Tag Archives: Idi Amin

It Takes Allsorts, Maybe: Literary Annuals and Who Belongs

I’ve been back at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book, over the past few weeks doing some work with digital archiving and preparing for a symposium on diversity for November.  It’s impossible to be at Seven Stories without being distracted by the Aladdin’s Cave of material there, and while looking for something else I found myself in the collection of annuals donated by the children’s author and children’s literature critic, Victor Watson.  I love old annuals; the time capsule of binding up the “best” of a magazine’s year and the often-unlikely hodge-podge of comics, stories, puzzles and pictures fascinates both the historian and the philologist in me.  When faced with the hundreds of annuals donated by Watson, I knew I had to get out of the stacks quickly, before I disappeared for days in their pages and possibly got squished by the movable shelving when the Seven Stories staff forgot I was there (a fitting, but bitter end for a children’s literature academic).

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The first volume of Thwaite’s Allsorts, an annual supposedly filled with “real” writing. Cover by Jenny Williams.

So, seeing a small run of annuals at the very beginning of the very first shelf, I decided I would just look at those, and I took the seven volumes of Allsorts back to my desk. Allsorts, it turns out, was not your ordinary annual.  The editor was no Fleet Street hack but Ann Thwaite, the biographer of children’s authors A. A. Milne and Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Thwaite got the idea for the annuals when she was living in Libya and, according to the book jacket for the second volume, “found it difficult to obtain books for her children other than the annuals which she (and her children) found lacking in nourishment. ‘Why shouldn’t there be an annual containing some real writing?’ she argued” (back book jacket flap).

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Thwaite’s Annuals appeared about the same time as the Puffin Annuals, which also aimed at a middle-class white audience.

I have to confess I almost put them back right then.  Having spent a year researching publishers and editors, many of whom had somewhat rose-coloured ideas about children and the middle class lifestyle in which all those children apparently lived, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what Thwaite saw as “real” writing.  (I also wanted to interview her kids to see if they would REALLY agree with their jacket flap’s parenthetical reference to them.) It is interesting to compare these to the Puffin annuals, which came out about the same time; both have a decidedly middle-class audience in mind, and both are very clearly aimed at a white British audience.

As annuals, Allsorts are very wordy; there are a couple of comics in the first one (by David Hornsby—who is not listed as one of the “writers” in the back) but these have gone by Allsorts 3.  They include writers like Catherine Storr, Penelope Farmer and Joan Aiken.  They are pitched at 8-year-olds; I say this because there is a regular feature, “The Year I was Eight,” where authors write about their own experiences of being eight.  This is one of the few times that racial diversity is present in the annuals; in Allsorts 1, the very first of these is by Edward Lucie-Smith, the Jamaican-born poet who brought poets Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, and Roger McGough to prominence in The Liverpool Scene.  Lucie-Smith is white, but he describes Black Jamaicans: “The back yard and the back of the house were also the domain of the servants.  We weren’t very rich, but coloured servants were cheap and we had three living in: my nurse, a fat cook, and a thin parlour-maid” (19).  These servants are never given names, and are described right after the animals who live in Lucie-Smith’s house.  Similarly, after being sent to boarding school, Lucie-Smith writes that “On Sundays the roads around [the school] were full of country people going to church –black faces, and stiffly starched white or pink dresses amid the greenery” (23).  The Black Jamaicans become part of Lucie-Smith’s scenery, no different from the flora and fauna.  His story is followed by two more “The Year I was Eight” stories, one by Zulfikar Ghose, from Bombay, and one by Peter Porter, from Australia.  The rest of these stories in the other volumes are all by white and mostly English authors (including Penelope Farmer and Ann Thwaite herself).

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Sleeping with the enemy: Plucky British schoolgirls take being hijacked in their stride. Glenys Ambrus illustrated “Hijacked.”

