Tag Archives: Ladybird version

The Architecture of Home and Empire in Children’s Books

Last week, I did my blog on migrants, but this week I was prompted by a friend looking at “vernacular architecture” in children’s books about Africa and the Caribbean to do some thinking about the pictures of “home” that appear in children’s books, and why those pictures matter. For many beginning readers, children’s books are a first source of information about what the world looks like beyond their front doors, and so both the text and the pictures that these stories include matter; I would argue that the pictures matter more than text in creating a lasting impression in the mind of the child.



I grew up with illustrations like these from Syd Hoff (from A Book About Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross) where naked natives lived in the woods.

Take this little quiz, for example: In what kind of houses did the indigenous people Christopher Columbus encountered live? When I asked myself this question, I came up with a blank—not poor houses or huts, but no houses at all. I have a collection of Columbus books for children, and started to look through them, and realized how this lack may have been created in my mind. Many children’s books about Columbus show the “natives” on the beach or in the jungle, but never show them where they lived, slept, or ate. Robinson Crusoe, as the Ladybird Read-it-Yourself version from 1978 depicts him, built a house in a matter of days. The man Crusoe rescues has no home and no name—Crusoe gives “Friday” both, and with them come the benefits of civilization.


Crusoe rebuilds civilization in the Caribbean, complete with English flag, in this depiction from the Ladybird version with pictures by Robert Ayton.

This can lead to a leap of logic that the “natives” didn’t have homes, allowing for the racist narrative of indigenous people as being animal-like, living off the earth in trees or caves, to be easier to accept. In children’s picture books written and illustrated by white Europeans, this image of indigenous people living “nowhere” can extend to any black or brown people in the global south. Jimmy Buffett’s Jolly Mon (Harcourt Brace 1988) is one example of an author whose book depicts the “simplicity” (“Storyteller’s Note”) of the Caribbean and never shows its people near anything other than cabanas. Gillian Oxford’s Anansi the Spider-Man for Heinemann (1999) gives the main character a straw hut with no door or windows to live in.



In this version of Anansi the Spider-Man, the lovely Miss Selina lives in a straw hut without any door. Pictures by Gilly Marklew.

But the modern Caribbean is not at all a collection of grass huts or beach cabanas. And authors/illustrators can get it right; the “My Home” series from the late 1950s depicts Trinidadians living in modern, if rural, settings with houses that have windows and doors. It is true that the architecture in the Caribbean is different than it is in Europe, reflecting not the poverty or lack of civilization of the people, but the climate. Caribbean homes have to be built to withstand flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, so they are often built of cement blocks and placed up on stilts. The verandas that surround many Caribbean houses give a place for people to gather and enjoy the cool breezes at the end of the day. Authors with Caribbean connections depict these “vernacular” architectural features as a matter of course, but non-Caribbean viewers may not see or understand them, just as someone not from Buffalo might misunderstand the need for the three entry doors to my house (every single one is for insulation against the freezing winters, not as some sort of Fort Knox protection).


Isabel Crombie’s My Home in Trinidad has houses with windows and doors.  You can just see the cement blocks on which the house is resting.


Houses in Verna Wilkins’ Hurricane (Tamarind 2004) show the verandas common to Caribbean houses.

An understanding of the purposes behind vernacular architecture features also needs to be applied to early Black British literature for children in order to understand it today. Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headmistress in the UK and mother to Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy, deliberately tried to counter some of the racist images of how Caribbean migrants lived when she wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers series in the early 1970s. In Knock at Mrs Herbs’ (1973), Gilroy depicts the communal homes shared by Caribbean migrants when they arrived in Britain; these homes, usually crumbling Victorian mansions, were bought communally and shared amongst several families when they found themselves turned away from white-owned lodging houses. The house where Roy lives shows the ways that community is valued in the notes that neighbors leave each other to tell their whereabouts; it also shows solidarity through the Black Power messages on the wall. In Bubu’s Street (1975), the outside of such homes are shown, and it is the Black residents who are living in fixed-up and newly-painted homes of bright colors. That they did the fixing up is implied by the boarded up and broken-windowed homes in dull brick right next door. Gilroy counters the narrative that Black migrants did not care about their homes and were happy to live in slums by the images she creates in her books.


Gilroy’s Knock at Mrs Herbs’ creates a sense of community through text and pictures (illustrations by Shyam Varma).



Gilroy’s Bubu’s Street counters stereotypes about Black migrants to Britain and their homes. Pictures by George Him.

Home is a basic concept in children’s books, particularly in picture books for the very young. The architecture of home has traditionally been connected, in books about Black people, with the racist assumptions of empire. We need to ensure that we are sharing books with children that depict “vernacular architecture” accurately, but also with understanding of why and how the architecture came about. Because how we think about ourselves and others, especially for children, is intimately tied up with ideas about home.

Cure from the Caribbean: Britain’s Caribbean nurses and children’s literature


Are you sure no one is lonely in the children’s ward? From the 1963 Ladybird The Nurse with illustrations by John Berry.

