Tag Archives: Golliwogs

Many Happy Returns in a Book: Who gets to have a birthday in children’s lit?

Illustrations from Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, Illustrated by Elaine Mills.

Today is my birthday. I mention this because it is so completely normal (I have one every year!). And yet this normal ordinary thing is something that for a long time, at least in books, excluded many children. I think about my childhood reading—I (still!) know when Jo March’s, Anne Shirley’s, and Betsy Ray’s birthdays are. I read about numerous animals having birthdays, including Curious George, Little Bear, and Frances the Badger. Amelia Bedelia and Mister Muster had birthdays. But I never read about an African, an African-American, an American Indian, an Asian American or a Latinx child having a birthday when I was growing up. In fact, everything about birthdays, from cake toppers to birthday cards underscored the normality of being white.

Betsy Ray’s birthday in pictures by Lois Lenski, stories by Maud Hart Lovelace.

This privileging of whiteness that permeates the culture can seem innocuous because it is so apparently normal. But birthdays especially are connected with valuing individuals, celebrating and recognizing a person’s uniqueness and worth through gift-giving and the setting aside of time to honor that person. We take it for granted, but think about what it means to be sung to (really: how often does someone sing to YOU, sing ABOUT you?), fed your favorite foods made by someone just for you, given tributes through words and presents specially selected. Take a moment and think about all of that. Then think what it means to be perennially placed on the sidelines of such a celebration, to never feel like such an honor belongs to you?


Not everyone gets to be A Little Princess on her birthday.

Historically, British children’s literature did not really recognize other-than-white people as having birthdays. Sarah Crewe had a giant birthday party at Miss Minchin’s, and even Becky, the child-maid who was one step away from starving in the streets gave her a birthday present. But would anyone find out when Ram Dass’s birthday was? Not in the book, anyway. Often, characters meant to represent Black people (such as the Golliwog—a much more common figure in British children’s literature throughout the first half of the 20th century than actual Black people) were not only NOT being celebrated, they were the entertainment. This “Golly” character from a paperboard shape book (and if anyone can date this for me, I’d be grateful; there are some things that the British Library just does not count as “books”) is the juggler, tightrope walker AND the magician at the Panda’s party—but he still brings a gift as well.


Everyone else is a guest at the party, but Golly must earn his place by performing.

The lack of birthday representation for Black British children was one of the specific absences that Verna Wilkins set out to redress when she created her first books for Tamarind Press in the late 1980s. Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book was designed as an early reader for schools, which originally came with a triangular number puzzle and a set of story sequence cards. But though early literacy and numeracy was important to Wilkins, equally important was presenting Black British children enjoying the same privileges and celebrations as their white British counterparts. In Wilkins’ book, “normal” includes being the birthday princess, but also receiving birthday cards with Black people on them.


Wilkins’ Finished Being Four, illustrated by Claire Pound, also has the traditional British birthday feast.

A similar ethos guides her later book, Finished Being Four (1992), a trade picture book about four children in a class who share birthdays in the same week and so also share a party. The birthday feast is full of traditional British party food, including cocktail sausages, quiche, jelly, jam tarts and swiss roll—as well as a birthday cake, of course. Some criticized Wilkins for erasing cultural references (in Finished Being Four one of the mothers wears a sari but there are no Indian sweets on the birthday table, and no indication that any culture celebrates birthdays any differently than the British) but for Wilkins, at least when she began, having Black characters experience the same birthday celebrations as white characters was part of the point.


Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus has lost his dreadlocks in Marcellus’ Birthday Cake. Illustrations by Petra Rohr-Rouendaal.

Other British children’s books published during the early nineties similarly used a birthday celebration to emphasize the normality of Black British existence. Interestingly, Lorraine Simeon’s sequel to Marcellus, a book about a boy with dreadlocks who is afraid he’ll be made fun of at school, is Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, where the title character attempts to make his own birthday cake. While Marcellus depicts a potential outsider gaining acceptance despite his difference in appearance, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake does not even hint at Marcellus being an outsider—he has even lost his locks. It is hard to tell if this is what Simeon intended (she did not illustrate either book, and both of my editions were published in America, so perhaps the British editions are different). Nonetheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that Simeon’s birthday book has an almost-studied “normality” about it.


The birthday feast in Jennifer Northway’s Lucy’s Quarrel is the same as ever, but the birthday cake is unique.

Jennifer Northway’s Lucy books are really Lucy and Alice books, because they tell about the often quarrelsome, often loving relationship between Lucy and her cousin Alice. But the books are titled after Lucy, who has a Black British mother and a white British father, rather than white British Alice. Nonetheless, Lucy’s life as depicted in Lucy’s Quarrel is remarkably similar to her cousin’s; both live in middle-class houses, go to ballet class, attend the same school, and go to the fun fair. Lucy’s birthday cake is the sole distinguishing feature about her party that reminds the reader of her Black British heritage. Unlike the plain cakes depicted in all the other Black British books, Lucy has a ballerina cake (I had one of these when I was four too), and the ballerina is brown.

