Tag Archives: Lorraine Simeon

Many Happy Returns in a Book: Who gets to have a birthday in children’s lit?

Illustrations from Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, Illustrated by Elaine Mills.

Today is my birthday. I mention this because it is so completely normal (I have one every year!). And yet this normal ordinary thing is something that for a long time, at least in books, excluded many children. I think about my childhood reading—I (still!) know when Jo March’s, Anne Shirley’s, and Betsy Ray’s birthdays are. I read about numerous animals having birthdays, including Curious George, Little Bear, and Frances the Badger. Amelia Bedelia and Mister Muster had birthdays. But I never read about an African, an African-American, an American Indian, an Asian American or a Latinx child having a birthday when I was growing up. In fact, everything about birthdays, from cake toppers to birthday cards underscored the normality of being white.

Betsy Ray’s birthday in pictures by Lois Lenski, stories by Maud Hart Lovelace.

This privileging of whiteness that permeates the culture can seem innocuous because it is so apparently normal. But birthdays especially are connected with valuing individuals, celebrating and recognizing a person’s uniqueness and worth through gift-giving and the setting aside of time to honor that person. We take it for granted, but think about what it means to be sung to (really: how often does someone sing to YOU, sing ABOUT you?), fed your favorite foods made by someone just for you, given tributes through words and presents specially selected. Take a moment and think about all of that. Then think what it means to be perennially placed on the sidelines of such a celebration, to never feel like such an honor belongs to you?

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Not everyone gets to be A Little Princess on her birthday.

Historically, British children’s literature did not really recognize other-than-white people as having birthdays. Sarah Crewe had a giant birthday party at Miss Minchin’s, and even Becky, the child-maid who was one step away from starving in the streets gave her a birthday present. But would anyone find out when Ram Dass’s birthday was? Not in the book, anyway. Often, characters meant to represent Black people (such as the Golliwog—a much more common figure in British children’s literature throughout the first half of the 20th century than actual Black people) were not only NOT being celebrated, they were the entertainment. This “Golly” character from a paperboard shape book (and if anyone can date this for me, I’d be grateful; there are some things that the British Library just does not count as “books”) is the juggler, tightrope walker AND the magician at the Panda’s party—but he still brings a gift as well.

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Everyone else is a guest at the party, but Golly must earn his place by performing.

The lack of birthday representation for Black British children was one of the specific absences that Verna Wilkins set out to redress when she created her first books for Tamarind Press in the late 1980s. Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book was designed as an early reader for schools, which originally came with a triangular number puzzle and a set of story sequence cards. But though early literacy and numeracy was important to Wilkins, equally important was presenting Black British children enjoying the same privileges and celebrations as their white British counterparts. In Wilkins’ book, “normal” includes being the birthday princess, but also receiving birthday cards with Black people on them.

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Wilkins’ Finished Being Four, illustrated by Claire Pound, also has the traditional British birthday feast.

A similar ethos guides her later book, Finished Being Four (1992), a trade picture book about four children in a class who share birthdays in the same week and so also share a party. The birthday feast is full of traditional British party food, including cocktail sausages, quiche, jelly, jam tarts and swiss roll—as well as a birthday cake, of course. Some criticized Wilkins for erasing cultural references (in Finished Being Four one of the mothers wears a sari but there are no Indian sweets on the birthday table, and no indication that any culture celebrates birthdays any differently than the British) but for Wilkins, at least when she began, having Black characters experience the same birthday celebrations as white characters was part of the point.

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Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus has lost his dreadlocks in Marcellus’ Birthday Cake. Illustrations by Petra Rohr-Rouendaal.

Other British children’s books published during the early nineties similarly used a birthday celebration to emphasize the normality of Black British existence. Interestingly, Lorraine Simeon’s sequel to Marcellus, a book about a boy with dreadlocks who is afraid he’ll be made fun of at school, is Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, where the title character attempts to make his own birthday cake. While Marcellus depicts a potential outsider gaining acceptance despite his difference in appearance, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake does not even hint at Marcellus being an outsider—he has even lost his locks. It is hard to tell if this is what Simeon intended (she did not illustrate either book, and both of my editions were published in America, so perhaps the British editions are different). Nonetheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that Simeon’s birthday book has an almost-studied “normality” about it.

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The birthday feast in Jennifer Northway’s Lucy’s Quarrel is the same as ever, but the birthday cake is unique.

Jennifer Northway’s Lucy books are really Lucy and Alice books, because they tell about the often quarrelsome, often loving relationship between Lucy and her cousin Alice. But the books are titled after Lucy, who has a Black British mother and a white British father, rather than white British Alice. Nonetheless, Lucy’s life as depicted in Lucy’s Quarrel is remarkably similar to her cousin’s; both live in middle-class houses, go to ballet class, attend the same school, and go to the fun fair. Lucy’s birthday cake is the sole distinguishing feature about her party that reminds the reader of her Black British heritage. Unlike the plain cakes depicted in all the other Black British books, Lucy has a ballerina cake (I had one of these when I was four too), and the ballerina is brown.

There is a tension in picture books depicting Black British child birthdays; on the one hand, authors are deliberately representing and making central the characters who were formerly either invisible or on the sidelines at birthday parties. On the other hand, other than their brown skin, these characters often have little to mark them out from white British characters. We all should be allowed to have a happy birthday—and see people like us in books doing the same—but do we really all have to have the same kind of birthday to be seen as “normal”?

