Tag Archives: Geraldine Kaye

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

This week’s blog continues the history of Black and BAME British YA literature.  1981, the year that starts the second half of the timeline, is significant for YA literature.  The end of what scholar Anthony DiGesare calls “the long 1970s”, a period when race was the focus for both Black and white Britons from Enoch Powell to future Guardian prize-winner Alex Wheatle, 1981 saw the Brixton Riots bring institutional racism into the spotlight for the first—but by no means the last—time.

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YA novelist Alex Wheatle was among the people who experienced the Brixton Riot of 1981.

1981: The Brixton riots erupt as a response to the perceived racist attitudes of police against the Black British community.  West Indian Children in our Schools, a government report authored by Anthony Rampton, calls for mainstream literature to better represent the increasingly diverse cultures of Britain.  The Rampton report was written in response to increasing tension between the Black and Asian British communities and law enforcement.

1982: The first of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books is held in Islington Town Hall, London, partly due to lack of outlets for BAME books for children.  New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture are major sponsors.

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The cover of one of the IRR’s histories of racism. The fourth book, The Fight Against Racism, shows pictures of the Brixton Riots.

1982: The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a series of informational books for older readers on racism, starting with The Roots of Racism.  The four books touch on issues of colonialism, slavery, white privilege, police brutality, protests and riots.

1983: Valerie Bloom’s first UK collection of poems, Touch Mi! Tell Mi! is published by Bogle L’Ouverture, aimed at a young adult audience.  Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea (Heinemann), about an Indian village, wins the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

1984: Geraldine Kaye’s Comfort Herself, about a young Black Briton who goes to live with her father in Ghana, wins the Other Award.  Grace Hallworth’s collection of ghost stories from the Caribbean, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out (Methuen) is published.

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Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah was recommended by the Youth Library Group for older readers in the year of the Handsworth riots.

1985: Brixton and Handsworth (in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city) again face clashes between police and Black British youth.  The Youth Libraries Group, in their newly revised list of Multiracial Books for the Classroom, recommend Pen Rhythm, “a lively collection by this well known poet” (100), Benjamin Zephaniah.

1986: 13-year-old Bangladeshi Briton Ahmed Iqbal Ullah is murdered by a classmate on the school playground in Manchester.  Ullah’s murder was racially motivated.

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Nichols’ poetry collection includes British Asian as well as Black British poets.

1988: Britain introduces a National Curriculum; many complain it does not address the needs of diverse Britain, but instead urges assimilation.  Blackie publishes Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’ collection from Black and Asian poets around the world, Black Poetry (the title was changed to Poetry Jump-Up in the paperback edition).

1993: 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence is killed by a gang of white British youths while he is waiting for a bus.  Lawrence did not know his attackers.  The murder was racially motivated. The official inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson Report (1999), would call for many changes, including revisions to the National Curriculum to include anti-racist and diverse teaching and reading materials.  Meiling Jin, a London-based writer of Guyanese Chinese descent, publishes Thieving Summer (Hamish Hamilton)

1997: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah publishes his collection for older readers, School’s Out: Poems Not for School (AK).

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Bali Rai has produced several titles for Barrington Stoke on high interest topics such as football for reluctant readers.

1998: Barrington Stoke, a publisher focused on reluctant and dyslexic children and YA readers, is founded.  They publish books for YA readers by many high-impact BAME authors, including Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, and Sita Brahmachari.

1999: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (http://www.racearchive.org.uk/) is set up in Manchester to honor the 13-year-old killed by his classmate; the trust would publish stories of young refugees and immigrants to Manchester, as well as illustrated biographies of BAME Britons created by young people.  Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel, Face (Bloomsbury), “a story of facial discrimination,” as he calls it, is published.

2000: Black British publisher Tamarind Press publishes the first in its Black Profiles (later renamed Black Stars) series by Verna Wilkins, biographies of living Black Britons of achievement, including author Malorie Blackman.  The Carnegie Medal goes to South African-born white British author Beverley Naidoo for her book about Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses led to a series of successful novels–and to her becoming the first Black British Children’s Laureate.

