Tag Archives: Leila Berg

The Unexamined Life: What the Reflecting Realities Project from CLPE Tells Us

Plato, in a collection of Socrates speeches, wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living.  Of course, he (or they, I suppose) meant that not examining your OWN life gives you an empty, meaningless existence.  But what happens when you fail to examine the world around you, fail in fact to see the other people who make up your world?

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Does David White’s book help kids wonder about the unexamined lives in children’s book publishing?

There has long been a suggestion (to put it mildly) that British children’s publishing produces, in the main, books for and about white, mostly middle-class children, leaving those from other racial and socioeconomic groups largely unexamined—but because publishers in Britain have never put out industry statistics that would allow them and the public to examine their record, no one could ever say so with authority.  And to be fair to the publishing industry, even had an individual publisher wanted to produce these statistics (and some publishers, like Chicken House, Alanna Books, Firetree Books, Knights of, and Frances Lincoln have been very proud of their record on publishing for diverse child audiences), it still would not have given an industry-wide picture.  When I wrote my book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015, I struggled to find statistics to back up what I innately felt—that BAME readers were not represented very well or sometimes at all by the many children’s publishers in Britain, particularly the mainstream publishers.

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Are BAME children like the one on my book’s front cover doomed to only see white children as book characters?

Last year, however, I was asked to help create a framework for determining the number and quality of BAME representation in children’s books by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).  CLPE then took the framework suggested by me and several other experts and asked publishers to submit all the books that they felt qualified as including BAME representation.  I was not involved with the evaluation of the books by CLPE, but once they had completed the evaluation and statistical analysis, they invited us back to hear the overall results.

You can (and should!) read the full report at the CLPE website (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research) but in the short space of this blog, I just want to highlight a couple of the results.  Keeping in mind that this was not a shaming exercise, but rather one to raise awareness; and also keeping in mind that I did not examine the books sent to CLPE myself, I am going to use some older books as examples of the kinds of things CLPE found.  This works because, at the end of the day, one of the results of this survey is not much has changed in children’s publishing since Britain’s population started changing.  The anecdotal evidence I found for Children’s Publishing and Black Britain played out in the statistics produced by CLPE for last year as well.

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Leila Berg tried to Represent Reality in her reading scheme, Nippers. At first, this meant only background characters with no speaking parts.  Illustration for Julie’s Story by Richard Rose.

One striking result from the survey is that 25% of the books submitted featured BAME characters only in the background.  This statistic can be read cynically—i.e. that “diversity” is a tick-box exercise for book producers and as long as you color some of the faces brown, you’re done—or it can be seen as an honest attempt to include more of the world in a book that would otherwise center on white people only.  Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series from the late 1960s initially had only this kind of representation; she had illustrators and photographers go down to Brixton Market (where many Afro-Caribbean people lived) to make sure that the crowd scenes in her stories about a white, working-class family were accurate.

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But Berg went on to find BAME authors to write for her series. Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

However, Berg did not stop with background representation; as she continued to produce Nippers, she sought out BAME British writers, like Beryl Gilroy and Petronella Breinburg, to write stories that accurately reflected and represented the lives of BAME children.  This suggests to me that an honest desire to change will produce results—if publishers are sufficiently aware of the need and thoughtful about how to address it—even if that change takes time.  The results of the Reflecting Realities survey by CLPE will, we hope, raise some of that awareness for publishers.

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Breinburg also created successful picture books (this is the American version, as you can tell by the spelling of Sean) with illustrator Errol Lloyd, but middle grade books were harder to place with publishers.

