Tag Archives: Malorie Blackman

“Slight” of Hand: Reading With, and not For, “Race” in Children’s Books

Apologies to those of you who regularly follow my blog; it has been a busy time for me, and indeed, this will be my last blog for a while as I concentrate on other concerns and projects.  But I wanted to conclude this phase of my blog by looking at something I rarely consider in these pages: the “non-issue” book in British children’s literature about people of colour.  In the 2017 Reflecting Realities report, the executive summary highlights the fact that many children’s books with characters of colour are not only about Blackness (or Asianness, or being a minority ethnic member of society in general), they are about the problem of being an ethnic minority in society (national society or global society):

“The fiction titles were categorised according to a set of agreed sub-categories intended to define subject matter. ‘Contemporary Realism’ was a category defined as books set in modern day landscapes/ contexts; these amounted to 91 titles, which accounted for 56% of the fiction submissions. This category therefore featured the highest percentage of BAME character presence. Only 1 of the children’s fiction titles submitted could be classified as comedy, conversely 10% of submitted books featured Social Justice themes. Almost a third of submissions classified as containing social justice issues focused on themes of war and conflict. This very much corresponds with the societal context of recent years and is important to acknowledge, explore and mirror in literature. That said this does however raise some important questions. Do those from minority backgrounds only have a platform when their suffering is being explored? And how does such disproportionate variation of representation skew perspectives of minority groups?” Reflecting Realities 2017 Report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children).

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The 2013 Vintage Classic edition of Arthur Ransome’s 1936 Carnegie Medal-winning Pigeon Post. One of the reasons that the medal matters is that Carnegie winners tend to stay in print for decades.

This is also an issue that has come up with regard to the CILIP Carnegie medal; if a book is not about a Serious Issue, then recently it has rarely been considered for nomination, let alone the award.  Alison Brumwell, chair of this year’s judging panel, commented about the books on the longlist, “The forty books selected by judges offer intimate insights into family life, superb world-building and thoughtful, incisive explorations of complex themes and issues” (https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2019_longlists_announced.html). This award preference for complexity of themes and issues can be found across children’s books—authors such as Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series (the first of which appeared in 2014), rarely appear in nominations, despite wide success with readers, diversity in characters, and a “literary” style (by which I mean, endpaper maps and literary allusions and a twist in the traditional tale-type) that the Carnegie judges have tended to favour.  It was not always thus; in fact, the first winner, Pigeon Post (1936), was one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; Lucy Pearson describes it as “deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history” (https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/pigeon-post/) but certainly not an “issue” book in the same way that Sarah Crossan’s One (the 2016 Carnegie winner) or Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (the 2015 Carnegie winner) are.  The emphasis on issue-based literature, mostly for older readers, and the preference for it from both publishers and award committees encourage authors of colour to write about “issues” in the hope of gaining literary success.

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Tanya Landman’s Carnegie-medal winner announces its Serious Issue on the front cover. Notably, the book is by a white author and set in America rather than Britain; to date no British author of colour has ever won the Carnegie.

Therefore, I want to focus the rest of this blog on two authors who have recently published books which might be considered “slight” by, not just award judges, but reviewers, teachers and librarians as well.  Malorie Blackman and Patrice Lawrence have both written “issue” books for older readers that the Carnegie medal process ignored anyway; Blackman’s 2001 Noughts and Crosses, often considered her most significant book; and Patrice Lawrence’s 2016 Orangeboy, which won the Waterstone’s prize, were not shortlisted.  Both of these books considered questions of racial identity and power structures, among other things.  But their recent books for the publisher Barrington Stoke are very different.  Blackman’s Ellie and the Cat (2019, illustrated by Matt Robertson, originally published in 1994 as Elaine, You’re a Brat by Orchard Books) concerns, according to the back cover list of themes, “Cats, Magic, Friendship”.  Lawrence’s Toad Attack! (2019, illustrated by Becka Moor) lists “Friendship, Toads, Tricks” as its themes.  These themes, combined with book covers that depict smiling children and animals drawn in cartoon-like fashion, indicate right away that these books are not going to deal with “serious” issues or be Carnegie-contenders.

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The plots of these books bear out the promise of the covers.  Ellie and the Cat is set in contemporary times, but it is a fairytale-like story with a wise woman (Ellie’s grandmother) who teaches “the rudest, most disagreeable child I have ever met” (12)—her granddaughter, Ellie—to behave through the use of a transformation, a quest, and the help of magical, talking animals.  Lawrence’s toads, on the other hand, do not talk, but they cause havoc for protagonists Leo and Rosa, who must discover both how to stop the hundreds of giant toads from destroying local gardens, and how to stop the destruction of the toads themselves by angry mobs.  Typical for Barrington Stoke books, these two are short (both resolve in under 75 pages), with relatively simple vocabulary and high readability.  The stories follow in the tradition of humorous, magical or hyperbolic books with mildly-delivered messages about good behavior or living in society, such as Gillian Cross’s Jason Banks and the Pumpkin of Doom (also Barrington Stoke, 2018) or even older stories by authors like Dorothy Edwards or Dick King-Smith.