2001: Black British author Malorie Blackman’s novel, Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday), detailing an imagined England where Black Britons have all the power positions, is published.  The book would go on to win a number of book awards.

2003: Black British poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah refuses an OBE because of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery.

2004: Guyanese-born poet John Agard publishes Half-Caste (Hodder), a book of poems which encourages readers to “check out” their Black British history.

2009: Publisher Frances Lincoln teams up with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, to offer the Diverse Voices Award.  Poet John Agard’s revision of Dante, The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln), with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, appears and is nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie Medal.

2013: Malorie Blackman is appointed the first Black British Children’s Laureate. Pakistani-born Tariq Mehmood becomes the only non-white author to win the Diverse Voices Award, for his novel You’re Not Proper (Hope Road).  White British author Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury), about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

2014: Seven Stories and Frances Lincoln publish a list of “Diverse Voices: 50 of the Best” books for children and young adults (https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/diverse-voice-top-50).  The BBC and BookTrust collaborate to offer the first BBC Young Writers Award, for short stories by 14-18 year olds.

2015: The Carnegie Medal is awarded to white British author Tanya Landman for her book about post-Civil War African Americans, Buffalo Soldier.  Catherine Johnson’s novel of a poor, Black British woman masquerading as a princess in the early 19th century in order to survive, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, appears from Corgi; it would be shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in 2016.  A graphic novel version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by John Aggs, appears.

2016: White American author Robin Talley wins the first Amnesty CILIP Honour medal for her book about Civil Rights-era America, The Lies We Tell Ourselves.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom) becomes the first story about Black Britons written by a Black British author to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) is shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award; it would win the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the YA Bookseller’s prize in 2017.

2017: The UK’s Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories in Newcastle, hosts “Diverse Voices?” (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/diversevoices/),  a symposium designed to think about ways to better represent BAME voices in children’s books, archives, museums, prizes and publishing on November 24th.  If you are reading this at first publication, you’ll know that this event has not yet happened, but it’s something I’ve been involved with planning over the last year.  YA authors Alex Wheatle, Catherine Johnson, and Patrice Lawrence are among the invited guests (several other authors, including picture book and middle grade authors, are also participating), and author and publisher Verna Wilkins will also be discussing publishing for a BAME audience.  I’ll be getting ready for the symposium next week, but hope to have a blog or two following the event discussing some of the salient points.  Watch this space!

Ad-Libbing: Expanding Diversity through Teen Imprints, 1970-1990

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In 1966, Stokely Carmichael and a group of African-American civil rights marchers and activists demanded Black Power. Through the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s, Black Power and Black Panthers became part of a worldwide movement to further civil rights for people of African descent—by any means necessary, as Malcolm X would suggest. The movement was largely youth-generated and youth-led, as teens who had been long-denied the rights, access, and material wealth of middle-class white society tired of waiting and began demanding equality.

In Britain, Black Power had two distinct phases. The first, which occurred at roughly the same time as the American Black Power movement, focused on the global African community. Most Blacks in Britain during the late 1960s had come to the country as part of a post-World War II migration from the Caribbean, and these “New Commonwealth immigrants” were keen to remember (and teach their children about) a past that began in Africa and continued through slavery and emancipation in the Caribbean. Independent Black British publishers, such as New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture, were prominent during this time.

 

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?Horace Ove’s 1975 film “Pressure” showed the way that Black communities in Britain were divided by generations.

In the 1970s, however, the sense of community that the earlier migrants had tried so hard to engender began to fall apart. Many young people, born in Britain of immigrant parents, felt they belonged to neither the country of their parents’ origin nor their own. Failed by the education system, many dropped out of mainstream society and turned to Rastafarianism or other youth associations. For white British people, this raised suspicion that, as Paul Gilroy points out in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, “Black Power and Black Alliance movements . . . were thought to be recruiting among the young unemployed,” Gilroy writes (112). Conflicts between Black youth and white police became more common, and were widely covered in the press.

