Tag Archives: Letterbox Library

Reality, Reflected? CLPE, and the Search for Statistics about BAME Children’s Publishing

When I was writing my first book, Soon Come Home to this Island: West Indians and British Children’s Literature (Routledge 2008), a number of people asked me if there was really all that much literature to write about.  Most could not name a single Black British author or character in a book for children, and if they could, it was because they had gone looking for Black British literature specifically either for their own children, or for children that they knew and/or taught.

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When I wrote Soon Come Home, many people wondered if there were any West Indians in British Children’s Literature.

By the time I wrote my most recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmilan 2017), this situation had changed for the better somewhat; most (British) people that I asked could name a few authors (though they were less likely to be able to name characters, indicating something about the “classic” status, or lack thereof, of Black British children’s literature)—and my American family, friends and students, who had to listen to me banging on all the time could also name a few authors, despite the fact that Black British authors are seldom published in the US.  But nonetheless, I still found myself able to write in that later book, “Depressingly little has changed in British publishing over the last 50 years” (Children’s Publishing 184), and “Publishing is an industry which is self-reinforcing: books that ‘sell’ are books that serve the majority population in society, so these are the books that are published—but groups outside the majority population do not see themselves in books, so they do not buy these books, and then publishers can argue that certain groups ‘don’t read’ and therefore don’t require attention from the publishing industry” (185).  Obviously this formulation is something of an oversimplification, but it has been true for a long time that the publishing world did not mirror the real world when it came to children’s books.

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By the time of Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, more people were aware of Black British authors–but they could count the ones they knew on a single hand.

Just how far apart the industry was from reality, however, was an unknown quantity.  The British publishing industry did not keep (or release) statistics about the diversity of either its authors and illustrators or the characters in its books.  No UK institution (government or academic) attempted to keep such statistics either, as far as I know.  But this is about to change.  This week, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published a press release.  It read in part:

“The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) has announced a pioneering new study into ethnic representation in children’s literature. The Reflecting Realities initiative will evaluate the extent and quality of ethnic representation in children’s publishing and will be the first ever survey of its kind in the UK.

The study will be produced alongside and complemented by research from BookTrust, who will publish a Representation research project focusing on the number of children’s titles created by authors and illus­trators of colour in the UK in recent years. Both surveys are funded by Arts Council England and aim to promote conversation and awareness around representation in children’s books. Findings for CLPE’s study, looking at books published in 2017, will be announced in July and followed by BookTrust’s report in Sep­tember.”

I’m very excited to be a part of the Reflecting Realities project.  CLPE’s Farrah Serroukh, who is directing the project, has put together an excellent team.  We come from a variety of disciplines—sociology, philosophy, education, literature—and organizations (including Letterbox Library and Amnesty International), so we bring different ideas, suggestions, and frameworks to the question of ethnic diversity and publishing for children.  But we all hope to move beyond a “numbers game” where a publisher can say, oh, I published a BAME author last year, so I don’t need to do it this year.  Or, I have an award-winning diverse author on my lists, so I don’t need to encourage and nurture new authors.  As Sita Brahmachari wrote in a tweet on hearing about the project, “The fissure between the children I visit in schools and representation in stories is a constant reminder to me of how that absence feels as a child & what impact it can have on opportunity.  Knowing, seeing & feeling it fuels my energy to imagine stories” (2/8/18).

Sita Brahmachari’s latest book, from Barrington Stoke, is part of a long list of books reflecting the different realities of BAME people in Britain.

In the Reflecting Realities project, we hope to fuel publishers’ energy to produce such books and celebrate the ways that publishers are trying to respond to the nation’s child reading population, through looking at the quality of ethnic representation, and not just the quantity.

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Books like Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet were part of publishers’ efforts in the 1970s to produce more books that reflected the realities of British youth.