Another of the statistics that mirrored what I found in my work was that both picture books and nonfiction had a better level of BAME representation than chapter books.  (Note that the CLPE survey only encompassed books for readers under the age of 11, and not YA literature.) This suggests two things to me: first, that book producers (in which I am including authors, illustrators, publishers and editors—and maybe marketing teams and booksellers as well) feel more comfortable with pictures than with descriptions of BAME people; and second, that they value BAME representation in educational texts and settings more than they do in mainstream middle grade fiction.  I might here highlight the work of Petronella Breinburg, who although she had great success with her picture book series about a little boy named Sean, and wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers reading scheme to be used in schools, she struggled to get her middle grade fiction published and marketed.  There are many conclusions to draw from these results, but the one that I would focus on is the loss of the BAME reader.  If a BAME reader ready for longer, more complex texts only sees her- or himself in books connected with school and not with pleasure reading, they are not going to read for pleasure.  And once readers are lost, it is hard to convince them to come back to reading for pleasure—particularly when many of the YA books they will encounter see racial issues or even racial identity as “problems” to be solved.  I once read a memo from a publisher in the 1980s (I won’t name the publisher) who said that the bottom line was that publishing was a money-making business and “certain groups” didn’t read, so they needn’t be catered for.  I do believe that is the very-small-minority opinion (then and now), but even if true, perhaps the Reflecting Realities statistics will help publishers think about ways they might increase their market share and readership by producing quality chapter books for and about BAME British children.

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Rats, yes. BAME figures, not so much. Terry Deary’s and Martin Brown’s amusing version of British history does not include the West Indian troops who participated, nor the Black Britons like Walter Tull.

One place publishers might start producing middle grade literature is with funny books, which many children of all ages, classes, genders and ethnic groups enjoy.  The Reflecting Realities report demonstrated that BAME characters almost never appeared in books classed as comedies.  Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series rarely includes BAME people in the long stretch of British history, though they laugh with and at just about every group of white Britons (and pre-Britons for that matter).  I think it’s safe to say that most kids are goofier than most adults, and the goofier the kid, the more they want to read about other goofy kids.

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Is Mary Seacole a great Briton, or a great Black Briton? Biographies of Seacole always mention her white contemporary, Florence Nightingale, but biographies of Nightingale rarely mention Seacole.

And that highlights another idea that all of us on the Reflecting Realities team believe: books about BAME characters are for all readers.  I recently had someone—meaning to compliment me—tell me that my work on BAME children’s books was “niche” (he was saying we needed more interesting “niche” projects like mine).  The more that children’s books reflect the reality of the British population, the less “niche” books with BAME characters will appear—and the more readers will feel that other people think their lives are worth reading about too.

Start with What You Know and Take it From There: The role of the archive

I recently ate up Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017).  I loved it; it was hard to put down, and I could easily write a blog about the novel by itself (maybe I will sometime!).  But I want to highlight just one piece of the novel (or donut?) for now, and it isn’t probably the section that avid readers of this blog might expect.  It’s the section where Bailey, the main boy character, goes to the archives at his local library.

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Lawrence’s second book, a tale of finding out about yourself and those you love . . . partly by visiting the archive.

This section (pages 271-274) interests me for a couple of reasons.  First, because Bailey knows that you can get information from an archive, which makes him an unusual 16-year-old (I wish I had more college students who knew what an archive was, let alone how to use it).  But second, and more importantly, because Lawrence’s depiction of a first archive experience is a very accurate one.  Bailey comes in knowing what he’s looking for, but not how to find it.  The “information lady” tells him “to start with what you know, and take it from there” (272); but although he follows her advice, it takes him down rabbit holes and he must bring himself constantly back into focus.  When he finally runs out of time—without finding the information he needs—the librarian/archivist offers him a clue for a next step, pointing out that “It’s surprising what you find in the small print” (274).

A still from the video that has stirred the controversy.

The BBC cartoon that included a Black Roman caused controversy–but visit Hadrian’s Wall, and many other sites in Britain, and you’ll learn about several Black Romans in Britain.