This week, it was reported that Black, Asian and other minority ethnic staff in Britain’s National Health Service were more likely to be bullied, abused and harassed than white staff, not just by patients but by their own colleagues and managers (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/black-asian-and-other-ethnic-minority-nhs-staff-more-likely-to-be-bullied-by-colleagues-new-report-a7060581.html). Given the state of the NHS, this is dreadful news, as they can’t afford for their BAME staff to leave them when most NHS facilities are understaffed as it is. The culture for non-white nurses has not always been so unwelcoming.


Nurses in London 1954

Britain relied on nurses from the Caribbean to fill post-war shortages.

Beginning in the late 1940s and accelerating during the 1950s, Britain advertised in the Caribbean for nurses. Not only was the UK still recovering from war, the new National Health Service had begun in 1948 and immediately the need for additional nursing staff to help provide the free health care service was obvious. Many British wartime nurses had gone back to old (and generally less stressful) jobs or gotten married and given up work altogether. Senior nursing staff were sent to the Caribbean to set up training courses and recruit nurses; the British government took out advertisements in local island newspapers. According to Stephanie Snow and Emma Jones, researchers at the Wellcome Trust, by the end of 1965 there were 3000-5000 nurses from Jamaica alone working in British hospitals (http://www.subcultz.com/2015/08/uk-immigration-and-the-national-health-service/).

The recruitment of Caribbean nurses to the NHS was highly visible. Nurses were needed in all parts of the country, and for many people (especially outside of London or some of the other big urban centres) seeing a Caribbean nurse at their local NHS hospital was their first contact with Black British people. The changing face of British nursing was so evident that it found its way into children’s picture books at a time when it was highly unusual to see any Black characters sensitively depicted—and even when they were present, they were often shown as foreigners or people living outside Britain. But even that bastion of middle-class white British childhood, the Ladybird books, recognized the presence of Caribbean nurses. The 1963 title from the “People at Work” series, The Nurse, included an illustration of a Black nurse in a children’s ward; the children are all sitting on the same bed watching television while the nurse stands behind them looking mildly bored. The text, however, tells the reader that “No one is lonely in the children’s ward . . . The nurses are kind and smiling” (40). By the 1983 edition of the same title, the Black nurse has a little more to do; this time it is the child who is mildly bored-looking while the nurse checks her patient’s pulse.


At least in the 1983 version of the Ladybird Nurse, she’s given more to do.

While the recruitment of Caribbean nurses gave these women (they were almost exclusively women) a chance at a professional job that otherwise eluded most Caribbean migrants of the 1950s and 1960s (teachers from the Caribbean, for example, were often forced to retrain, and many were asked to “learn English”), it also stereotyped them. If a children’s book wanted to depict a Black British adult subject positively, it was almost always as a nurse. In the rhyming counting book, One to Ten and Down Again (1980) by David Lloyd, the only non-white character is Nurse Feeling-Fine. Like her Ladybird counterparts, she is cheerful, even when taken up by a stray balloon into the sky.

The connection between nursing and the Caribbean goes back much further than the postwar Windrush migration, however. It can in fact be traced to the beginning of professional nursing in the 19th century during Britain’s Crimean War. This is the war that made Florence Nightingale famous, but it also made the career of Jamaican-born Mary Seacole. Seacole learned to be a “doctress” (as it was called in the Caribbean at the time) from her mother, who taught her how to prepare herbal remedies and set broken bones. Seacole helped nurse British soldiers through yellow fever and cholera epidemics in the Caribbean before going to England to offer her services to Florence Nightingale. Nightingale refused her help, and when Seacole later set up her own “British Hotel” close to the front to provide nursing as well as home comforts, Nightingale wrote privately about her distaste for Seacole’s efforts (she commented that Seacole made “many men drunk” in a letter she requested the receiver to burn after reading).


One of the best Seacole biographies for younger readers.

After the war, Nightingale went on to British fame and thousands of children’s biographies. Seacole nearly disappeared from the historical record (there is one chapter in a 1906 book of biographies of Brave and Good Women for girls; other than that, I know of nothing until 1982). Black British librarians, such as Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee, rescued her reputation, and eventually, Seacole became part of the National Curriculum. But like the nurses in today’s NHS, Seacole hasn’t had an easy time as part of a national institution. Michael Gove, when he was education secretary, tried to have her removed from the National Curriculum in 2013. Although he didn’t succeed, she is now an “and/or” part of the history curriculum; students are expected to learn about Mary Seacole and/or Florence Nightingale, comparing one or both nurses with World War I nurse Edith Cavell. The new biographies of Seacole show her in this context, rather than giving her entire biographies of her own.


This excellent comparison biography leaves Nightingale out completely.

For over a hundred years, Britons have relied on the help of Caribbean nurses to heal their sick (and remain “kind and smiling” while they do it). But they have seldom had the respect they deserve. Children’s literature, however, is one space where the nurse (whether from the Caribbean or born in Britain) is valued. Perhaps the top brass in the NHS should spend their weekend doing a little reading.

