Tag Archives: Jenny Williams

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.

From the Street to the Garden: Nature and Black Britons in Children’s Literature

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In my book, Soon Come Home to This Island (Routledge, 2007) I suggested that it was unfortunate that Black British characters were nearly always shown in urban settings. A reader commented to me that the stereotype of the urban Black Briton was a stereotype because it was true; in other words, it was the reality for Black British children that they were growing up in urban settings, so why would authors depict them any differently? I was reminded of this statement recently when reading the text of a talk by a well-known (white) British author, written in the early 1980s, who said that Britain wasn’t a multi-racial society but a white society with a few pockets of multi-racial communities. This author’s argument (I won’t mention the author’s name because the talks were never published) was that most authors who grew up outside of London, Birmingham, or Liverpool would never have met a Black person, and so wouldn’t be able to write about them. (And shouldn’t have to write about them just to prove they weren’t racist.) The stereotype of a predominantly White Britain—especially outside the cities—was a stereotype because it was true.

But my argument in Soon Come Home was not about population statistics; most Black Britons do live in urban areas, even now. But so do most White Britons. And yet, authors and critics do not argue that children’s books about white kids in Britain should be set in the city; “white” is the norm in the city, the country, at the seaside, at the village fête, on platform 9 ¾, and so nowhere that they might be depicted seems odd or unusual. Even if you take the standpoint that the percentage of BME people living in rural Britain (or seaside Britain, or village fête Britain—and don’t even think about Black people on platform 9 ¾ if the “Black Hermione” backlash is anything to go by) is very low, children’s literature has never sold itself as an exact representation of life as we know it. Rather, it is, or can be, a literature of possibilities. And it is good for kids—Black, White, rural, urban, everything in-between—to see worlds that reflect their own, AND worlds that they might imagine themselves inhabiting.

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To that end, here are a few books that emphasize Black British interaction with the (specifically British) natural world. I’ve chosen these works because the Black British characters are not in the background, but central; and because the works represent a variety of natural settings in Britain. The first, and most recent, is also the least “natural” in one sense; but given the history of British children’s literature set in or featuring gardens (Secret Garden, Child’s Garden of Verses, Tom’s Midnight Garden), it seems fitting to begin in a book about gardening, Mandy Ross’s Dominic Grows Sweetcorn (Frances Lincoln, 2013), with pictures by Alison Bartlett. Although the endpapers of the book suggest the terraced houses that make up many British urban areas, the actual story could be nearly anywhere in Britain. Dominic grows sweetcorn with his grandfather in a garden that, at times, seems to go on forever—although it is made clear that they have neighbors when they are invited to join the feast. There are actually many books now that depict Black and BME kids gardening, but the reason this one is significant is that it is not a random non-white child in the garden. Dominic is there because of his family’s history; the reader discovers that Dominic’s family has grown food for generations, and he and his grandfather are proud of their garden.

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Carty’s book seems to promise a stereotypical Caribbean beach setting.

Black child characters—particularly Afro-Caribbeans—are often depicted on beaches in children’s books, and Lenox Carty’s Making Time to Chat a Rhyme (Bogle L’Ouverture, 2003) seems to promise, from its cover illustration by Maggie Nightingale, a stereotypical view. However, Carty’s poems are not about Caribbean subjects, but Black Britons, as is made clear by his references (to conkers, for example) and by the illustrations. The poem “Summer Days” shows a holiday at the beach—not a Caribbean beach, but a British seaside complete with amusement ride-covered pier. The book’s last poem, “Sun Set”, shows a boy watching fireflies under a tree that looks far more European than Caribbean. The characters in Making Time to Chat a Rhyme are all very comfortable in the natural world around them—the English natural world.

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But the beach in question is actually a typical British seaside. Illustration by Maggie Nightingale.

The last work I’ll mention is a short story in Dorothy Edwards’s Read-me-another-story Book (Methuen, 1976; later published in paperback form as Story Time One, also by Methen). Edwards, who is best-known (especially in my household) for her Naughty Little Sister stories, also worked as a short story editor on several collections. The collections are notable for being inclusive at a time when many short-story collections weren’t; not only do the covers show all kinds of kids listening to the stories, Edwards went out of her way to include a variety of authors and stories. She published several stories by the Surinamese-born, Guyanese and British author Petronella Breinburg throughout her collections. I’m just going to focus on one of these, called “The Thing with Spikes.” It begins in a way that is quite revolutionary for a story about Black Britons in 1976: “It was Sunday. David and Claudette were going through the woods with Dad” (78).

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Babes in the woods: Black children learn about nature from their father in Breinburg’s “The Thing With Spikes.” Illustration by Jenny Williams.

Not only do they go through the woods, they often go through the woods, and while there, they look and listen for animals and wildflowers and other natural items. The titular Thing with Spikes turns out to be a hedgehog, and though the text indicates that the children are initially frightened by it, they are curious too, and want to understand more about it. Their Dad is able to answer their questions, indicating that he—like the children—is comfortable in and knowledgeable about nature. The story is not the best one Breinburg ever wrote, but it is radical for its time. It gives non-white Britons space in nature that is normal and ordinary. It takes Black Britons from the street to the garden.