 

On the surface, the description of this scene does not have anything to do with race and diversity in British children’s/YA literature.  And while I am sure that Patrice Lawrence had Bailey go to the archive deliberately, I’m not sure whether she thought about it as a political statement within her novel.  However, having spent a lot of time in archives over the past few years, I’m going to take this scene that way: as a political statement about race and diversity.  Archives in Britain, as well as major research libraries such as the British Library, have traditionally been places where white Britons felt welcome, but BAME people less so.  This (perceived?) lack of welcome may come from the archive’s connection with the idea of Heritage Britain; recent controversies such as the trolling of Mary Beard over her defense of a BBC cartoon depicting Black Romans in early Britain (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/roman-britain-black-white/) suggest that many people still see British history as an all-white subject. Museums, libraries and archives all play a role in defining what (and who) counts as British, and their definitions have consequences for their patrons.  If people don’t see history as belonging to them, they often will not be interested in learning about it. However, research (Hirschi and Screven 1989; Lynch and Alberti 2010; Golding 2016) has indicated that involving traditionally marginalized communities in history-related projects can help open up heritage to new users and change the dialogue around national identity. By having Bailey, a mixed-race British teenager, go to the archive expecting answers about the past, Patrice Lawrence indicates something important: that Bailey has a right to be there, belongs there, and that he can and should access historical information when he needs it.

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Archives should be a place where everyone feels welcome to learn about history, as they are at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book in Newcastle.

The other “political” message I found in Lawrence’s depiction is the librarian’s final comment to Bailey, that what you find in the small print can surprise you.  I can relate this directly to my own efforts to find Black British people in various archives while writing my book on British children’s publishing.  Archives that seemed at first glance to be entirely about white Britons often revealed a more diverse picture with a closer look or more research.  Take the case of Leila Berg, a white British author and publisher from the 1950s-1990s whose archive can be found at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book.  I had never heard of her before I went to Seven Stories, and even when the archivists and librarians at Seven Stories pointed me in her direction, I wasn’t sure if she would be all that relevant to my research on Black British authors and publishers.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that Berg, who experienced the anti-Semitism of her “friends” during World War II, committed herself to standing against both class and racial prejudice in all of her work.  But her archive tells more than just her own history, and it is this that takes me back to Lawrence’s librarian’s comment.  Berg kept records of various meetings, conferences, and events that she attended throughout her life, and looking through these with careful eyes can reveal otherwise-untold histories of Black Britain.

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Gilroy’s Nippers, like her work with teachers, suggest that white Britons need to learn to see Black people as British.

The first time I examined her archive, I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but going back this summer, I found something I hadn’t noticed before.  One document, handwritten by Berg, talks of visiting “Beryl’s classroom” (the document is dated Nov 3 73; Seven Stories archives LB/05/03/20).  This didn’t signify anything particular to me at the time, but when I saw it this past summer, I cursed myself for missing it before.  Given the date, and the fact that Berg was talking about a headteacher, “Beryl” could only have been Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headteacher in Britain (and Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy’s mother as well, though he was still at school when his mother met Berg).  Berg records what Gilroy told her about a “failure conference” she held at her school for the mostly white teachers she worked with: that it is the (white) teachers who must change their attitudes about their (BAME) students, not the other way around.  Gilroy, who would write several titles for Berg’s reading series, Nippers, made the case that BAME students are British, and their cultures, traditions, languages and families were part of Britain too.  More than 40 years after Berg recorded this, the case is still being argued by some.  Maybe people who don’t see BAME people as a part of British history could use a trip to their local archives.  Or they might just want to curl up with Indigo Donut.

May Day: Intersections between BAME Children’s Lit and Workers’ Parties

Today is International Workers’ Day in many countries across the world. It’s a holiday based on an American incident (the Haymarket Riot in 1886), although American celebrate their workers in September, and it’s always been promoted most by the political left: communists, socialists, and even anarchists have frequently staged marches (particularly across Europe) to promote workers’ rights. In the UK, May Day has been given a bank holiday (“early May Bank Holiday” on the first Monday of the month) since 1978. The timing was not accidental; whereas traditionally, May Day had been a festival of spring in the UK, the link with workers’ movements increased after WWII, and became particularly pronounced in Britain with the rise in strikes—especially miners’ strikes—in the early 1970s.

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In Leila Berg’s Fish and Chips for supper, the working class Dad has to worry about putting dinner on the table–but he doesn’t go on strike. Pictures by Richard Rose.

