in Britain just for being Black.

By the time that Danny Jones was published, Salkey had himself left Britain for an academic post in the US. He continued to write for and correspond with Jessica Huntley and many of the writers he had known in Britain, but American universities were happy to do what Britain at the time was not: hire Salkey to teach creative writing to university students. The US, unlike Britain, already had a tradition of African and African-American or Black Studies programmes, and even smaller places were eager to have a professor who could teach a class or two of Black Literature. Britain, on the other hand, has only just begun its first Black Studies programme at Birmingham City University this year.

In the last chapter of Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, Musa Okwonga writes about how he spent his life in Britain on the one hand being “an unofficial ambassador for black people” (225) and on the other frequently “stop-searched by police, on one occasion merely for waiting by a bus stop” (225). Okwonga went to Eton and Oxford, but this was never enough: “we were still seen as guests, our social acceptance only conditional upon our very best behaviour” (231). Like Salkey, Okwonga finally had enough and left for somewhere he could feel welcome. By not extending that welcome, Britain is continuing—generation upon generation—to lose some of the people who could add to its great literary heritage.

We Didn’t Ask for Tolerance: Acceptance versus Tolerance in Children’s Literature

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In Keeping’s book, neither of the children are “tolerated”.

This week, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission released their report, Healing a Divided Britain: The need for a comprehensive race equality strategy. The report begins with pointing out that “inequalities of significant concern . . . mean that individuals are facing barriers in accessing jobs and services that impact on their ability to fulfil their potential, [and] they also indicate that some parts of our community are falling behind and can expect poorer life chances than their neighbours” (7). The report went on to say that “Britain is a very different place today compared to the 1960s, when casual racism and ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs were commonplace. Race equality legislation and changes in social attitudes have had an enormous impact. This is a cause for celebration. However, the evidence shows that, 50 years after the Race Relations Act 1965, stark inequalities remain” (7). Mishal Husain, introducing the report on the Today Show on Radio 4, commented that, “We may like to believe that we are a nation of tolerance and equality of opportunity, whatever our background, but are we instead a nation where racial inequality is entrenched and far-reaching?” (Today on Radio 4 18 August 2016). There is a lot that can be said about the report (and the reporting on the report), but I want to focus on Husain’s opening statement about tolerance. Upon hearing it, Dr. Nicola Rollock, the Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education, tweeted, “Always baffled by statement that UK tolerant re race relations. Do we want ‘tolerance’ or understanding, acceptance & equity? #r4today” (@NicolaRollock 18 August 2016).

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But Keeping’s palette makes subtle comments about equity and gentrification in Britain.

It is interesting to look at the report and Rollock’s response (which was echoed by several who retweeted her) in the context of children’s literature from both the “dark ages” of the 1960s and 1970s and the present time. During the 1960s and 1970s, Black British youth demanded fair treatment from the police and Black parents demanded equitable treatment for their children in Britain’s schools. From the Black Parents Movement in the late 1960s to the Black People’s Day of Action that was a response to the New Cross Massacre of 1981, Black people in Britain were not requesting tolerance from their white counterparts. They were demanding to be heard, and claiming their rights as British citizens. Children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s did not ask for tolerance either, because tolerance suggests a hierarchical relationship (as does asking for society to listen and respond). In fact, children’s books such as the Kate Greenaway award-winning book Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary (1967) by the fabulous Charles Keeping subtly suggests society’s inequities while at the same time promoting a cross-racial friendship that is not questioned or highlighted as something unusual or different. Charley and Charlotte live in the ironically named “Paradise Street, somewhere in the big city of London” (n.p.); all the text says about their relationship is that “They were great friends, and every day they played together” (n.p.). What tears them apart is gentrification; Charley, the Black child, remains in Paradise Street as the houses are slowly torn down, while Charlotte, the white child, goes to “live in a flat at the very top of a brand-new building” (n.p.). The contrast in Keeping’s colour palette between the somber depiction of the slums of Paradise Street and the golden new tower block makes an unspoken commentary on race and housing in 1960s London. Charley does not see gentrification as a barrier however; he doggedly goes in search of his lost friend until he finds her.

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The children in Breinburg and Lloyd’s Sean Goes to School do not simply “tolerate” Sean, but actively seek him out as a friend.

Petronella Breinburg’s 1973’s Sean Goes to School, with illustrations from Errol Lloyd, is one of the earliest picture books from a mainstream publisher (the Bodley Head) to feature a Black child on the cover. Given the publication date which came not too long after Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian is made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (1971), this could have been a demand from two Black British authors for “tolerance” in the education system. But in fact, it is simply the story of a child’s first day of school. Sean is frightened, and cries, but he is not labeled by the teacher as bad (or educationally sub-normal). He is not depicted as a suspicious character by the white children in the room. In fact he is welcomed like all the other children in the class, and treated with kindness without patronization. And because he is understood and accepted, he joins in the classroom activities and enjoys himself. Children’s literature in this period does not demand tolerance, but acceptance.

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When Azzi in Garland’s Azzi in Between realizes that she has not only been accepted but understood . . .

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. . . Azzi makes an effort to understand and accept someone else. This understanding and acceptance, rather than tolerance, empowers all people.

The report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission does not, of course focus on the 1960s, but only uses it to contrast with the contemporary moment. It reports that little has changed for the Afro-Caribbean Britain, and that since Brexit, things have worsened for many other groups as well. So the last book I would point to is Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between (2012). This books look at Azzi, a young war refugee, as she enters Britain with her family. Like the immigrants of the 1960s, Azzi and her family have concerns about equitable treatment in their new home. But unlike the 1960s, Azzi and refugees like her have a greater fear that any rights they might have will be taken away. This fear is expressed in Azzi in Between, but Azzi herself is more concerned with being understood and accepted. When she meets people who help her, she in turn becomes helpful. When she is accepted, she becomes accepting. It is a lesson worth considering as Britain faces the challenge of a divided society. Tolerance does not heal. Acceptance does.

In the same Radio 4 report, Birmingham community activist Desmond Jaddoo commented that, “racial relations has never really been tackled properly on a no-tolerance basis”. Maybe we should stop thinking about tolerance of people who look or act differently from us, and start thinking about acting with “no tolerance” for racism instead.