Tag Archives: Josephine Kamm

Able to Participate: Disability and Race in British Children’s Books

This fall, when I participated in a daylong symposium at Amnesty International UK on children’s books and human rights, the author Alex Wheatle spoke about how he pitched a book to a children’s publisher about a Black British boy growing up in a care home; the publisher worried that there were too many issues to the book.  In other words, a kid can’t be in a care home AND Black AND in a children’s book.  Being Black, for many children’s publishers (even now) is “problem” enough.  The idea that not being white is a problem in British society is also likely to be one of the reasons that the CLPE Reflecting Realities report found that only one of the books with BAME representation could be classified as a “comedy”; if you are a problem, you, and your life, can’t be funny.  For years, it was seen as a generous, liberal white attitude to suggest—as one character does in Josephine Kamm’s 1962 Out of Step—that “there’s nothing wrong in being a West Indian or an African or an Indian.  They’re every bit as good as we are; they look different, that’s all there is to it” (20).  To argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with being yourself suggests that someone else thinks that there is.

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And yet—as the Amnesty symposium emphasized—children have the right to be represented in all aspects of society, including children’s books.  And that means all children, including those who are experiencing either a temporary or permanent disability.  The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has, as its fifth point, “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf). Special education and care should not mean isolating the child and making them feel “othered”, but helping them find ways to participate in society.  British children’s literature has made great strides in the last few years in depicting disabilities in a broad spectrum of books, including the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner, One, by Sarah Crossan about conjoined twins.  But it is unusual to find a main character of colour in a British children’s book who is also disabled—too many “problems” for one book!

The issue is not just academic, or a fictional scenario.  Amelia Hill, writing for the Guardian, highlights the case of two disabled children that the Home Office is trying to deport to Pakistan despite the children being born in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/12/home-office-disabled-children-leave-country). Disabled children often suffer discrimination; disabled children of colour can experience a double discrimination due to racist attitudes that a person’s “race” is a problem.  And being a person of colour doesn’t necessarily mean you are more sensitive to the “problem” of disability–most people need to learn to look for ability and strength in disabled people rather than othering them.

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Brahmachari’s main character, Laila, thinks she understands her best friend Kez–but sometimes all she see is her disability and the way it interrupts their friendship.

It is therefore encouraging to see more books being published that include disabled (temporarily or permanently) characters in books with or by people of colour.  The disabled characters are not just window dressing, but play major roles in the books.  Sita Brahmachari’s character Kez, in Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) is Laila Levenson’s best friend, but that friendship is tested because of Kez’s disability.  She is in a wheelchair, and although she and Laila have been friends since primary school, Kez decides she won’t come over to Laila’s house any more when they start secondary school after Laila’s father carries her down the stairs.  “I never want to be carried” (58), Kez tells Laila.  Laila thinks of herself as being the only one who understands Kez, but has to learn to see her in new and capable ways, and also learn how to make accommodations for her friend without patronizing her, before they can be close again.  Kez is white British, but makes up part of Brahmachari’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-able cast of characters, because as she herself puts it, “These ‘different’ characters populate my books because I know that they’re all ‘here!’ and more than anything I love to give each of them their “rites of passage” moment when they find a voice” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names).

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Depression is a disability that affects all kinds of people–but it’s not always a result of racism for people of colour.

Bali Rai’s Stay a Little Longer (Barrington Stoke 2018) deals with a different kind of disability, the emotional and mental disability of depression.  Rai distinguishes between forms and levels of severity of depression in his novel. Aman, the main character, is thirteen and grieving the death of her father. Although she considers herself “messed up” (69) for still grieving after a year, her friend Lola points out that “It’s not a competition to see who recovers the fastest” (69).  Aman’s grief affects her every day, but it is clear that she will return to her old self, more or less, eventually.  However, an older man that Aman meets, Gurnam, has a more serious form of depression that leads him to attempt suicide.  Aman, who has friends and family supporting her through her grief, wants to be supportive to Gurnam as well, but she has to learn to go about it in the right way.  She learns that love helps, but love alone is not enough; disabilities, even when they are not physical, require medical treatment.  Race plays an interesting role in Rai’s book; Gurnam is harassed by some local boys, but Aman cannot understand why because “The lads are Asian, just like Gurnam” (90).  She assumes that racism is the only reason a man would be harassed in Britain.  However, it turns out that racism has nothing to do with it.  Gurnam is gay, and the boys think that homosexuality is “Against nature” (58).  Rai’s book highlights the way that being “othered” can lead to disabling depression, but in doing so he also reminds readers that race is only one piece of a person’s identity—and not always the “problem.”

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Disability doesn’t mean un-ability; Laird’s character Musa has strengths his brother Omar wishes he had.