The remaining volumes carry on in fairly similar fashion.  Number 2 (1969) has a story called “The Sounds of Cricket” by Zulfikar Ghose about cricket in Pakistan, and that’s about it.  Allsorts 4 has the most curious story, “Hijacked” written by 2 of the 31 children who were hijacked and held as hostages in Jordan by the PLO in 1970.  The illustrations, by Glenys (wife of Victor) Ambrus, are very scary—people in Arabic dress with guns standing over white children in school uniforms.  If this story had been published a hundred years earlier in Girls Own Paper, it likely would have involved the words “plucky British schoolgirls”—but then, Girls Own may or may not have been classified as “real writing.”

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C is for Cannibal with a bone through his hair in Allsorts 5.

Edward Lucie-Smith tells an Anansi story in play form in Allsorts 5, which although not written in patois (as the Black Jamaican poet Louise Bennett was already doing by this time) at least was not written in a white person’s IDEA of patois.  It seems like a progressive step, but this volume also has a puzzle picture, illustrated by Linda Birch, that includes a cannibal with a bone through his hair.

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There are slight changes to Allsorts by the time it gets to volume 7–including one Black British girl playing basketball, way in the back of the cover.

The cover to Allsorts 6 (1973) is the first to have any non-white children on it, and includes a story (with recipe!) called “Chitra Makes a Curry” written by Ursula Sharma and illustrated by Felicity Bartlett, and also “The Year I Was Seven: Stepmothers in Hong Kong” is by Man Wah Leung and illustrated by Sally Kindberg.  Allsorts 7 (1974), which also has a multiracial cover (the covers are all by Jenny Williams) has a story called “Tell Me Truth” by Janet Hitchman and illustrated by Alexy Pendle, which I think is about the expulsion of Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, but there’s no clear information, so, like the child-authored “Hijacked” in volume 4, the story comes across as some kind of vague refugee adventure in which the white British (of course) are the heroes: at one point, the main character’s father says, “it was no wonder the English had conquered the world: such suffering [of having a cold] made them all heroes without even trying!” (150).  This line, clearly meant to be taken ironically by the (white?) readers, nonetheless reinforces the ideas that A) England DID conquer the world and B) the people of the (formerly) colonized world see this as quite reasonable.   Allsorts may have been more “literary” than, say, the Enid Blyton annuals coming out at the time, but at the end of the day, these annuals continued to reproduce white privilege.  All sorts are allowed to be a part of children’s literature—as long as they are “our” sort of all sorts.

We’re Here Because You Were There—and There, and There: British Children’s Literature and Migration

Britain’s empire once expanded all over the world, dominating at its high point one-quarter of the world’s land mass and the lives of one-sixth of its people. After World War II, the (former) imperial traffic went the other way, as Louise Bennett has put it, “people colonizin’/Englan in Reverse” (“Colonization in Reverse”). By 1970, people of Jamaican descent alone numbered 1.4 million of Britain’s population—and a third of those were children born in Britain. Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, and African people were all among the postwar waves of immigration into Britain. As the new populations of Britons grew up, there was concern among their foreign-born parents that these children would not value or understand their dual heritage. Books to help children focus on their “other” heritage through a recognition of the geographies and histories of empire, began appearing as early as 1972.

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Getting to Know Ourselves by Bernard and Phyllis Coard linked children in the Caribbean to their contemporaries in Africa. The book was published by independent publishers Eric and Jessica Huntley (pictured in front.).

At first, it was independent publishers such as Bogle L’Ouverture Press producing these books. Bogle L’Ouverture, run by Guyanese immigrants Jessica and Eric Huntley, began publishing in the late 1960s to provide access for Black Britons to the writings of political activists such as Walter Rodney, but as their own children began to encounter the white, Eurocentric school system, they expanded their publishing to include children’s books. Their first venture was written by Bernard and Phyllis Coard, Getting to Know Ourselves. Bernard Coard had written his doctoral dissertation on the exploitation of Africa; his wife Phyllis was a clinical psychologist who specialized in the emotional disorders linked to racism. The book they produced for children introduced two children from Jamaica to two children from Africa, and explained why they looked alike. They were linked, the book explains, through a history of slavery. Although the book is indirect about both their enslavers and the horrors of slavery, it does provide child readers with a history that was almost entirely absent from the schools at the time.