Mainstream children’s literature in the 1970s was still fairly middle class, although the occasional critic—Bob Dixon, Robert Leeson, Aidan Chambers for example—pointed out the missing working-class child in children’s literature. Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series for Macmillan and Aidan Chambers Topliners (also for Macmillan) are two of the series connected with mainstream publishers that tried to address this lack. But although the kids in Berg’s Nippers might have had Fish and Chips for Supper and some of the parents in Chambers’ Topliners were on the dole, these books generally did not depict a radical working class. More often, and in most cases deliberately, the working class families in these books saw Britain’s inequalities as the way things were. Racism (in both Nippers and Topliners) was confronted, but poverty, not so much.

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Brief mentions of Claudia Jones can be found in works for children, such as on Tayo Fatunla’s poster, Our Roots: Celebrating Black History, but full-length discussions of her feminism, anti-racism and community organization are rare.

It was left to independent publishers to not only talk about economic inequality, but highlight the links between race and class. By this I do not mean “if you are Black, then you are automatically poor,” but “people should fight all inequalities in society, because any inequality hurts us all.” This focus on multiple inequalities was something that BAME community leaders had always embraced. Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones, for example, edited the West Indian Gazette, a Black British newspaper, in Brixton; she once said that the Gazette’s “editorial stand is for a united, independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, and for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples” (interestingly, she wrote about this for Freedomways, an African-American journal, in 1964). Jones would later go on to found the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of West Indian culture in Britain. Despite Jones’s history of activism and community organization, her life is rarely celebrated in children’s history or biography texts.

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The photograph on the cover of Chris Searle’s All Our Words underscores the notion that ALL British kids matter.

But independent publishers did produce literature that celebrated a tradition of organizing for both workers’ and BAME people’s rights. Most notably, Young World Books (the children’s book division of the communist Liberation Press) highlighted the ways that workers and BAME people could—and did—work together in Britain and elsewhere. Chris Searle’s All Our Words (1986) begins with the line, “It is the ordinary people of this country that make our language” (1). Searle goes on to write essays about ordinary people, including miners, skinheads, Bengalis, Afro-Caribbeans, and East End Jews, using the writing of London schoolchildren who embrace “all our words” and all of London/England. The book includes poetry, short stories and plays written by British schoolchildren from many different backgrounds, as shown through the front cover. Searle emphasizes the ways that communities in Britain can unite and help each other; during the miners’ strike in 1984, “the harassed black communities in Britain reach[ed] out to the striking miners” (104) with money and support. British people should not allow those in power to divide and rule, but should band together in common cause.

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In Maggie Chetty’s Ring Around the Carnival, white and Pakistani Scottish people work together to fight racism

This message of communities helping each other was further reinforced by another Young World publication the following year, Ring Around the Carnival (1987) by Maggie Chetty and with illustrations by David Lockett. Ring Around the Carnival is the story of a Scottish mining community of both white and Pakistani British people who work together to foil a plot by the British White Power movement. The story is more than occasionally didactic; accepting a white miner’s lamp as a reward for her hard work at the end of the book, the main character comments, “I’m very pleased that we stopped the fascists . . . Raj has told me many times that we can do great things if we unite and work together” (72). But the message is not much different than that found in other children’s books—cooperation is a good thing—even if it has a decidedly political point of view.

Further evidence of attempts to unite different groups of people in protest can be found in the fact that Chris Searle dedicated his book to Blair Peach, the white British teacher and anti-racist protestor who was killed during a rally, probably by police (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/apr/27/blair-peach-killed-police-met-report). Peach was part of the many multi-racial anti-fascist organizations that proliferated in the 1970s in response to the National Front and police oppression. Organizations such as Rock Against Racism brought together white skinheads and punks with dreadlocked Black British Rastafarians. Today these kind of alliances are once again visible throughout the world, as people of all communities react to a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, a lack of concern for BAME people’s rights, and fears about restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and a disregard for truth and science. These concerns need to be represented in today’s children’s literature—and child readers today need to read about the history of community organization. I would love to see Cathhistorical novelist par extraordinaire, write about a character who—as she herself did—participated in Rock Against Racism. Or see Verna Wilkins write a biography of Claudia Jones that includes her feminism as well as her anti-racism and community organization. Injustice to some people is an injustice to all, and on May Day we should think about how to teach our children this.