There is a tension in picture books depicting Black British child birthdays; on the one hand, authors are deliberately representing and making central the characters who were formerly either invisible or on the sidelines at birthday parties. On the other hand, other than their brown skin, these characters often have little to mark them out from white British characters. We all should be allowed to have a happy birthday—and see people like us in books doing the same—but do we really all have to have the same kind of birthday to be seen as “normal”?

Ghosts of No Nation: Forgotten Histories Revealed in Children’s Literature

Author Zetta Elliott recently sent me a copy of The Ghosts in the Castle (Rosetta, 2017), her most recent children’s book, because it is about an American searching for Black History in England (can’t think why she thought I might be interested, ha ha). The main character, Zaria, is Afro-Caribbean; she lives in New York City but like many people with Caribbean ancestry, she has relations in many countries, including England. Zaria is making her first trip to London to visit her grandfather, who is ill; but despite never having been to Britain before, she comes with pre-conceived notions about what it will be like.

She gets these notions about Britain and the British people from books. Zaria says, “The England I’ve read about in books and seen in so many movies is full of wizards, and unicorns, and magic wands. It rains every day, and kids live in castles or mansions that have secret rooms or ghosts in the attic” (5). Zaria’s reading reflects something that is true not only of Americans reading about Britain, but about Brits reading about their own country: whiteness. Danuta Kean, writing in the Guardian this week, says, “British readers may recognise the value of literature to encourage social cohesion – but the perspective they gain from novels remains overwhelmingly white, male and middle class, according to a survey of public attitudes to literature released on Wednesday” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/01/literature-report-shows-british-readers-stuck-in-very-white-past). Because whiteness seems “normal” for Britain, Zaria (and British readers) accepts the idea that the “real” England is about white people. But fortunately Zaria has a radical aunt, who points out her assumptions. “You love books about castles and wizards and magical creatures, but you are not in those books. The hero is always White” (31). Zaria’s aunt would like her own son—and Zaria as well—to read books that reflect the Black British contribution to the nation, but Zaria feels conflicted about this. Although she is interested in what she is learning about Black British history, she likes fantasy, and wants to read about castles and magic and ghosts.


In most “classic” British fantasy, this is as close as you get to a Black character.

Fortunately for Zaria, her aunt takes her to Windsor Castle, where she learns about the history of Africans connected with Queen Victoria. As I’ve written about before, Queen Victoria had a habit of adopting young Africans and educating them in Britain, and Zaria comes across the ghosts of two of them, the Abyssinian Prince Alemayehu and Sarah Bonetta Forbes. The two Africans are a contrast; Alemayehu is angry and homesick, while Sarah (or Sally, as Zaria calls her) is happy to please those who have taken her away from Africa. This is an important difference between the two for readers, who might have mixed feelings about living in a white-dominated society (no matter what their race). Zaria and her cousin Winston must help both ghosts, but particularly Alemayehu. They do this through reminding Alemayehu of his home with souvenirs they purchase in Brixton Market. In the end, Alemayehu learns that love, and remembering that love, allows you to roam freely, and learn fully. Zaria does not “lay the ghosts to rest” but rather sets them free, and gives them the world as their playground.


There throughout history: Olusoga makes the point that Black Britons did not just arrive beginning with Windrush.

The Ghosts in the Castle is the third in Zetta Elliott’s City Kids series. The series format, and the fact that the first two are set in Zaria’s home of Brooklyn, makes it perhaps inevitable that when offered a chance to go to boarding school in England, Zaria decides to return home. But I admit to a feeling of disappointment that she did, in part because I have been reading David Olusoga’s very heavy history, Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016; I also watched the accompanying television series from the BBC). Olusoga, who lived during his childhood in my own recent home of Newcastle, grew up much like Elliott’s Zaria—unaware of the role that Black Britons played in their own nation. His history makes an excellent case, not just for the recent past but for the long past, of the pivotal part that people of African descent had in shaping the very things that we think of as “British,” and, too often, also as “white.” Like Elliott, Olusoga works to reveal the Black British presence that is often in front of our eyes if we know where to look. Elliott, for example, points out both the brass memorial plaque to Alewayehu in the nave of St George’s chapel and the additional plaque beneath it commemorating the visit of Haile Selassie I to Alewayehu’s memorial in 1924 (61-62). Olusoga describes the Black British sailor depicted on the brass relief at the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square—and then, to indicate the significance of the inclusion of the Black sailor, Olusoga goes on to describe all the Black sailors known to have sailed with Nelson (19-21). And this is just one such incident of Black Britons appearing in very public places that people walk by every day without ever noticing, in a book that is over 500 pages.


England Expects Every Man to Do his Duty: might Zaria come back to London to meet the Black soldier defending Nelson at the base of the column in Trafalgar Square next time?

