Tag Archives: Jean-Jacques Vayssieres

I’ve Got a Name: Children’s Books, naming, and diversity

I’ve been thinking about names and naming lately for a few reasons.  First, because of the difference it often makes to an issue when individuals’ names are attached to a story—the Windrush scandal got more press after individual stories were highlighted by The Guardian (beginning in November 2017 with the case of Paulette Wilson, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/28/i-cant-eat-or-sleep-the-grandmother-threatened-with-deportation-after-50-years-in-britain, and coming to a head with an article that told the stories of 18 individuals, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/20/its-inhumane-the-windrush-victims-who-have-lost-jobs-homes-and-loved-ones). The Windrush scandal resulted in part because of children being brought over to the UK by their parents at a time when children did not have their own passports, but were listed on their parents’ papers—which sometimes meant they had no proof as to when they entered the country.  The #metoo movement and the Michigan State University/ USA gymnastics scandal also gained ground when it became about people with names instead of “sexual assault”.  The US media could take a lesson from the power of naming individuals and stressing the real consequences of political actions in its own growing scandal over separating children from their parents at the Mexican border.


Children of UN staff members examine the universal declaration of human rights (UN Photo # 123898). Children got their own specific declaration of rights in 1959.

In case you are unaware of this latter story, this week the UN let the US know in no uncertain terms that they were breaking international law by separating parents from children (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/world/americas/us-un-migrant-children-families.html). In the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, principle six states that, “a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf).  Although the New York Times article points out that the US is the only country that has not ratified the Declaration, it adds, “the practice of separating and detaining children breached its obligations under other international human rights conventions it has joined”.

The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has ten points in total.  It’s nearly sixty years old now (originally proclaimed in November 1959—although not adopted by the UN General Assembly for another thirty years).  I’d like to do some thinking about some of the points in this and perhaps some future editions of this blog, and how the points relate to children’s books about diversity particularly.  Today I want to start with the shortest—and perhaps simplest—one, Point Three: “The child shall be entitled from his birth to a name and a nationality.”  The reason to insist on a nationality seems obvious, then (Jews and then Palestininans as stateless people) and now (Windrush); but the right to a name surprised me when I first read it.  A name, of course, gives human dignity, it can be an indication of uniqueness and of family ties.  But children are given names by their family, not the state, I thought.  And then I remembered: children are given names by their family, except when the state—or its legalized institutions—play a role in giving or denying people their names.


In Marjorie Darke’s The First of Midnight, Midnight was the slave name of a man who was ultimately unknowable to his white wife.

In children’s books, the most obvious place to start thinking about names is in books about slavery and the slave trade.  In my article, “After Midnight: Naming, West Indians and British Children’s Literature” (Names: A Journal of Onomastics 56.1: 41-46), I comment that “Slave names, for example, either ironically mark the low status of a figure (Caesar is an extremely popular slave name in children’s literature) or highlight the slave’s physical features (usually through names that denote darkness, such as Inky or Midnight)” (43) and that both these types of names serve to dehumanize the enslaved person.  It also takes away any family name (either given or surname), disconnecting the enslaved person from their birth family ties.  Of course, characters in books are all given their names by authors and not by slave-owners; however, as I further discuss in the article, “The notion of certain names as ‘slave names’ may have been an historical fact, but their use in fiction continues to underline the concept of ownership by whites of blacks” (43-44).  Children’s books (fictional or not) can choose to recognize the right of a person to a name of dignity, even when they are trying to be historically accurate.  One example is in Jean-Jacques Vayssières The Amazing Adventures of Equiano (Ian Randle 2001).  This book recognizes that Olaudah Equiano was taken into slavery and given the name Gustavus Vassa (an ironic name: Vassa was a 16th century Swedish king) but adds that Equiano “never accepted this name so, to please him, we will continue to call him Equiano” (18).


Olaudah Equiano has a slave name, but Jean-Jacques Vayssieres chooses not to use it.

The practice of giving or omitting names of dignity for people of color is rife throughout children’s literature.  One only has to look to the continuous and negative emphasis on the word “Black” in Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman (1901), not to mention the fact that Sambo’s parents’ names were literally Mumbo Jumbo.  Often, secondary characters were referred to based on their skin color rather than by their name, even if their name was known.


A color and not a name: people in Bannerman’s book are constantly referred to as black, equated with objects–because the clothes Sambo wears are colored, but the tigers are not.

In these enlightened (ahem) days, authors would never dream of writing a book about a character and referring to her as Little Brown Jenny (or whatever).  But naming is still important, especially for people of color.  One place this is especially noticeable is in books about refugees, many of whom are traveling from the global south to countries like the US and UK.  I’ve spoken in this blog about Sarah Garland’s Azzi In Between (Frances Lincoln 2012) before, but I’d just add that the book starts out with a nameless country, and a named girl—Azzi.  Azzi is in fact the only named character throughout the refugee journey (family members are called Mother, Father, Grandma, but not given any personal names).  Azzi’s name therefore becomes the focal point, and the book never mentions the word “refugee”.  Azzi is thus made, by Garland, a human being and not a problem.  Other people are named in the book only if they are helpful and friendly to Azzi (and only after she arrives in a place of safety).


The first page of Garland’s book: Azzi has a name, even though her wartorn country does not.

I prefer this approach to that used in Kate Milner’s My Name is not Refugee (Bucket List 2016).  Milner’s book uses the conversation of an unnamed boy and his mother talking about their upcoming refugee journey to ask the reader, in text boxes, questions that imagine what it would be like to be a refugee.  Some of the questions are open-ended (asking “What would you take?”) but others are leading (“Do you think you could live in a place where there is no water in the taps and no one to pick up the rubbish?”), positing a reader who is privileged and always distanced from the nameless boy in the book.  Milner may have hoped that by leaving her character nameless, she would encourage children to empathize by imagining themselves as refugees, but it is difficult to empathize with someone we can never really know.  And you can’t begin to know someone until you speak their name.