Tag Archives: Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Reality, Reflected? CLPE, and the Search for Statistics about BAME Children’s Publishing

When I was writing my first book, Soon Come Home to this Island: West Indians and British Children’s Literature (Routledge 2008), a number of people asked me if there was really all that much literature to write about.  Most could not name a single Black British author or character in a book for children, and if they could, it was because they had gone looking for Black British literature specifically either for their own children, or for children that they knew and/or taught.


When I wrote Soon Come Home, many people wondered if there were any West Indians in British Children’s Literature.

By the time I wrote my most recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmilan 2017), this situation had changed for the better somewhat; most (British) people that I asked could name a few authors (though they were less likely to be able to name characters, indicating something about the “classic” status, or lack thereof, of Black British children’s literature)—and my American family, friends and students, who had to listen to me banging on all the time could also name a few authors, despite the fact that Black British authors are seldom published in the US.  But nonetheless, I still found myself able to write in that later book, “Depressingly little has changed in British publishing over the last 50 years” (Children’s Publishing 184), and “Publishing is an industry which is self-reinforcing: books that ‘sell’ are books that serve the majority population in society, so these are the books that are published—but groups outside the majority population do not see themselves in books, so they do not buy these books, and then publishers can argue that certain groups ‘don’t read’ and therefore don’t require attention from the publishing industry” (185).  Obviously this formulation is something of an oversimplification, but it has been true for a long time that the publishing world did not mirror the real world when it came to children’s books.


By the time of Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, more people were aware of Black British authors–but they could count the ones they knew on a single hand.

Just how far apart the industry was from reality, however, was an unknown quantity.  The British publishing industry did not keep (or release) statistics about the diversity of either its authors and illustrators or the characters in its books.  No UK institution (government or academic) attempted to keep such statistics either, as far as I know.  But this is about to change.  This week, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published a press release.  It read in part:

“The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) has announced a pioneering new study into ethnic representation in children’s literature. The Reflecting Realities initiative will evaluate the extent and quality of ethnic representation in children’s publishing and will be the first ever survey of its kind in the UK.

The study will be produced alongside and complemented by research from BookTrust, who will publish a Representation research project focusing on the number of children’s titles created by authors and illus­trators of colour in the UK in recent years. Both surveys are funded by Arts Council England and aim to promote conversation and awareness around representation in children’s books. Findings for CLPE’s study, looking at books published in 2017, will be announced in July and followed by BookTrust’s report in Sep­tember.”

I’m very excited to be a part of the Reflecting Realities project.  CLPE’s Farrah Serroukh, who is directing the project, has put together an excellent team.  We come from a variety of disciplines—sociology, philosophy, education, literature—and organizations (including Letterbox Library and Amnesty International), so we bring different ideas, suggestions, and frameworks to the question of ethnic diversity and publishing for children.  But we all hope to move beyond a “numbers game” where a publisher can say, oh, I published a BAME author last year, so I don’t need to do it this year.  Or, I have an award-winning diverse author on my lists, so I don’t need to encourage and nurture new authors.  As Sita Brahmachari wrote in a tweet on hearing about the project, “The fissure between the children I visit in schools and representation in stories is a constant reminder to me of how that absence feels as a child & what impact it can have on opportunity.  Knowing, seeing & feeling it fuels my energy to imagine stories” (2/8/18).

Sita Brahmachari’s latest book, from Barrington Stoke, is part of a long list of books reflecting the different realities of BAME people in Britain.

In the Reflecting Realities project, we hope to fuel publishers’ energy to produce such books and celebrate the ways that publishers are trying to respond to the nation’s child reading population, through looking at the quality of ethnic representation, and not just the quantity.


Books like Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet were part of publishers’ efforts in the 1970s to produce more books that reflected the realities of British youth.

