Tag Archives: humor in children’s literature

“Slight” of Hand: Reading With, and not For, “Race” in Children’s Books

Apologies to those of you who regularly follow my blog; it has been a busy time for me, and indeed, this will be my last blog for a while as I concentrate on other concerns and projects.  But I wanted to conclude this phase of my blog by looking at something I rarely consider in these pages: the “non-issue” book in British children’s literature about people of colour.  In the 2017 Reflecting Realities report, the executive summary highlights the fact that many children’s books with characters of colour are not only about Blackness (or Asianness, or being a minority ethnic member of society in general), they are about the problem of being an ethnic minority in society (national society or global society):

“The fiction titles were categorised according to a set of agreed sub-categories intended to define subject matter. ‘Contemporary Realism’ was a category defined as books set in modern day landscapes/ contexts; these amounted to 91 titles, which accounted for 56% of the fiction submissions. This category therefore featured the highest percentage of BAME character presence. Only 1 of the children’s fiction titles submitted could be classified as comedy, conversely 10% of submitted books featured Social Justice themes. Almost a third of submissions classified as containing social justice issues focused on themes of war and conflict. This very much corresponds with the societal context of recent years and is important to acknowledge, explore and mirror in literature. That said this does however raise some important questions. Do those from minority backgrounds only have a platform when their suffering is being explored? And how does such disproportionate variation of representation skew perspectives of minority groups?” Reflecting Realities 2017 Report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children).

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The 2013 Vintage Classic edition of Arthur Ransome’s 1936 Carnegie Medal-winning Pigeon Post. One of the reasons that the medal matters is that Carnegie winners tend to stay in print for decades.

This is also an issue that has come up with regard to the CILIP Carnegie medal; if a book is not about a Serious Issue, then recently it has rarely been considered for nomination, let alone the award.  Alison Brumwell, chair of this year’s judging panel, commented about the books on the longlist, “The forty books selected by judges offer intimate insights into family life, superb world-building and thoughtful, incisive explorations of complex themes and issues” (https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2019_longlists_announced.html). This award preference for complexity of themes and issues can be found across children’s books—authors such as Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series (the first of which appeared in 2014), rarely appear in nominations, despite wide success with readers, diversity in characters, and a “literary” style (by which I mean, endpaper maps and literary allusions and a twist in the traditional tale-type) that the Carnegie judges have tended to favour.  It was not always thus; in fact, the first winner, Pigeon Post (1936), was one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; Lucy Pearson describes it as “deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history” (https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/pigeon-post/) but certainly not an “issue” book in the same way that Sarah Crossan’s One (the 2016 Carnegie winner) or Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (the 2015 Carnegie winner) are.  The emphasis on issue-based literature, mostly for older readers, and the preference for it from both publishers and award committees encourage authors of colour to write about “issues” in the hope of gaining literary success.

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Tanya Landman’s Carnegie-medal winner announces its Serious Issue on the front cover. Notably, the book is by a white author and set in America rather than Britain; to date no British author of colour has ever won the Carnegie.

Therefore, I want to focus the rest of this blog on two authors who have recently published books which might be considered “slight” by, not just award judges, but reviewers, teachers and librarians as well.  Malorie Blackman and Patrice Lawrence have both written “issue” books for older readers that the Carnegie medal process ignored anyway; Blackman’s 2001 Noughts and Crosses, often considered her most significant book; and Patrice Lawrence’s 2016 Orangeboy, which won the Waterstone’s prize, were not shortlisted.  Both of these books considered questions of racial identity and power structures, among other things.  But their recent books for the publisher Barrington Stoke are very different.  Blackman’s Ellie and the Cat (2019, illustrated by Matt Robertson, originally published in 1994 as Elaine, You’re a Brat by Orchard Books) concerns, according to the back cover list of themes, “Cats, Magic, Friendship”.  Lawrence’s Toad Attack! (2019, illustrated by Becka Moor) lists “Friendship, Toads, Tricks” as its themes.  These themes, combined with book covers that depict smiling children and animals drawn in cartoon-like fashion, indicate right away that these books are not going to deal with “serious” issues or be Carnegie-contenders.

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The plots of these books bear out the promise of the covers.  Ellie and the Cat is set in contemporary times, but it is a fairytale-like story with a wise woman (Ellie’s grandmother) who teaches “the rudest, most disagreeable child I have ever met” (12)—her granddaughter, Ellie—to behave through the use of a transformation, a quest, and the help of magical, talking animals.  Lawrence’s toads, on the other hand, do not talk, but they cause havoc for protagonists Leo and Rosa, who must discover both how to stop the hundreds of giant toads from destroying local gardens, and how to stop the destruction of the toads themselves by angry mobs.  Typical for Barrington Stoke books, these two are short (both resolve in under 75 pages), with relatively simple vocabulary and high readability.  The stories follow in the tradition of humorous, magical or hyperbolic books with mildly-delivered messages about good behavior or living in society, such as Gillian Cross’s Jason Banks and the Pumpkin of Doom (also Barrington Stoke, 2018) or even older stories by authors like Dorothy Edwards or Dick King-Smith.

The difference is that Blackman’s and Lawrence’s books have protagonists of colour.  Ellie and Leo are (at least partly—Leo has a white mother and grandfather) Black British heritage, and Rosa is British Asian.  But in many ways, that is the ONLY difference.  These books are not about “being” Black or Asian, and they certainly are not about the problem of being an ethnic minority.  It is not a new phenomenon to include British children of colour in stories such as these (Gillian Cross had a school series first published in the early 1980s that included Clipper, a Black British girl), but they have typically featured as parts of a gang, or sidekicks.  What Lawrence and Blackman do in these books is foreground the protagonists of colour, and the illustrators follow suit by keeping them prominent and central in the illustrations throughout.  Readers are not reading about the problem of being Black or Asian British, but they are reading about being Black or Asian British.  Lawrence and Blackman give readers the opportunity to see characters of colour in leading roles, part of humorous situations and allowed to problem-solve in a way that does not focus on identity.  These books may appear slight, but they perform an important role: they make being Black and Asian part of being British, in contrast with a publishing and awards industry that want to make them only Black British or only British Asian.  And this is a change, a sleight-of-hand if you will, which, over the long term, could have more impact than any individual medal-winning book.

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.