Tag Archives: Leo and Diane Dillon

Interplanetary Women’s Day: Black Women Writers and Science Fiction and Fantasy

Next week I am going to be in Antwerp, lecturing to a Twentieth Century British Women’s Writers course.  Because the instructor for the course is the gifted and insightful Vanessa Joosen, the overall book list for the course is varied, ranging from Virginia Woolf to Kate Atkinson, Doris Lessing to Andrea Levy, and covering a wide variety of genres, including poetry, realism and fantasy for both adults and children.  I’ll be speaking about the UK’s Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, Malorie Blackman, and specifically about her novel Noughts and Crosses (Corgi 2001).  Blackman is the only writer on Joosen’s list who has written in so many different styles; she has picture books about talking animals (I Want a Cuddle! Scholastic 2001) and imaginary play (Marty Monster Tamarind 1999), early chapter books including the Girl Wonder and Betsey Biggalow series, poetry (Cloud Busting Doubleday 2004), fiction dealing with the effects of technological advances (most famously, Pig-Heart Boy, Transworld 1999, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal—one of the only books by Black British writers to be so honored) and historical fiction (Blackman edited and contributed to the collection Unheard Voices, Corgi 2007).


Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses depicts a dystopian world where the racial power hierarchy is flipped but racism still abounds.

But Blackman is best known for her science fiction and fantasy, which again spans various types, from technological futurism (Robot Girl Barrington Stoke 2015) to horror (The Stuff of Nightmares Corgi 2012), ghost stories (the gentle Grandma Gertie’s Haunted Handbag, Heinemann 1996, is for younger readers, but she does ghost stories for older readers as well), magical creature fantasy (Whizziwig Galaxy 1998), and transformation fantasy (the human characters in Animal Avengers, Mammoth 1999, can turn into any animal they want).  She has interplanetary science fiction with her Chasing the Stars (Doubleday 2016) and, her most famous series, the dystopian Noughts and Crosses.  Most of her main characters are Black (British).  She has spent much of her career trying to write Black children into books, but unlike some writers, she doesn’t usually focus on race as the main aspect of the book: “I wanted to write books about black children where race had nothing to do with the story – just doing all the things white children did in stories I read as a child” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/23/malorie-blackman-teen-young-adult-fiction-diversity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014).  Why shouldn’t Black boys have alien friends from another planet, and why shouldn’t Black girls pilot a spaceship, when white children did these things in books all the time?


The first book in Virginia Hamilton’s series, with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Blackman is definitely the most voluminous producer of Black British science fiction and fantasy for children, but she is not the first to write protagonists of African descent into children’s non-realistic literature.  The American author Virginia Hamilton, who is today perhaps best known for The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Knopf 1986) with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, published a science fiction series beginning in 1978 with Justice and her Brothers.  Hamilton’s series, which includes Dustland (1980) and The Gathering (1981) was “the first science fiction series written with African American protagonists by an African American” (Back in the Spaceship Again, Sands and Frank, 115) for young people.  Hamilton’s protagonist, Justice, travels into the future and uses extrasensory perception to communicate with her brothers.  Like Blackman, Hamilton felt it was important that young people see themselves in books; according to her website, she viewed her writing as “Liberation Literature” (http://www.virginiahamilton.com/biography/) for young people.  The label recalls the Black Panther party, whose Liberation Schools tried to free the minds of young African Americans from the oppressive domination of white/European institutions.  Both Hamilton and Blackman provide readers, through their fantasy and science fiction, with alternative ways of seeing the world around them—ways of seeing themselves as active agents in that world, and even leaders.


Zetta Elliott’s fantasy for middle grade readers about American children meeting ghosts in the UK.

Hamilton and Blackman aren’t the only writers of African descent producing science fiction and fantasy for children; as Zetta Elliott pointed out in her School Library Journal article from 2011, “Magical things can happen to anyone, anywhere” (“A Storied Past” https://www.slj.com/2011/01/industry-news/a-storied-past-the-best-tales-are-often-found-right-inside-your-own-front-door/#_). Her recently updated list of speculative fiction by US-based authors can be found on her blog (http://www.zettaelliott.com/african-american-speculative-fiction-for-kids/), and it shows that the numbers of writers focusing on characters of African descent is increasing in science fiction and fantasy. Zetta herself writes fantasy with African-American characters, including the transatlantic The Ghosts in the Castle (CreateSpace 2017) which I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog. But the numbers are still small, especially outside of the US.  In Britain, science fiction and fantasy is still largely dominated by white characters.  Caribbean children’s literature is still a growth area, and although much early post-independence literature was either realistic fiction or folktales, there has been an increase in fantasy and (especially environmentally-based) science fiction; Diane Browne’s time travel fiction (A Tumbling World, A Time of Fire Arawak 2002) and Hazel Campbell’s Juice Box and Scandal LMH 1992) are two examples of books that paved the way for more recent authors such as Tracy Baptiste (The Jumbies 2015).  Nigerian American award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor writes science fiction fantasy for all ages based in Nigeria (Akata Witch, Speak 2017, is about a twelve-year-old girl).


Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor expands the world of fantasy to include Africa.