Reflecting Realities is based on a model from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, who publishes similar statistics on US children’s publishing and has done in some fashion since 1985.  The CCBC began keeping statistics because one of their librarians had judged a national prize for African-American authors and found that very few authors existed.  The CLPE Reflecting Realities project is somewhat different in origin, because it comes at a moment when many stakeholders—including publishers—have expressed a desire for change.  But—as those who were around to witness publishing efforts of the 1970s (Macmillan’s Nippers and Topliners series) and 1980s (Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Other Award plus multiculturalism in series such as Puffin’s Happy Families by the Ahlbergs), and on into the 1990s and 2000s well know, desire to participate in a trend is not enough.  Alison Flood’s article in the Guardian, “Ethnic Diversity in UK Children’s Books to be Examined” allowed CLPE director Farrah Serroukh to sum up both the positive and the negative: “Serroukh at the CLPE, a charity which works to support the teaching of literacy in primary schools, said that there was currently ‘a momentum across the industry calling for better representation’. ‘We want to contribute to that conversation and move it on,’ she said. ‘It’s great that the industry has been reflecting on this, but that’s only effective if it ultimately leads to change’” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/07/ethnic-diversity-uk-childrens-books-arts-council-england-representation).  No single person, publisher, or organization can change children’s publishing—but we are hoping to do our part to make the nation’s children’s literature better reflect the reality of its reading population.

“I Don’t Have to be What you Want me to Be”: Boxing and Black British Children’s Lit


Can’t we all just get along? Boxers in the Ahlbergs’ Happy Families series.

An interesting story appeared in the Daily Express on Sunday about recently-deceased boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s “special relationship” with the UK (http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/676911/Boxing-legend-Muhammad-Ali-Special-relationship-Britain-mutual). In the article, fellow boxer George Foreman is quoted as saying that if Ali “had been born and raised in London, he never would have changed his name” from his birth name of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Ali changed his name in part due to his religious awakening and in part because his birth name was seen by him as a legacy of slavery, one that he didn’t want attached to him. Foreman argues in the article that Ali would not have needed to change his name because he wouldn’t have experienced the same level of racial prejudice as he did in the US.



Muhammad Ali at Tulse Hill School in Brixton. Photo from Memoirs of a Black Englishman.

This is perhaps a questionable notion (you’ll note that Foreman was not born and raised in London either, and you might find *one or two* Black Britons who would disagree with his statements), but it is true that Ali liked Britain and felt well-treated by the British. His contact with the British people included school children in Brixton. Ali visited a school in 1974 at the behest of Paul Stephenson, a Black British member of the school’s Board of Governors. Stephenson didn’t like the low expectations that some of the teaching staff had with regard to the Black pupils in the school, and he wanted provide positive Black role models for the students (see Stephenson’s Memoirs of a Black Englishman for more about his efforts) so he asked Ali to come and talk to the students. After that visit, Ali helped Stephenson set up the Muhammad Ali Sports Development Association to develop confidence in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic pupils through sport.

Ali’s interaction with British schoolchildren and Foreman’s comments about racial prejudice got me thinking about boxing in/and children’s literature. Two very different books sprung to mind, one for the picture book reader and one for the novel reader. They illustrate quite nicely the aspirational and actual attitudes about race in Britain and in British children’s literature. The picture book, by white author-illustrator team Janet and Allan Ahlberg, is part of the “Happy Families” series, Mr Biff the Boxer (1980). The novel, written by Black British author Catherine Johnson, is Hero (2001).



The boxers give up fighting because they have so much in common (but who’s going to pay for dinner now that they’ve made themselves redundant?)

The Ahlbergs’ titular Mr Biff, a white boxer, is meant to face Mr Bop, in a charity fight. The Black Mr Bop, we are told, is “fit as a fiddle . . . the toughest man in town . . . the champion” (n.p.) whereas Mr Biff is lazy and requires his children and his wife to “toughen him up”, which they do by feeding him carrots and banging him on the head. They succeed well enough that the fight between Biff and Bop ends in a draw. The two boxers meet each other in the dressing room and decide that boxing is “silly” because it leaves them feeling sore—so the two families go out to dinner at a restaurant together “And a happy time was had by all” (n.p.). The message of the book is one of, not just happy boxing families, but a happy British family full of racial harmony. Bop is initially seen as a threat who must be fought against, but Biff and Bop soon realize they have more in common than not, and they (literally) break bread together, becoming one big happy family. The Ahlbergs depiction of race here does and does not matter; on the surface it does not matter, but the book would not have the same impact if both fighters were white, for example. The fact that Puffin, who published the series, thought that the multiracial aspect of the Happy Families series was important is indicated by a letter I found in the Seven Stories archive (look and see what the collection holds here: http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/collection), in which the Puffin editor of the time decides not to republish Leila Berg’s multiracial reading books in the Nippers series because Puffin had already committed to Happy Families (the idea that the books were a like-for-like substitute is worthy of an article of its own—but another time). The Ahlbergs’ version of boxing and multiracial Britain is, perhaps, the one that George Foreman saw (or imagined), and certainly the one that many Britons want to believe.