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Locked Out: Hair, Children’s Books, and people of African Descent

Early in my university teaching career, Carolivia Herron came to speak to my children’s literature students. She had not too long since published her first children’s picture book, a book which had a bright, strong, African-American girl main character, and which could also teach readers about the African-American storytelling tradition of call-and-response. However, it was not the narrative technique that had brought the book to attention, nor the protagonist’s character. It was a single word—half of the book’s title. Carolivia Herron’s first picture book, illustrated by Joe Cepeda was Nappy Hair (Dragonfly, 1997), and the book raised a heated debate over whether the word “nappy” was an insult or not, and who was allowed to use the word in a picture book, and who was allowed to read the word to children.

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Carolivia Herron’s book raised controversy about who could talk about nappy hair.

Herron, on a website to celebrate the book’s twentieth anniversary, explained the reaction: “why were folks so upset? I’ll tell you two of the real reasons. They were upset because they did not want a white teacher talking about black hair, and since many of them always used the word nappy as a negative word, they couldn’t appreciate a book that used nappy as positive” (http://nappyhair.club/nappier-hair-brendas-own-voice/). Obviously, since the book is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, it has survived, and even been followed up by other books, such as the poet bell hooks’ Happy to be Nappy (Jump at the Sun, 1999) and Nappy (Brand Nu Words, 2006) by Charisse Carney-Nunes, illustrated by Ann Marie Williams. Carney-Nunes, a former classmate of Barack Obama, weaves the idea of African-American history into her picture book by including biographical sketches of famous women with nappy hair, including Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Josephine Baker, and Sonia Sanchez. The reviews of all of these books have been mixed. Many are positive about the idea of celebrating African-American hair (and particularly female hair; although Stevie Wonder famously used the word to describe his own hair, all of these books focus on African-American girls). Others still worry about the connotations and history of the word nappy, and of its potentially negative use outside the African-American community.

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Carney-Nunes’ book mixes hair and history.

Girls, and African-Americans, are not the only people who have had hair concerns, however. The politics of Black British boys’ hair became an issue in the 1970s with the rise of Rastafarianism and Black Power movements. Paul Gilroy, in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack quotes from the 1981 Scarman report. Lord Scarman led the inquiry into the 1981 Brixton riots; Scarman suggested that “young hooligans” (Gilroy 135) had appropriated the symbols of the Rastafarian religion, “the dreadlocks, the headgear and the colours” (135) to excuse their destructive behavior. Scarman was not the only one to believe that dreadlocks were associated with criminality; Sally Tomlinson, in Race and Education, points out that schools debated whether or not to ban dreadlocks (49) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A young person’s hair was not, as in the case of the “nappy hair” books, simply a reminder of a (possibly negative, possibly positive, depending on your point of view) past history, but a political and particularly anti-authoritarian statement, one that faced censure from official government institutions such as the police and the schools.

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Why is the Rasta hat-wearing girl placed outside the fence when all other unaccompanied children are in? Illustration by Dan Jones in Inky Pinky Ponky.

 

British children’s books had an uneasy relationship with dreadlocked or Rastafarian-symbol-wearing child characters. Especially in picture books, if child characters wore dreadlocks or green, gold and red Rasta hats, they tended to appear incidental at first glance. Illustrator Dan Jones’s follow-up to Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street (Kestrel, 1977) was another collection of playground rhymes set in London’s East End, Inky Pinky Ponky (collected by “Mike” Rosen, as he was known then, and Susanna Steele in 1982). Unlike Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street, which shows turbans and burkas and saris and dashikis but not a single red, green and gold Rasta hat, Inky Pinky Ponky has two: both children, one boy and one girl. The girl is watching a policeman’s interaction with an older white gentleman; she doesn’t appear to like what she sees. The boy is pictured on the book’s cover, raising a fist at a white girl who is looking down at the ground. Neither of these illustrations seems in any way directly connected to the playground rhymes that accompany them, so it is difficult to know if there is any significance to the Rasta hats. But given Gilroy’s and Tomlinson’s comments, it is difficult to see these characters as random, especially given that the only two characters associated with Rastafarian symbols are depicted as connected with the police and with aggression.

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The only closed fist belongs to the boy in the red, green and gold hat.

 

That the negative meaning of Rastafarian and reggae symbols had filtered down to children is obvious in Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, originally published in 1984 by the community-based Peckham Publishing Project. The story is of a four-year-old boy worried about being made fun of in school because of his dreadlocks. But interestingly, the class has been prepped for Marcellus; the teacher tells him, “When I told the children you had locks/ They all wanted to see” (n.p). However, Marcellus’s dreadlocks are not associated with any kind of political or religious statement in the book; they are just a mark of difference, and one that the other children, after their initial curiosity, ignore. My copy is a 1995 edition published by Black Butterfly in the US, and I am unsure if the text was changed along with the pictures (which were originally done by Yinka Sunmonu, and which were done in my edition by Alvin Ferris). Dreadlocks have a potentially negative connotation, but without any kind of reason given. Having solved the “problem” of wearing dreadlocks to school, the sequel, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, shows the same little boy—but without dreadlocks.

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To cover or not to cover your dreadlocks? If kids are just curious, then it doesn’t matter.

 

More recently, dreadlocks have become normalized through characters like Rastamouse. But Rastamouse is a case in point for the use of children’s literature to contain the potentially “dangerous” Rastafarian. Rastamouse, unlike the Rastafarian-symbol-wearing “hooligans” of the Scarman report, is a crime-fighting mouse who works for the president of Mouseland. He has been co-opted. His dreadlocks are, in keeping with his character, kept neatly under his hat, and the history of the politics of Black British hair is tucked away with it.

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A different vision of Rastas and the law . . . Rastamouse as depicted on CBBC, characters by Genevieve Webster and Michael da Souza.