It was at this time that mainstream publishers, through various teen imprints, began publishing stories for and about Black British youth. There were two varieties of these stories; one that dealt with Black Britons in contemporary times, and one that connected them with their historical past. The first tended to be controversial, as well as time-bound. For example, Aidan Chambers’ series Topliners published Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys of Westcroft (1975), which focuses on identity and power in a British comprehensive school; as Lucy Pearson comments, “rather than condemning racism as the preserve of the ignorant and the malevolent, it presents it as embedded in the social structures of society” (The Making of Modern Children’s Literature 141).

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Dhondy’s Siege of Babylon was based on this 1975 event, widely covered (and condemned) by the media.

Farrukh Dhondy’s most challenging book for young people, The Siege of Babylon, was also a Topliner, published in 1978. Dhondy’s story echoed, according to Maggie Hewitt, the Spaghetti House Siege of 1975. The 1975 event involved, as did Dhondy’s fictional version, three Black men taking several white people hostage, but Dhondy made his protagonists somewhat younger than the mid- to late-20s hostage-takers of the Spaghetti House Siege. Similar to them, however, Dhondy had them demand a plane and safe passage to Jamaica; unlike the real event, not all of the hostage-takers in The Siege of Babylon survived. (The events of the Siege were also later filmed by an Italian director in 1982.) Dhondy always felt that Siege was unfairly ignored, but its depiction of violence (and sexism), as well as its connection to real-life recent events, made it uncomfortable reading for many of the (white) teachers and librarians who bought the books.

 

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Puffin Plus published Darke’s novel about a Black youth arrested for following his conscience.

Dhondy’s and Breinburg’s stories appeared in Topliners before the Brixton Riots of 1981; after this, mainstream publishers were both more cautious and more eager to include Black Britons in books for teens. (There is a lovely sort of innocence in book publishers of this period, wherein they believed that it was possible to stop riots by giving kids books to read instead.) The books produced and/or published after the Brixton riots tended to look further back in history; this on the one hand had the effect of removing some of the “relevance” found in books about teen gangs, but on the other hand also positioned Blacks as part of British history much further back than Windrush immigration. It was at this time, for example, that Marjorie Darke’s A Long Way to Go (1982) was published in Puffin Plus, the imprint that had replaced the short-lived Peacock series for teens from Penguin. A Long Way to Go, originally published by Kestrel in 1978, was part of a series about Blacks in Britain going back to the early 19th century, but the Puffin Plus edition does not list other books in the series—perhaps because earlier books concerned slavery. A Long Way to Go is about a World War I conscientious objector. Although the cover clearly shows the young man as Black, the cover blurb never mentions this, instead saying “Your Country Needs You”, placing the protagonist firmly in the British frame. (It does, however, suggest that the book is an “unusual story” and this may be Puffin’s way of alerting the reader to the racial dimension of the tale.) The book deals with the young Black Briton’s arrest and conviction, not for gang-related violence, but for his convictions, providing a different vision of the criminality of Black Britons than the one portrayed in the media of the time.

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By the late 1980s, publishers were more comfortable with stories about Britain’s slave past as written for teens. André Deutsch’s teen imprint, Adlib, published Geraldine Kaye’s A Breath of Fresh Air in 1987 and its sequel A Piece of Cake in 1991. These stories concerned Bristol teen Amy Smith, who in a series of “blackouts” is dragged back in time to Bristol’s slave trade. Amy uses the things she “dream-sees” in various history and drama productions for school; there is also a romantic angle in these stories where Amy’s boyfriend Bonny exists in both times as well. Black British history as romance for teens was a far cry from the gritty urban dramas of the mid-1970s, but all these books are connected by the idea that teens need books wherein they can see themselves. Many publishers, however, weren’t sure of the best way to provide this—they were, and are still, just ad-libbing.

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.

 

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“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.

 

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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?