Reflecting Realities is based on a model from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, who publishes similar statistics on US children’s publishing and has done in some fashion since 1985.  The CCBC began keeping statistics because one of their librarians had judged a national prize for African-American authors and found that very few authors existed.  The CLPE Reflecting Realities project is somewhat different in origin, because it comes at a moment when many stakeholders—including publishers—have expressed a desire for change.  But—as those who were around to witness publishing efforts of the 1970s (Macmillan’s Nippers and Topliners series) and 1980s (Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Other Award plus multiculturalism in series such as Puffin’s Happy Families by the Ahlbergs), and on into the 1990s and 2000s well know, desire to participate in a trend is not enough.  Alison Flood’s article in the Guardian, “Ethnic Diversity in UK Children’s Books to be Examined” allowed CLPE director Farrah Serroukh to sum up both the positive and the negative: “Serroukh at the CLPE, a charity which works to support the teaching of literacy in primary schools, said that there was currently ‘a momentum across the industry calling for better representation’. ‘We want to contribute to that conversation and move it on,’ she said. ‘It’s great that the industry has been reflecting on this, but that’s only effective if it ultimately leads to change’” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/07/ethnic-diversity-uk-childrens-books-arts-council-england-representation).  No single person, publisher, or organization can change children’s publishing—but we are hoping to do our part to make the nation’s children’s literature better reflect the reality of its reading population.

Not Banned, Just Ignored: BAME Lit and Banned Books Week

A news story this week caught my eye—perhaps I should say “news” story, as it was accompanied by the usual screaming headlines of The Sun.  It concerned Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta’s Biff, Chip and Kipper books, and the adult themes of some of the illustrations (https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4540364/childrens-author-dogging-scenes-biff-chip-kipper-books/).  The comments on the story were a mix of calls for censorship and raised-eyebrow-amusement, but it got me thinking about Banned Books Week, which has been celebrated in the US since 1982, and what censorship means for BAME authors and readers.

Going al fresco? Ed Brody tweeted a photo of the Biff, Chip and Kipper books with something strange going on in the background of one page

What are they doing behind those bushes?  One of the controversial pictures from the Biff, Chip and Kipper series.

On the Banned Books Week coalition website, they list the top ten challenged books of 2016 (http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about).  Most of the books on the list were challenged for sexual content, and most are for young adults (I am Jazz, about a transgender child, is a rare picture book exception).  Most of the books are about white children.  Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel, This One Summer, and Bill Cosby’s Little Bill books are the exceptions; and these are both challenged for sexual explicitness (in the case of Bill Cosby, his own rather than the books’).  This is quite a change, historically speaking; books in the US used to regularly be challenged on the basis of their depiction of race, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the “mixed race marriage” depicted in Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding.

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It might not have been the worst day of his life, but Bill Cosby has had his children’s books challenged over the past year because of the charges against him.

The UK has, at least over the last few decades, not had the same kind of censorship culture as the US with regard to children’s books.  The last publication to be banned under the UK’s Obscene Publications act was David Britton’s graphic novel, Lord Horror (published in 1989, banned in 1992), a book definitely not aimed at children.  Indeed, the Obscene Publications act has mostly focused on adult literature, and in recent years hardly used at all.  The 1955 Children and Young Persons Harmful Publications Act, which was introduced in response to a National Union of Teachers exhibition of horror comics they deemed harmful to children, ultimately resulted in only two prosecutions (both in 1970) according to the parliamentary record (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1974/dec/05/childrens-publications-prosecutions#S5CV0882P0_19741205_CWA_237).  In 2010, the BBC noted that US-style banning of books was rare: “Part of the difference is in the level of local control over schools. Typically in the US, locally-elected school boards can have books withdrawn when parents petition them. In the UK, control lies almost exclusively in the hands of headteachers, says Sally Duncan, of the School Library Association” (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-11417672). This attitude of UK rationality regarding the US with benign bemusement is fairly standard across articles from the UK about censorship.

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I wonder if Mary Hoffman’s Grace ever dreamed of being Wishee-Washee in the Aladdin pantomime? Dean Kilford plays him here in this photo by James Spicer.