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere might reasonably be expected to deal with a similar emotional disability, as the novel concerns a Syrian family who become refugees in Jordan before eventually being given asylum in Britain.  Refugees and migrants have formed an ever-increasing part of children’s literature over the past decade, but generally the stories have concerned able-bodied characters; again, the idea that being a refugee is enough of a “problem” for a single book applies.  But Laird includes two disabled characters who play pivotal roles in the story: the main character Omar’s older brother, Musa, who has cerebral palsy, and their younger sister Nadia, who has a heart condition.  Musa’s cerebral palsy affects the plot—his movement is restricted, and at times Omar has to carry him.  But he is also a “total brainbox” (15) who gets involved in the rebellion and has to be saved from being shot by Omar.  Musa uses his disability to his advantage when soldiers approach them, “making babbling noises” (57) and flailing his arms “wildly” (57) to make the soldiers think he is harmless.  His condition and Nadia’s heart problems put them on top of the list for asylum in Britain.  It is only at the end of the novel that race/ethnicity come into play, however.  Musa does not want to leave for Britain, arguing, “You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims?  They think we’re all crazy terrorists” (315).  Laird concludes her story with questions that acknowledge that attitudes toward “others” are still a “problem” : “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen next . . . How will they get on in their new life in Britain?  Will people welcome them? . . . Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams?  The answer to those questions lies with you” (334).  At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to ensure that every person is able to participate in society, and stop closing doors because of what we perceive as their “otherness”.

To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part One

Last week, academic librarian and YA social justice activist Edi Campbell produced a list of milestones in American YA literature, beginning in 1965 with the founding of the Council for Interracial Books for Children (the CIBC) and ending (at the time of me writing this blog) with the 2017 establishment of the journal Research on Diversity in Youth Literature.  In between are a host of important book publications, special journal issues, awards, blogs and podcasts, many of which are linked within the document to websites.  You can find her list, 50 Years of Diversity in Young Adult Literature, here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PVuxIihW4_3gAab-CHT5W0RXH61F0HeD6ouy1yMFOac/edit.

Campbell’s list covers many different types of diversity (including racial, sexual, gender, and ability diversity) but Campbell did not want the list to be only useful to Americans.  She put out a call on Twitter for other scholars to add to the list, including—thanks for the shout-out, Edi!—me.  So what follows are some highlights for BAME Young Adult lit that I hope to add to her list (or at least run parallel with it).  I’ve started a bit earlier than Campbell’s 1965 point of origin, because the British pioneers in the field came in response to a changing Britain (particularly in response to the 1958 Notting Hill riots). It is heavily weighted to Afro-Caribbean authors/characters, because that is my specialty, but I have tried to widen the spectrum as well.  I’ve tried to indicate the author’s background where I can, and have stuck to authors who for at least part of their life lived and worked in the UK (thus, I’ve left off authors published in the UK like VS Reid and Rosa Guy).  Also, it’s important to note that Black Britons were referred to as “West Indians” if they (or their parents) were from the Caribbean until at least 1980, and that British Asians were often considered Black.  If you know of things that should be added to the list, please let me know—and add them to Campbell’s google document yourself.  A more extensive account of the importance of these texts can be found in my recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Children's Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 - Critical Approaches to Children's Literature (Hardback)

This week, I am publishing the timeline to 1980; this covers the period when Windrush generation writers began producing literature for the children of immigrants struggling to fit into and make sense of British society.  It also highlights the nascent and increasing political anger of the new Black Britons.  Next week, I’ll publish the timeline from 1981 onward.

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Of course the teenager’s brother is part of the racist National Front–early teen soap opera where “race” is a factor.

1962: White British author Josephine Kamm publishes Out of Step (Heinemann), an early “problem” novel about a white teenager in love with a West Indian.

1963: The Newsom Report, also known as “Half Our Future,” focuses attention on secondary students in poor (“slum”) areas of Britain.  It is the first major education report to consider what was then called “coloured immigration.”

1964-1967: Andrew Salkey, the Windrush-era writer who had a prominent place in both the BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, and the Caribbean Artists Movement, becomes the first West Indian to publish children’s books with a major British publisher, his “disaster sequence” with Oxford University Press.

1966: New Beacon Books founded in London by Trinidadian activist John La Rose and his British partner Sarah White.  The publisher/bookstore would be a primary outlet for the Black British community.  Indian-born English writer, Morna Stuart, publishes Marassa and Midnight (Heinemann), about Haitian twins separated during the French Revolution.

1967: The Plowden Report argues that books in schools (both educational and mainstream) should be re-examined to root out “out of date attitudes toward foreigners, coloured people, and even coloured dolls” (London: HMSO, 1967: 71).