Black British author Catherine Johnson shows a very different version of race and boxing in her novel Hero. Boxing is not about just going to work; it’s about survival and freedom. Set in London in the 18th century, the story concerns the way that Black people were treated in Britain between the abolition of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery. It’s a perilous time, one in which a man can have his pub commandeered by his dead wife’s relatives because they are white and he is Black. Worse, he’s in danger of being sent back to Barbados and slavery. His daughter, Hero faces prejudice and violence when she tries to rescue him and regain their livelihood. Her father’s boxing saved him from slavery in the first place and made his name in London, but it can’t keep him from being sent back. Hero isn’t expected to fight, because she’s a girl, but she won’t let others define her, and uses her fists to make them take back ugly words.



Boxing can only get you so far if you ignore other kinds of knowledge–a sentiment that Ali would approve.

But fists are not enough, and Hero must learn another way of fighting. Her father has been rescued by another group of people who have been fighting with something other than their fists: Black abolitionists who fight with words, in the courts. This move from the physical to the verbal is marked in Hero’s own life as well. At the beginning of the story, she “didn’t want to think about slavery” (6), and disdains her cousin Daniel’s impressive vocabulary; by the end, she realizes that book-learning and the ability to read the law and write a will has saved her father, and she determines to quit fighting and start listening. In the last scene in the novel, she asks her father to tell about his life in Barbados, under slavery. Boxing and a thinking mind are not mutually exclusive in this story; in fact, it takes both to survive.


Always defining himself–photo from The Daily Mail.

Muhammad Ali once said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” And he certainly didn’t act the part of a happy member of the American family. But he knew enough to realize that being who he wanted to be, and defining himself on his own terms, meant fighting all his life. Sometimes that fight is best fought through action—but other times, it can only be fought in words.

Trouble with the Teacher: The Ferguson Commission, Unconscious Bias, and Children’s Literature

Yesterday, the Ferguson Commission released its report on the August 2014 incident in which the 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. The sixteen-member commission, headed by Rich McClure and Starsky Wilson, decided that it would be pointless to simply examine the shooting in a vacuum, as an isolated incident. Instead, the report looks at St. Louis county institutions, government, policing, and education, through a wide-angle lens. The commission points out disparities in income, unequal access to services, and inequalities in education. A searchable version of the 198-page report can be found here: http://forwardthroughferguson.org/ but I want to focus on just one aspect of the report for this blog. The commission, in a section of the report entitled Youth at the Center, tackles the issue of school discipline and unconscious bias. In Missouri during the 2011-12 school year, more than seven times as many black children as white children were suspended at the elementary school level. This is not, then, the suspension of teenagers, but of children under the age of 12. “In addition to hurting academic performance,” the commissioners write, “this disproportionate discipline of Black students lowers teacher expectations and has been shown to increase the likelihood of future incarceration” (http://forwardthroughferguson.org/report/signature-priorities/youth-at-the-center/). The authors of the report do not argue that teachers are uniformly racist; in fact, they point out, all teachers regardless of race tended to label black students as troublemakers. The bias, they suggest, is unconscious—but sadly pervasive.

This is not, of course, a new or especially American problem. Schools in many multicultural countries have long had disparities in the treatment of children based on race. This difference can be seen in children’s literature over time. One landmark British book that introduced many readers to this racial disparity was Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft (1974).

Do you think you can see what the trouble with Donovan is?

Do you think you can see what the trouble with Donovan is?