But the suggestion of British superiority belies the ways in which the institutions and industries (particularly education and publishing) in the UK effect the same result: producing literature which reinforces a white, patriarchal, Christian, heterosexual status quo.  This is true in terms of the books and authors who do get published: the most lauded picture book about a Black British child was written by a white author, and rewards the Black British character for wanting to participate in British (and more particularly English) literary and dramatic tradition (including Kipling, Shakespeare, J. M. Barrie, and British pantomime); most of the books written by BAME authors or about BAME characters that have won awards in the last fifty years have gone out of print in a relatively short amount of time.

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Books like Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet may not have been banned, but they aren’t in print in the UK anymore–and were never in print in the US.

BAME British books and authors that depict alternatives or challenges to white dominant society are often ignored or criticized.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, an alternative-reality story where Black people hold the majority of power positions and white people form militant groups, garnered considerable attention, including from racist trolls.  Except for Noughts and Crosses, Blackman’s books were not published in the US.  Neither are the books of most other BAME authors, including award-winners such as Alex Wheatle and Patrice Lawrence (although the picture book I mentioned above by the white author was not only published in the US but has remained in print), suggesting that UK publishers do not value the literature enough to promote it, or US publishers do not see the works as “translating” to the US, a dubious idea. Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights may have won the Guardian Prize for fiction, but neither he nor Blackman has ever won the most prestigious children’s book prize in the UK, the Carnegie Medal (and Wheatle, along with several other celebrated BAME authors, was not even shortlisted).  The Carnegie, unlike many of the other children’s book prizes in the UK, is awarded by children’s librarians.

I am certain that individual publishers, authors, and librarians could protest the suggestion of racism in children’s book publishing—but the individual example is an easy way to diffuse a larger argument (no matter what the topic).  I’d like to quote some statistics to prove my points, but the UK, unlike the US, does not publish statistics relating to diversity in children’s books.  So while the UK can be smug about its lack of direct censorship compared to the US, it can also mask its poor efforts in publishing and awarding BAME children’s literature.  The UK needs an organization like the US-based Cooperative Children’s Book Center (https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/default.asp), which publishes yearly statistics on the numbers and types of diverse children’s books published in any given year.

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Publications such as Children’s Book Bulletin and Dragon’s Teeth commented on the good and bad in children’s publishing about BAME people.

Academics, whether focused on education, librarianship, or children’s literature can also play their part in raising the profile of BAME children’s books.  In the 1970s, when literature with Black British characters had a brief moment in the sun (one even won the Kate Greenaway medal, as I’ve discussed on this blog before), it was partly because children’s librarians such as Dorothy Kuya (in her publication Dragon’s Teeth) and Janet Hill (in books like Children are People) actively promoted and discussed BAME children’s literature.  Andrew Mann and Rosemary Stones did the same through the anti-racist anti-sexist Children’s Rights Workshop and its publication Children’s Book Bulletin.  These publications were aimed at an audience of teachers, librarians and parents, in an attempt to educate them about available literature.  Letterbox Library is one of the organizations that works toward these goals now, but there is no journal in the UK devoted to BAME children’s literature that I know of—whether aimed at an academic or non-academic audience.  Perhaps it is time to start one—but in the meantime, may I suggest that we all could participate in anti-censorship activities this week by picking up a book that has been banned in the US—or one that has just been ignored in the UK.

I’ll end with one of Letterbox Library’s tweets from this morning which sums all this up nicely:

Letterbox Library @LetterboxLib 4h4 hours ago

Spot the difference- we requested the book shown in this trade catalogue; this is what we received (we were sent the “UK edition”…):

Children’s Books, Diversity, and List-Making

When my London philosopher friend, Darren Chetty, asked me to write an article for the Times Educational Supplement with him, I didn’t hesitate to do it. First, because I admire Darren’s work; he gets into the schools and talks to kids about issues of ‘race’ and racism, providing not only a venue for their discussions but a model for their teachers (you can find discussions of his work in “The Elephant in the Room: Picturebooks, Philosophy for Children and Racism” as well as in “‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be about White People,’” his chapter in Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant). Second, I wanted to do it because the TES is putting out really thoughtful pieces right now about education in an increasingly restrictive world (restricted by testing and assessment, worries over immigration, lack of funding, among other things). But mostly, I wanted to help because when people find out I research Black British literature for children, their first question is, “Oh, is there much of that out there?”

