Tag Archives: Kate Slater

Fit for a King: Traditional tales and Revision

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The Oxford Reading Tree version of the Dominican tale, “The King who wanted to Touch the Moon.”

Since the referendum on Brexit, many of the British political parties have been in turmoil; I was camping along Hadrian’s Wall for a few days this week and came back to find that the UK had a new prime minister. The Labour party is also mulling over changes: should Jeremy Corbyn remain the head of the party? The thing that struck me most about all of the changes and potential changes is that they largely are being discussed at the top. Whereas Brexit was a straight majority-rules vote about remaining in the European Union, Theresa May became prime minister without an election, and the Labour Party is arguing over whether the “three pound” Labour Party members (who joined during the last Labour leadership campaign, and mostly supported Corbyn) should be allowed to have a say in the next leadership vote. This all, of course, complies with British political party policy—but many ordinary British voters might well begin to suspect that the leaders of the major parties do not really want to know what they think.

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Many voted for Brexit because they said they didn’t like the “elites” telling them what to do.

The upheaval in Britain made me think of a story that will be familiar to many Americans, at least those born in my era, Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958). The story concerns a turtle king who wants to have complete power over all that he sees; once he does, he climbs higher to find more to conquer. Seuss has King Yertle climb on the backs of his citizen turtles to get higher; the lowest on the stack, a turtle named Mack, constantly complains but Yertle ignores him. The story comes to a climax when Yertle wants to be ruler of the moon and Mack, in protest, burps, bringing down the turtle stack and dumping Yertle in the pond.

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Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle has Yertle governing without regard to his people’s needs.

Somewhere along the line—I can’t remember when, but we came from a household where political messages in texts would have been suggested to us—I learned that this story was written with Adolf Hitler’s then-recent attempts to conquer Europe (and beyond) in mind. This is one of the now-accepted interpretations of the book: the author of the blog, The Children’s War, for example, writes, “Now, I am sure you can see the resemblance to Hitler and his quest for more and more Lebensraum in Yertle.  And it isn’t hard to figure out that the turtles are the German people under Hitler’s dictatorship” (https://thechildrenswar.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/yertle-turtle-by-dr-seuss.html). Seuss was certainly political; there’s even an American public television programme, Indpendent Lens, which has done an entire episode about “The Political Dr. Seuss” (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/politicaldrseuss/); the web page about this episode also mention the link between Hitler and Yertle the Turtle.

But Seuss’s story—though certainly originally presented—is not an original story. I recently came across a Dominican folk tale strikingly similar to Seuss’s story. Like Seuss’s story, it is set on an island. The island is ruled by a king, who has a wish for power, and makes his people serve his every desire. The Dominican story is entitled “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon.” In the Dominican story, the king gets his carpenter to tell him how to build a tall tower to touch the moon. Even though the carpenter knows that it is not possible to touch the moon, he and the villagers obey the king’s wishes and stack up all the chests and boxes in the kingdom. When it still does not reach the moon, the king insists that the people send up the bottom chest. They take it out, and the tower—and the king—fall down.

Seuss’s story and the Dominican folktale are similar in most ways. The differences are significant as well, however. In the Dominican story, people are the main characters. Even though readers/listeners would know that it is a folktale setting—the Dominican Republic was never ruled by a king, unless you go back to its Spanish colonial days—the use of humans connects the story directly to the readers. This is particularly important when versions of the story are published outside of the Dominican Republic. Oxford Reading Tree, for example, published a very simple version of the story entitled The King and His Wish (2011), authored and illustrated by Alison Hawes and Kate Slater. Although only the teacher notes indicate the story’s origins, the pictures of people of various shades who can see the foolishness of the king serve to underline the idea that wisdom (and foolishness, for that matter) is not just the purview of white, western people. Given the white, western publishing world’s tendency to place non-white people only in supporting roles, the message in The King and His Wish is not insignificant.

 

Another difference between the Dominican tale and Dr. Seuss is the ending. Seuss has Yertle become “King of the mud” while the other turtles become a free people. The Dominican tale, on the other hand, ends with a humble king who is better able to rule and will take the advice of his people. The distinction between a specifically (white) American individualism and the more communitarian approach of the Dominican tale reflect different approaches to government. Interestingly, the Oxford Reading Tree version has an open ending, with the king on the ground and the people standing round him with varying attitudes toward his demise. It would be interesting to hear kids from different countries and/or backgrounds discussing what happened next in the story.

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The Oxford version has an open ending; these are the last pages of the text.

 

Kings—and governments—fall when they don’t listen to their people. This is a lesson that both Yertle the Turtle and “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon” teach, and a pertinent one for our times. But the folktale version also reminds readers that the community has a role to play, not just in deposing government, but in making it better. And this too is a lesson fit for our times.

But I’ll Never Be Royal? Shakespeare, the Monarchy, and Black Britain

This week marks Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I thought I might mark the occasions on this blog, and then I thought, huh. What does Shakespeare or the monarchy have to do with Black British children’s literature?