An Alternate View: Changing the Paradigm in British and Caribbean Reading Texts

In the early 1960s, Beryl Gilroy was asked by the Caribbean branch of Longmans Publishing to create readers specifically for a West Indian audience. Gilroy, born in what was then British Guiana in 1924, had been in the UK by this time for a decade, and had spent some time teaching in London schools when she was requested to write the texts. In some ways she was an obvious choice, as a “colonial” who had done university work in England, and who had taught British children; Longmans could trust her to write texts using the “correct” methods (which, as some of my earlier blogs will attest, involved key word schemes and recognizable characters, among other things). In other ways, however, Gilroy was an unusual choice, not having attended formal schooling until she was past the age that the textbooks she was asked to write were aimed at reaching. She had instead grown up in the bosom of a large extended family, and had learned through experience and also through the storytelling—the passing down of an oral tradition which included the folklore of the Caribbean—of her aunts, uncles, and grandparents.


Learning to read and obey in the Blue Water Readers, 1961.

The Blue Water Readers, which first appeared in 1961, in many ways mimicked British readers of the time. The main characters were Joe and Jean, brother and sister, who like their British counterparts Janet and John or Peter and Jane, lived with both parents and their pets in reasonably comfortable circumstances. True, their pets included a goat, and where Peter and Jane in Things We Do (Book 4a of the Ladybird Series) went to the fish shop and the grocers for fish, apples, and cakes, Jean and Joe get their food (fish but coconuts rather than apples) from roadside and market sellers. In the foreword to the Teacher’s Guide, Elsa Waters told the story of a group of West Indian children and their 16-year-old teacher struggling to make sense of a British reading text that, being fairly old, would have been incomprehensible to contemporary British readers let alone those in the West Indies. She adds that “A child learns best when what he learns has meaning and significance for him” (“Foreword” viii; italics in original). It was important to Gilroy that the texts reflected life in the West Indies, but she also pointed out in her Introduction that the “average West Indian child is not fundamentally different in growth or maturational needs form the millions of children who have been tested elsewhere since 1880” (“Introduction” xii).


New parenting styles, but the same basic reading text in 1967’s Green and Gold readers. Illustration by Leila Locke.

But the world of those average children was changing during the 1960s, and Gilroy’s work reflected these changes. In the late 1960s, Gilroy became the first Black headteacher in England, and also wrote for another Longmans Caribbean reading series, The Green and Gold Readers. That these readers replaced the Blue Water Readers is suggested by the fact that the main characters for this text are also Jean and Joe, and some of the stories are very similar. For example, book two of the Green and Gold series has a story about Jean helping mother. In the Blue Water version, Jean is abruptly told that she must help her mother, and she is told exactly what to do. Jean has no voice and no backstory; she was clearly existing just to sweep for mother. By 1967, however, when Gilroy revised the story for the Green and Gold series, Jean has desires of her own, in this case to play with her friend. While she is still compliant when her mother asks her to help, it is significant that her mother does give her a choice about how she wants to help (even though admittedly, Jean’s choices are all connected with traditional female tasks, including cooking, sweeping and minding the baby). Although British media and scholarly studies often portrayed the West Indies as a very traditional society, Gilroy’s work suggests that changes in Western attitudes toward women were beginning to appear throughout the West Indies as well.



All together now–(middle class) racial harmony in the Green and Golds.

The Green and Gold Readers are also different from their earlier counterparts in the society that is depicted in the West Indies. Whereas Blue Water Jean and Joe live in an almost exclusively Afro-Caribbean society, Green and Gold Jean and Joe are part of a much more multicultural one. They have Indian Caribbean friends and Anglo-Caribbean friends, and all play happily together. They also share the same traditions, and they are a very distinctly West Indian set of traditions. This is best showcased in book three, from 1969. The book starts with multiple stories about Terry, the Anglo-Caribbean boy, and his sister Pam. In one of them, Terry’s mother tells him a story—and not just any story. She tells him an Anansi story, and the illustrations show the trickster figure as an Afro-Caribbean man (rather than in his spider form). Later on in the book, the Indian boy, Lal, reads his friends a story, and his story is also an unexpected choice: Red Riding Hood. By offering stories from African and European traditions up as everyone’s stories, Gilroy again reminds us that children of whatever background learn best through stories, and all stories from any tradition have useful things to teach us.


Anansi is for everyone . . .


Gilroy would go on to write for a very different kind of reading series, Leila Berg’s Nippers series, in the 1970s. Again, her work changed the paradigm of what could be expected in a reading series. The Nippers series was famous for aiming itself at a working-class, rather than middle-class, population, but in books such as New People at Twenty-Four, Gilroy also takes on issues of racism and interracial marriage, which had never before been depicted in a series designed to teach children how to read.


A new kind of family for reading texts. Illustrated by Shyam Varma.

Gilroy, more than most authors of reading series, pushed the boundaries of what was commonly acceptable. She provided an alternate view, not only of what the reader could be, but who the reading subject was and should be.