1968: Jessica and Eric Huntley start Bogle L’Ouverture Press, a Black British press that would publish poetry by Linton Kwesi Johnson and Valerie Bloom, and the later novels of Andrew Salkey.  In Birmingham, Enoch Powell suggests in his “Rivers of Blood” speech that if immigration—by which he meant “coloured” immigration—wasn’t stopped, blood would flow in the rivers of England.

1969: The George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester Black Supplementary Schools were started by John La Rose and others in the Finsbury Park area, although the schools were formally registered in 1973.  Supplementary schools, which originally started with the British Black Panthers in the mid-1960s, were designed to improve basic skills and teach Black history and culture to young Black Britons; the George Padmore school was specifically for young adults. (http://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/archive/collection/black-education-movement). This same year, the charity Book Trust secures Arts Council funding to allow it to develop new programmes for providing books to low-income families.

1971: University of Sussex doctoral student, Bernard Coard, publishes his pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (New Beacon/Bogle L’Ouverture).  In it, he called for Black literature for Black British children.

1972: Community publisher Centerprise, based in the Hackney area of London, publishes Hackney Half-Term Adventure and the poems of Viven Usherwood, a young West Indian boy; these two books, along with communist teacher Chris Searle’s edited collection of poetry from his multiracial classroom, Stepney Words, would sell over 20,000 copies by 1977.

1974: The National Association for Multiracial Education (NAME) is founded in Britain.  White British author Robert Leeson’s novel about slavery, Maroon Boy (Collins), is published. White British author Jean MacGibbon publishes Hal (Heinemann), a novel about a friendship between a white boy recovering from a long illness and a lively West Indian girl.  This book would win the Other Award in 1975.

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The voice of a generation of disaffected Black British youth in the 1970s.

1975: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry collection, Dread Beat an’ Blood, is published by Bogle L’Ouverture.  The Children’s Rights Workshop, started by Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann, create the Other Award to recognize books celebrating gender, racial and economic diversity in children’s books.  Horace Ové’s film “Pressure,” about the struggles of second generation Black British youth, debuts.  Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys at Westcroft appears from Topliners.

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Aidan Chambers, the editor of Macmillan’s imprint for teenagers Topliners, recruited Breinburg and Farrukh Dhondy to write for him.

1976: The Notting Hill Carnival erupts into riots when British police attempt to arrest a pickpocket.  Most of those subsequently arrested would be Black British teenagers.  British publisher Collins launches a prize for Multi-Ethnic Fiction; one of its early winners was Farrukh Dhondy for his collection, Come to Mecca—which includes a story based at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival.  Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet is published.  Black and Pakistani British youth make an unusual appearance in British fantasy, in Michael de Larrabeiti’s urban adventure Borribles trilogy, the first of which appears in 1976.

1978: Farrukh Dhondy’s Siege of Babylon is published in Macmillan’s Topliners series, a young adult series edited by Aidan Chambers.  White British author Jan Needle’s controversial My Mate Shofiq (Collins), about racism against Asian Britons in the north of England, is published.  The first in white British author Marjorie Darke’s historical series, The First of Midnight (Kestrel) appears; with the other books in the series, it follows Black Britons from the 18th century to the present. Rock Against Racism, an anti-fascist, punk and reggae music organization, attracts thousands of Black and White British youth to anti-racist causes.

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Darke was one of the first British writers to trace Black History in Britain back through the 18th Century.

1979: The National Committee on Racism in Children’s Books begins publication of a journal, Dragon’s Teeth, to review and comment on multicultural children’s literature.  The journal is edited by Black British librarian Dorothy Kuya.  White British activist Rosemary Stones becomes editor for the Children’s Book Bulletin “for news of progressive moves in children’s literature”.  The first issue has criteria and guidelines for evaluating books for racist attitudes.  The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) produces Our Lives, a collection of stories (many autobiographical) of immigrant teenagers.  White Briton Tony Drake’s Playing it Right (Collins) depicts a multiracial middle school cricket team, including West Indian and Pakistani British players.

1980: The anti-colonial Communist publisher Liberation begins publishing books for children and young adults under the Young World imprint. Andrew Salkey publishes his only novel for young people set in England, Danny Jones (Bogle L’Ouverture); the climax takes place during Notting Hill Carnival.