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Not quite at the point of saying Two BRITISH children visit Pakistan.

By the late 1980s, more mainstream educational publishers were also producing books for young people that discussed the links between empire in the 19th century and migration in the 20th. Macmillan Education, for example, produced a series called “At Home and Abroad” that addressed South Asian and Caribbean migration to Britain. Steve Harrison’s At Home and Abroad with Amar and Zarqa: Two Muslim Children Visit Pakistan is one of this series. It is very text-heavy, but in part this is because it is trying to, as it were, make up for lost history. The book starts out by explaining, “The children in this book are Amar, a boy of twelve, and Zarqa, a ten-year-old girl. They are British, but they have never met many of their relatives. Their oldest relatives live thousands of kilometres away, in Pakistan. To understand why the members of this family live so far apart we need to look back into history” (4). Harrison then goes on to describe the British Empire, the South Asian contribution to Britain’s WWI and WWII war efforts (“Many people are surprised” by the fact that non-Europeans fought, Harrison says on the same page), the after-effects of independence from the British, and migration. The children visit many places in Pakistan, learning its history but also enjoying its fairs and festivals and seeing the way people in Pakistan lived on a daily basis. Amar and Zarqa enjoy their time, but conclude that they consider themselves British: “I now know that although my home will always be Britain, I’m part of a bigger family that is spread across the world” (47), says Amar, and Zarqa adds, “we’re a part of the village even though our future is in Britain” (47). This series focuses on the heritage that British-born children have outside of Britain.

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Patel’s book widens the definition of British to include Top of the Pops and Hindu comics.

Another education series, Franklin Watts’ “When I was Young” books, includes at least one offering that explores the history of migration. Tarun Patel writes about When I Was Young in the Seventies (1991). Unlike Amar and Zarqa, Patel was born outside the UK, coming to Britain in 1972 from Kampala, Uganda, after Idi Amin expelled all the Asians in the country. This rarely-discussed (in children’s books, anyway) forced migration shaped Patel’s life. Because the Ugandan government made them leave within 72 hours, “and the soldiers made sure you weren’t taking any valuables . . . We were poor when we arrived in London” (6). Patel knew no English, when he and his family arrived, and he describes learning the language from British children’s television. Thus, Patel was both part of and separate from British culture at the same time. He experiences racism from skinheads, who “called all the Asian kids ‘Paki’” (16) but also learned about strikes during the Thatcher era. He watched “Top of the Pops”—Bay City Rollers was a favorite—but also watches Hindi films. “I couldn’t understand the dialogue,” he says, “but I loved the fight scenes and the songs” (19). In a reverse of his education in British culture, he also has to learn about Hindu culture—but he does this through comic books as well as going to temple. Like Amar and Zarqa, however, Patel sees his future in the UK: “I’d really like to go into hotel development here and in Europe, that’s my ambition at the moment” (26). The book focuses on Patel in Britain, but describes his links with his Hindu heritage and the history of empire as well.

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Kamal learns about steel bands instead of the Empire in Frederick’s book.

This is a continuing story. In 2006, the independent, multicultural-focused publisher Frances Lincoln produced a series called “Children Return to their Roots”. The series included Malcolm Frederick’s and Prodeepta Das’ Kamal Goes to Trinidad. This book, which I’ve written about before (see “My (Black) Britain: The West Indies and Britain in Twenty-First Century Nonfiction Picture Books,” Bookbird 50.3: 1-11), is similar to the “At Home and Abroad” series, except that it shows a country much further beyond independence. Thus, the Trinidadians are connected in the text to the world, but not as specifically to Britain as Pakistan was in Harrison’s text. Kamal Goes to Trinidad shows a British child learning about his roots; he visits Trinidad because his grandparents live there, but he lives in Britain because the British were everywhere.

Thanks as always to Seven Stories for access to their book collection; they own the copies of the Coards, Harrison, and Patel texts.