Britain often seems through its literature and other cultural production to be a place where whiteness is not only dominant, but sometimes exclusive, both to its own citizens and to the global tourists and consumers of children’s books. Elliott’s book takes a step toward changing the image of Britain—but based on David Olusoga’s history, Zaria is going to have to return and find more ghosts to set free from invisibility. Only then will they move from being ghosts of no nation, to belonging to us all.

Try, try again? Revising Children’s Literature for Inclusion


The original Just William, illustrated by Thomas Henry.

The other day in the British chain bookshop, Waterstone’s, I was startled to see Richmal Crompton’s Just William change skin color. The mischievous scamp, whose fan site calls him “one of the most popular fictional characters of all time” (http://www.sharpsoftware.co.uk/william/) first appeared in 1919 in Home Magazine; some of the stories that appeared there were collected into a book, Just William, in 1922, and the character lasted through 38 books—the last of which was published in 1970, a year after Crompton’s death. Films were made in the 1940s, and television series in the 1970s and 1990s. In all of these incarnations, William was white. Yet here he was, staring out from the cover illustration of Still William (the eighth book in the series, originally appearing in 1924), brown-skinned and spiky-haired.


A browner version of Wills in the new cover by Chris Judge from Macmillan.

Macmillan, who reissued the early books in the series, had several guest illustrators design the covers. Chris Judge’s cover of Still William is the only one to imagine a non-white William, but he doesn’t comment on this in his back cover blurb, saying only, “The Just William series of books was my dad’s favourite growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, and there were always beautiful, well-thumbed editions of them on every bookshelf in my own youth. It is such a joy to get to illustrate a new cover for something that meant so much to my dad as a boy.” Unfortunately for readers attracted by this reimagined William, the book’s inside illustrations are the original drawings for the book by Thomas Henry; after a brief moment as a non-white character, William returns to “normal”. Judge’s cover may have been an acknowledgement by Macmillan that the audience for the William stories might have changed since their inception, but the idea of a whole book-ful (not even a whole series-ful) of non-white William is still a bridge too far.

Original Oompa-Loompas

Revising children’s books to reflect a changing audience is not a new concept for children’s publishers. Children’s versions of the Bible story Noah’s Ark used to provide a case for the enslavement of Africans, because Noah’s youngest son—who was, according to these stories, dark-skinned—laughed at his father for getting drunk and was subsequently banished. This, needless to say, is no longer the emphasised element of the story. More recently and controversially, Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle and the first edition of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory famously both underwent revisions when publishers found their original texts too racist. (I would argue that both texts maintain a strong sense of white privilege and/or superiority, even in their expurgated versions; Willy Wonka may have been a benevolent Oompa-Loompa controller, but the “tribal people” still never left that factory and weren’t paid except in food and housing.) These cases drew considerable attention because the author’s words—and, presumably, their intentions as well—were changed. (And, at least in the case of Lofting, he wasn’t around to defend himself or protest the changes.) Phil Nel writes about these two books here http://www.philnel.com/2010/09/19/censoring-ideology/ if you want to read more, but the point I’m making is that publishers have a lot of power when it comes to what children get to see in children’s literature.

Three different covers for Enid Blyton’s Happy Day Stories, 1960, 1969, and 1973.

And sometimes they get it wrong. Enid Blyton’s books often have come under scrutiny for various politically incorrect attitudes, but in 1969, the publishers Evans made a problematic story worse by changing the cover. The original hardback version of Happy Day Stories was published in 1960, and had a picture of a blond boy writing on the cover. Perhaps in a recognition of the changing British population in the 1960s, when thousands of West Indian families came to Britain to settle, they changed the cover for the paperback edition. The new cover illustrated a story called “Alice-all-alone” in which a young loner named Alice learns to socialize when she believes her “golly” has come to life. It turns out that actually the “golly” is the kid next door, who has gone to a fancy dress party dressed up as a golly (the logic required to make this work is beyond me). The picture on the cover shows the boy, in blackface but still clearly not of African descent. Alice in her swinging sixties outfit appears puzzled but intrigued.

I have no idea how this book sold, but just a few years later, Evans revised the paperback cover yet again. This time they chose (wisely) a different story for the cover, a story in which “The Three Bad Boys” are stuck up a tree by the threat of goats. Although in the original story, Len, Harry and Jack are white, the 1973 cover makes one of the boys non-white. Both covers are by the same illustrator, Marcia Lane Foster, but the second is far less problematic. Nonetheless, I’m not sure whether either cover—or any other marketing tool—could make some of the Enid Blyton stories palatable to a Black British audience.

So to return to Macmillan, Just William, and Chris Judge, I was certainly intrigued by the idea of Judge’s rethinking of a classic character. But I worry that, like Macmillan, readers will only give momentary thought to the idea of an alternative version of a classic before returning to the comfortable, all-white world of children’s classics.