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Here are a few of the books from the list that are still in print in the UK–for now.

One of the elements that the TES wanted in the article was a “diverse” book list, and they were willing to let me do it my way. That meant, for me, a list of books with main characters who were British and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic—I’m not hugely fond of acronyms that “other” but it is the one that it is currently in greatest use in Britain), written and/or illustrated (at least one or the other, and preferably both) by BAME authors and artists. The reason for this is simple: if Britons know any book with a BAME main character, it is likely to have been written or drawn by a white author or illustrator. The most popular “diverse” books over the past half-century, and the ones that have stayed in print, have been written by people outside of the community that they are writing about. In some cases, such as Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft or Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace, the Black British main character is actually based on a real white child. Publishers want books that will appeal to white readers—because, as in the United States, white readers are in the majority. But making the white reader comfortable with a BAME character often means erasing much of what the white reader would find unfamiliar or strange. It often means leaving institutional racism and the status quo unchallenged, giving preference to assimilation, making happy endings that reassure white readers. It also sets up a problematic cycle, particularly in children’s literature, where most of the books are purchased by adults rather than the intended child readers. Book buyers purchase books that make them comfortable; child readers never see the books that might challenge the status quo or better represent BAME communities; these challenging books then go out of print because publishers say that they aren’t viable and/or that BAME children “don’t read” or don’t want BAME books. I’m guessing that most teachers and librarians will find Amazing Grace, if they haven’t already. But I wanted, with my list, to give them something they might not find.

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These are a few of the quality works of children’s literature that I wanted to put on the list, but couldn’t–because they are out of print.

But it wasn’t necessarily easy for me to find those books either. I’m fairly familiar with children’s authors who write about Afro-Caribbean characters; it’s my main field of research. The TES, however, wanted books that represented multiple BAME communities. I had to read a lot, look at multiple blogs and websites, find out about the authors and illustrators—and then find books of theirs that were still in print. Although I double-checked books against more than one bookstore/website, including the fantastic Letterbox Library and independent publishers’ websites such as Firetree Books and Hope Road Publishing, my friends at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book have already (less than two months after the appearance of the list) tried ordering the books and have found some unavailable. And so far, none of the publishers who let really good classic BAME texts go out of print have contacted me to say that they made a mistake in doing so and have set up a print run for any of the “Bring Back into Print” texts I recommended (okay, maybe this was just a fantasy of mine—but the TES was willing to endorse it!). I hope that this does not put off people—teachers, librarians, parents—who truly want to represent the world through books for their children. Because to be fair, my list is just one of many that have been written over the years. It is up to all of us to keep the pressure on the publishing and book industry to ensure that these books stay in print and that more books are published. That means buying them, promoting them, reading them ourselves. It is an effort, but we who care about books and children must make the effort. As Darren and I say in our article, “when kids start seeing themselves and their classmates in books, they learn that they all have a role to play—in the classroom, in books and in Britain’s literary heritage.”

Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Harrison, who is publishing this blog on her website, The Worrisome Words Blog, as a guest post. Dr. Harrison teaches at East Stroudsberg University in Pennsylvania, and her research interests include reader-writer relationships, thing-theory, and the supernatural; she is a reviewer for the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL), as well as the Children’s Book Review. You can read her blog, which focuses this month on multiculturalism, here: http://quantum.esu.edu/faculty/jharrison/.

You can read our article, “Why diversity should start at story time,” in the TES from September 30, 2016. You can download a free poster with my list of 50 diverse titles from the TES at their website, https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499.