Donovan Croft is a West Indian boy who is fostered by the Chapman family when Donovan’s parents have to leave, his mother to Jamaica to care for her dying father, and his father to work. Because of the sudden loss of his family, Donovan becomes silent. This, apparently, is the trouble with Donovan Croft: that he won’t speak his feelings and thoughts. There are two groups of (white) people that interact with Donovan in Ashley’s book: the well-meaning and patronizing, and the violent. Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Henry, reacts to Donovan’s silence by slapping him, and a neighbor, Mrs. Parsons, almost slaps him as well. Both call him racial epithets. This is the obvious racism against “different” children seen throughout the world. But Donovan also faces more subtle “othering” from people who are “on his side.” Mrs. Chapman, Donovan’s foster mother “found herself talking to him in a sing-song voice she might have used on a four- or five-year-old” (31), and she often speaks of him in diminutives (“poor little devil,” p. 70 for example). She tells the school that his old school reports have been good, but she speaks of him as though he were in need of help, and not very bright or capable. The psychologist brought in to try and help Donovan speaks to Donovan’s real father in much the same way. Mrs. Chapman and Dr. Spencer both mean well, and are quite a contrast to obvious racists like Mr. Henry. But their unconscious expectations do affect Donovan—and presumably, might continue to do so throughout his school career. The publisher’s (Penguin Puffin) description of the book carries on these unconscious biases, positioning the reader of Ashley’s novel to both pity and blame Donovan Croft for his own situation: “Poor Donovan . . . went on resisting all the well-meaning efforts made to explain to him and to help him, making everything more difficult for everybody” (“Puffin Books: The Trouble With Donovan Croft front matter). If Donovan would only accept the help of white people . . . but “they” never do, and “we” all suffer.

The obvious racism of Donovan's teacher blinds us to the low expectations of well-meaning adults.

The obvious racism of Donovan’s teacher blinds us to the low expectations of well-meaning adults. Illustration by Fermin Rocker.

Ashley’s book was written during a time when Britons were trying to come to terms with changing demographics; one could argue that the biases displayed in the book (conscious or unconscious) are historic, and would not happen now. Certainly the level of everyday brutality of white adults toward black children has decreased (and indeed, is now illegal in schools—which it wasn’t in 1974). But it is important, as the Ferguson Commission emphasizes, not to dismiss bias or assign it only to a few isolated individuals. Unconscious bias is more difficult to dismantle, because it can seem random when not considered as part of a whole picture. To illustrate what I mean, I want to look at a later British children’s book, one I like very much because it is cheerful and optimistic and multicultural: Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s 1988 Starting School. Written during a period of conscious attempts to make schooling in Britain inclusive, Starting School is heartfelt in its attempts to do just this. A group of multiracial children start school in a warm, welcoming reception (kindergarten) classroom with a pleasant teacher. The children are shown in all sorts of activities, and non-white children are shown reading and doing other intellectual activities (puzzles, for example). The culture is assimilative (at the end of the term, the children have a nativity play as many British schools, whatever their religious makeup, still do) but also accepting (an Indian girl wears her sari to show-and-tell). The parents are involved in the school (the Black British boy’s mother plays the piano for music class). The children are not always happy, but they mostly are, and any young reader who read (or was read) this picture book would likely see the classroom depicted therein as an enviable one.

In (almost) perfect harmony--the Ahlberg's racially diverse class starts school.

In (almost) perfect harmony–the Ahlberg’s racially diverse class starts school.

Yet even in a book that tries (and mostly succeeds) so earnestly to depict the kind of society free from racism that we might all want, there is possible unconscious bias. The teacher depicted by the Ahlbergs is, in general, ideal, but “Sometimes the teacher is not cheerful either” (Starting School n.p.). The illustrations on the page show all sorts of situations which might try any teacher’s patience, but in only one is she chastising a child. That child is nonwhite; aligned with him by looking in the same direction (up at the teacher) is another nonwhite child. Standing by the teacher, and aligned with her, is a white child.

We all have bad days--but on whom do we take it out?

We all have bad days–but on whom do we take it out?

I do not think the Ahlbergs thought of this and deliberately depicted it this way, but it does stand out; and it is these small incidents that the people on the Ferguson Commission argue add up to lower expectations and lower success rates for nonwhite children everywhere. One picture does not matter, but it does as part of a societal pattern. The only way to combat unconscious bias is to make ourselves aware of it, not just in the big ways, but in the little, hardly-noticed incidents by which we chip away at each other because we are different.