Often, however, science fiction and fantasy with Black characters is seen as being only pertinent to Black readers.  As Darren Chetty and I wrote in our Books for Keeps article in January of this year, “While BAME readers need books in which they can see themselves, it’s also important to challenge the idea that books with BAME characters are only for BAME readers. All children deserve to have literature that opens up the world in all its complexity” (http://content.yudu.com/web/1mjdv/0A1mjdx/BFK228Jan2018/html/print/BfK%20228%20hi%20res%20single%20pages-rgb%20DPDF.pdf).  That article discusses the ways that Black authors often use canonical fantasy by white authors to broaden their audience.  In similar fashion, tomorrow also marks the opening of a film based on a canonical American science fiction fantasy novel, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1960).  The novel, written by a white author, is being produced as a film by Ava DuVernay with a multiracial cast including Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid playing Meg Murry. Reviews so far have been mixed—I’ll see it this weekend—but DuVernay’s efforts in opening up the universe to children of color in such a high profile effort may help publishers to be less reluctant about publishing authors who want to do the same.  So if you’re celebrating International Women’s Day today, why not make it Interplanetary Women’s Day, and open up your own universe to one of these authors.

Bringing Together the Children of the Sun

I just recently got back from one of the world’s best book sales, the Ithaca Friends of the Library twice-annual (May and October) sale. While there, I found a copy of Jan Carew’s Children of the Sun, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon in 1980. The story seemed familiar, so I did a little digging in my collection and found a version by Carew, also entitled “Children of the Sun,” in Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends, edited by Andrew Salkey, also published in 1980. The two versions are similar, but not the same, and the differences bear examination because they point to the differing publishing concerns of the American mainstream and British independent markets.

The Dillon-illustrated Children of the Sun.

The Dillon-illustrated Children of the Sun.

Carew was one of those West Indians who grew up under the shadow of the British Empire (he was born in Guyana in 1920), educated in the West but always using that education to embrace his roots. He broadcasted his work on the BBC’s “Caribbean Voices” program during the 1950s (he and V.S. Naipaul used to go to the pub after the programme), and he taught Race Relations and African-American history at British and American universities, while at the same time getting involved in Black Power and Civil Rights activities. He once said, “I am not interested in stirring up race hatred . . . but I am interested in exposing it” (see Margaret Busby’s obituary for Carew in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/dec/21/jan-carew). He was also interested in promoting the deep heritage of the people of the Caribbean, and the many ways that their histories (sufferings and triumphs) intertwined and overlapped.

The story that Carew presents (in both versions) is of a beautiful human woman, Tihona, impregnated by the sun, who gives birth to twin boys. The twins are unalike in personality, one (Pia) being gentle and the other (Makunaima) who is reckless and bad-tempered. When they grow up, the Sun asks them if they would rather be great or good, and sends them on a quest to find out what kind of person they will choose to become. The story comes from the Carib myth system, but I did not learn this from reading the forewords, jacket flaps, or introductions to either the Dillon or the Salkey book. In fact, the way that these two versions of the story are presented is the first striking feature about the books.

The fact that neither mention the Carib tribal origin is not unusual; even today, the “warlike Carib” are placed in stories for children as counter to the “peaceful Arawak” as the two groups (there were others, but never mind) that greeted Columbus in the New World. The Carib, who had a (probably legendary) reputation for cannibalistic rituals, were not the children’s book tribe of choice for myths and legends (yes, give us raping, pillaging Roman or Greek gods any day!). But the way that these books describe the origin of the legend is important. The picture book version of Children of the Sun describes the tale as one that “subtly weaves the threads of several universal myths into a tapestry of startling originality” (or so says the jacket flap). Andrew Salkey, on the other hand, is much more specific about place. In his editor’s introduction to Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends, he writes, “from Guyana, the beautiful, haunting Amerindian legend of the entry of the gods into the real world, presented by Jan Carew in his epic, Children of the Sun” (8). The difference between these two is at first surprising—the Dillons’ version universalizes the story, not even giving it a regional origin, whereas Salkey specifies it to a place and people.

The key to understanding the difference is in terms of publisher and audience. The Dillons’ illustrated version was published by the mainstream Boston press, Little, Brown and Company. The audience for the book would be largely American—which is to say, North American and mostly child readers in the US and Canada (where the book was simultaneously published by Little Brown). The Dillons were known for their illustrations of African and African-American subjects, and their illustrations for this book are no exception. Calling Carew’s Carib-based legend a “universal” story and keeping the setting vague allows the Dillons to depict the children of the sun with African features, and gives the story a wider audience (something that a major American publisher probably would have pressed to achieve).

Salkey's text emphasizes the Caribbean in Carew's story.

Salkey’s text emphasizes the Caribbean in Carew’s story.

It might seem problematic that the Dillon version erases the Amerindian roots of the tale in favor of a universalized (but vaguely African) tale. After all, the obliteration of the tribal people of the Caribbean and South America that began with Columbus has frequently been a topic of criticism; the Dillon version might be seen as one more step in this direction. But it is unlikely that Jan Carew saw it this way. Carew was interested in encouraging the unity of all formally colonized and oppressed people. Proof for this can be found in the other version of “Children of the Sun,” in Salkey’s book. Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends, unlike the Dillons’ version, was published by Bogle L’Ouverture Press, an independent Black British press that had a small but specific audience: the children of West Indian immigrants to Britain who never saw themselves in British literature. Jessica and Eric Huntley, who started Bogle L’Ouverture, were keen to make these new British subjects aware of their Caribbean roots. Hence Salkey’s introductory comments about Carew’s Guyanese and Amerindian text. But additionally, the version in this book brings in African people. Tihona, the twins’ mother, finds herself with new neighbors, the “ebony people” who have brought their own gods with them—including “Anancy the Spiderman, a god and trickster all in one” (94). When Sun complains of these new gods to the Great Spirit (who is the god over all other gods) answers him in a way that sums up Carew’s philosophy: “My Kingdom of the Sky is so vast, there’s room for any stranger-god who comes in peace” (94). Carew, through both versions of his story, found a way to bring together all the children of the sun.