Golden Tickets or Good Intentions? Roald Dahl and Race

Yesterday was Roald Dahl Day—really just his birthday, but a day that is celebrated in the UK with, well, a lot of Dahliana (yes, I did just make that word up).  Dahl is one of those writers whose books incite both passion and disgust (the latter mostly from adults, who are frequently targets of criticism in Dahl’s writing).  As Peter Hunt put it in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Literature, “Although he claimed to be on the child’s side he has been widely seen as manipulative, and has been accused variously of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and cruelty. On the other hand, his supporters (who far outnumber his detractors) argue that he speaks to childhood values (such as love of simple justice), and to children’s delight in excess, cartoon-like extravagance, and verbal ingenuity.”  You can guess from this quotation where Peter falls on the scale of Dahl appreciation (his use of the word “claimed” is almost New Testament in nature).  I, on the other hand, grew up with Dahl and he was even a part of our family jokes; my dad used to say, “Hush, Veruca,” to me when I was acting spoiled.  And even now, there are a few people I wouldn’t mind seeing squashed by a giant peach.

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I’m sure I never acted like this, dad! Julie Dawn Cole plays Veruca Salt in the 1971 film version of Dahl’s book.

But even as a kid, there were things that bothered me about Dahl’s books, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) in particular.  For example, was chewing gum really equivalent to gluttony, greed, or even watching too much television?  And the Oompa-Loompas made me uncomfortable (although I did like some of their Greek-chorus-like pronouncements): why were they all men? Why were they all tiny? Why did everyone, the Oompa-Loompas included, think that it was okay for them to be held captive in Wonka’s factory?

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Troublesome issues, even for a child: Joseph Schindelman’s drawing of gum-chewing Violet being rolled away by the Oompa-Loompa “pygmies”.

One thing I never questioned as a child was Charlie’s ethnicity.  Partly this was because he was British; as far as I knew growing up in America, British people were white.  But more to the point, book characters were white, especially book heroes.  There was an occasional exception to this rule—Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (1976) springs to mind—but these were usually books that were ABOUT being a Black person and/or encounters with racism.  Books about “ordinary” things like magical people only ever included white people.

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A case of “reading while white”? Although Ursula LeGuin’s 1968 novel features a hero with red-brown skin, many readers, used to white heroes, didn’t notice.

Yesterday, however, that notion was challenged by Roald Dahl’s widow, who commented on Radio 4 that Dahl originally intended Charlie to be Black British but he changed his character (according to Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock) because his agent said people would question the decision (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-41257684).  It certainly would have raised eyebrows in 1964, when characters in British children’s books were not quite all as white as American readers might have thought, but when most Black British characters were still contained in “issues” books.  This point is underscored by Liccy Dahl’s follow-up comment that she was sure Dahl’s desire to make Charlie Black British “was influenced by America”; despite Britain’s changing population in the 1960s, many white people still connected Black people with America and not their own country.

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Charles Keeping did not hesitate to make one of his characters Black British.

But even if Dahl did want to make Charlie Black British, questions remain.  Why did he give up so easily?  Other writers didn’t.  Writers like Josephine Kamm, Eric Allen, and Christine Pullein-Thompson all had children’s or YA books published within a few years of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Kamm’s and Allen’s books were earlier) that featured Black British characters prominently (if not always unstereotypically).  And in 1967, the great illustrator Charles Keeping wrote a book about his own Black British Charley—Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary—that won the Kate Greenaway medal.  And if the hesitation (with Dahl or his agents/publishers) was about fantasy, Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series contained one Black character (in The Chimneys of Green Knowe) and one Chinese character (in A Stranger at Green Knowe), both published years before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I’m not arguing that all of these portrayals of Black British characters by white authors are perfect, but they exist, and at least some of them were published early enough that they could have (but ultimately didn’t, for whatever reason) provided evidence for Dahl to contrast his agent’s argument that people would question a Black British lead character.

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Faith Jaques’ revised (1973) illustrations of the Oompa Loompas do not erase all of the problems of representation.

Additionally, the suggestion that Dahl wanted to include a Black British Charlie has to be balanced with his troubling portrait of the Oompa-Loompas, something with which his agent was apparently entirely comfortable.  The original Oompa-Loompas were Black; Wonka tells his guests, “Pygmies they are!  Imported direct from Africa!” (65).  Later editions (including the one I read as a child) changed their origin to the vaguely less problematic “Loompaland” but didn’t change the circumstances in which an entire people were removed from their homeland to live entirely in captivity.  As Clare Bradford has pointed out, “Dahl’s portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas is oblivious to the wider implications of a group of immigrant workers exploited by a factory owner” (The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature 39).

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A “tame” version of the Smethwick campaign slogan widely reported on in 1964, the same year as Dahl’s book.

Given that the book was published in the same year as the infamous Smethwick election wherein one candidate used the slogan, “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on) and two years after the first Commonwealth Immigration Act restricting “coloured” immigration, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is oblivious about more than just immigrant exploitation.  Dahl may have had good intentions about including the wider world in one of his most famous books, but the result is as disappointing as opening a Wonkabar and realizing you haven’t found a golden ticket.