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Edmund Kean as Othello in Skelt’s Toy Theatre version of the Shakespeare play

 

Shakespeare is (at least at first) slightly more obvious. There is, after all, the Noble Moor. Othello, written in circa 1603, is perhaps the most famous early literary depiction of interracial marriage. And kids have learned the stories of Shakespeare from a very early age for quite a long time. The introduction of Shakespeare through Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare was a more “serious” introduction, and the toy theatres of Pollock’s and Skelt’s were more popular introductions, but both included Othello in their repertoire. The Lambs’ version, obviously shortened from the original, is clear from the outset that Othello’s skin color is an issue. The third sentence of the Lamb version points out that Desdemona is dissatisfied with her marital options: “among the suitors of her own clime and complexion, she saw none whom she could affect: for this noble lady, who regarded the mind more than the features of men, with a singularity rather to be admired than imitated, had chosen for the object of her affections, a Moor, a black”. Note that children are to admire Desdemona for wanting a clever husband, but not imitate her. And this is not Shakespeare as written; in the play, Desdemona is not ignoring Othello’s appearance; she is clear that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/ And to his honour and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (Act I, Scene III). But the Lambs had to make Desdemona “childlike” in order to “excuse” her for marrying a Black man; their account of Othello serves as a warning that only children fail to judge books by their covers.

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The Lambs’ version of Othello claims Desdemona was childlike and not interested in Othello’s looks.

 

But the Lambs did not include pictorial representations of Othello and Desdemona’s love; this was left to the theatre. And in the theatre, Othello was generally played by a white man (in the 19th century and far beyond as well). Even though the famous African-American actor, Ira Aldridge, took over from Edmund Kean after Kean’s death in the 1830s, the toy theatre sold by Skelt’s continued to use Kean’s image as Othello.

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Out, damned spot–the sticker book includes Macbeth and the Tempest, but not Othello or Black Shakespearean actors.

 

And in the 20th and 21st century, this discomfort with Othello as a suitable subject for children continues. Usborne’s Shakespeare Sticker Book has engaging sticker pictures of both comedies and tragedies by Shakespeare, but not Othello—nor are any of the sticker figures Black. Thank heavens for Malorie Blackman, whose Chasing the Stars, a YA science fiction-y retelling of Othello, comes out this weekend. If only someone were still doing toy theatres, they might do a version of Talawa theatre’s all-black cast in King Lear.

 

Prince William said in a recent interview that his grandmother stays “above” politics, and this generally includes racial politics as well; while her husband is famous for his impolitic pronouncements on non-white people, Elizabeth confines herself to the occasional celebratory remark about the many cultures that make up Britain. Children’s literature about or including the queen generally reflects this; the queen is guarded by white soldiers in most children’s books, and even her appearance in Roald Dahl’s The BFG suggests an all-white Britain over which she reigns. There is some suggestion that the queen (or at least her staff) want to encourage this to change; the children’s book that commemorates the queen’s birthday (official and approved), The Birthday Crown, does show a little (very little) diversity in the background.

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Brief appearance for diversity in Royal Collection’s The Birthday Crown by Davide Cali and Kate Slater.

 

But the royal family has, in the past, had more deliberate and purposeful connection with a diverse world. Children’s literature (by both Black and white authors) have written about Victoria’s interaction with various people of her empire, from Mary Seacole to Sarah Forbes Bonetta to Sophia Duleep Singh (two of these three women were themselves royal in their own countries). Victoria did not have to worry about her relationship to these women; she was their queen-empress, and they were her subjects. That means she could afford to employ Mary Seacole as a masseuse in her household, adopt Sarah Forbes Bonetta (not of course in the way that normal people adopt a child), and give Sophia Duleep Singh a grace-and-favour apartment. The mighty can afford to be generous (though it does not always follow that they are).

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Myers’ book about Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

There is evidence that other queens of Britain may have had more direct connection to the non-white world. The Guardian reported in 2009 on Queen Charlotte, known to be abolitionist in her politics, and her possible African ancestry (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/12/race-monarchy). This link, if true, would of course mean that the current royals would also have this ancestry—although much further back in time. The evidence is sketchy, but there are clearer indications about the 14th century Queen Philippa, who one of the English bishops described as having clearly African features. But neither of these queens feature very frequently in children’s literature (and when they are, as wives or mothers of kings, their race is usually unremarked). A rare example of a children’s book that acknowledges the suggestion of African ancestry in the monarchy is Joysetta Marsh Pearse’s Black Royals: Queen Charlotte (2014), which appears to be part of a series—but I can’t find any other books in the series.

 

The first Queen Elizabeth famously complained about too many “blackamoors” in England, and Shakespeare’s play reflects some of these fears. The Jamaican prime minister has just wished the current Queen Elizabeth happy birthday at the same time politely suggesting that Jamaica would soon end the tradition of considering the queen Jamaica’s titular Head of State. Yet some of the best Shakespearean actors in the UK today are Black (Adrian Lester, Don Warrington) and the queen’s Britain today can no longer be seen as an all-white world. Perhaps it’s time that more children’s books reflected these realities.