The difference is that Blackman’s and Lawrence’s books have protagonists of colour.  Ellie and Leo are (at least partly—Leo has a white mother and grandfather) Black British heritage, and Rosa is British Asian.  But in many ways, that is the ONLY difference.  These books are not about “being” Black or Asian, and they certainly are not about the problem of being an ethnic minority.  It is not a new phenomenon to include British children of colour in stories such as these (Gillian Cross had a school series first published in the early 1980s that included Clipper, a Black British girl), but they have typically featured as parts of a gang, or sidekicks.  What Lawrence and Blackman do in these books is foreground the protagonists of colour, and the illustrators follow suit by keeping them prominent and central in the illustrations throughout.  Readers are not reading about the problem of being Black or Asian British, but they are reading about being Black or Asian British.  Lawrence and Blackman give readers the opportunity to see characters of colour in leading roles, part of humorous situations and allowed to problem-solve in a way that does not focus on identity.  These books may appear slight, but they perform an important role: they make being Black and Asian part of being British, in contrast with a publishing and awards industry that want to make them only Black British or only British Asian.  And this is a change, a sleight-of-hand if you will, which, over the long term, could have more impact than any individual medal-winning book.

Brown Bombers? What Readers Expect, and What Viewers Get

This week, the comics publisher Abrams withdrew plans to publish a graphic version of a short story by Jack Gantos, “A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library.”  The story was originally published in 2016 by Walker Books, in a collection entitled Here I Stand: Stories that Speak for Freedom.  The collection of short stories was edited by Amnesty International, in order to encourage readers to think about their human rights.  Nicky Parker, the education director for Amnesty International UK, wrote in an afterword to the collection, “This book is inspired by the fact that human rights can be denied or abused even in countries like the UK or the USA, and we need to defend them constantly.  Stories and poetry are a wonderful way of making us think, helping us understand the world and other people.  More than that, they can inspire our empathy—which we need if we’re to overcome prejudice” (Here I Stand 310).

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Abrams Publishing pulled the graphic novel version of this story after protestors objected to the illustrations.

I quote Parker at length because the original story written by Gantos did not, to my knowledge, raise the same kind of protest that the graphic version has done, and I think it’s important to understand why.  Gantos’s short story begins with the simple sentence, “He is a boy and he is bored” (100).  A reader will learn over the course of the eight-page story that the boy is young, and that he cannot read, and that he is part of some religious or faith-based group that believes that those who have different faiths should be destroyed.  He lives in a place that has libraries, and “place[s] of worship” (101) and markets.  We are not told what the boy looks like, other than that he is wearing a red jacket and he is “little” (103).  We are not told where the town is. The reader may make assumptions about the suicide bomber, but the textual evidence will not support a definitive racial, ethnic or national origin for the boy.  In fact, if anything, the author’s own note at the end of the story problematizes any assumptions that readers might have: Gantos indicates that the inspiration for his story was the French Enlightenment philosopher, Denis Diderot.  Diderot, who Gantos suggests, “wrote a good bit on religious fanaticism” (108) was concerned with white, European, Catholic fanaticism.  In his writings, Diderot discusses the logical inconsistencies within Christianity, and the ways that these inconsistencies are used to inflict pain on other humans.  Gantos’s note reminds the reader that his story could take place anywhere—“even in countries like the UK or the USA,” where indeed, white boys commit terrorist acts against schools, synagogues, and anti-racism protests with alarming frequency.  By failing to give the suicide bomber a definitive identity, Gantos gives readers the opportunity to question or consider their prejudices about who might be a suicide bomber and why.

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The unillustrated version of Gantos’s story originally appeared in this collection produced by Amnesty International.

Turning Gantos’s story into a graphic novel, however, removes the potential for the bomber to be an “every boy”.  Dave McKean, who illustrated for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, depicts the suicide bomber as a brown boy, and many assumed that he was not just brown, but Muslim (I have only seen the front cover of the graphic version, so don’t know whether other clues in the illustrations suggested the boy was Muslim).  A thousand people signed a letter to the publisher, written by the Asian Author Alliance, calling for the book to be scrapped, saying the book was “steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/26/a-suicide-bomber-sits-in-the-library-comic-pulled-protests-jack-gantos-dave-mckean).  In pulling the text, the publisher and the illustrator agreed that they had erred in creating a book that reinforced, rather than challenged stereotypes.

The discussion about Gantos’s story and the graphic novel version of it brought to mind another story for young readers about a terrorist which was eventually turned into a graphic novel: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (2001). Like “Suicide Bomber,” Blackman’s story includes a conflicted young terrorist, but there are many differences that complicate Noughts and Crosses.  The terrorist in Blackman’s story is a racial terrorist, reacting to an unequal society rather than a difference in belief systems.  He carries out and succeeds in his terrorist act, and is eventually hanged for it.

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Novelist Malorie Blackman also wrote about a young terrorist involved in a bombing.

The terrorist in Blackman’s novel is also white.

Callum MacGregor, Noughts and Crosses’ male protagonist, is not the bomber in the story–it is actually his father and brother who plant the bomb–but he becomes a part of their terrorist organization.  Although he is white, he is not like those the media in the US and UK refuse to call terrorists (“lone wolf” is often the preferred term): the disaffected white males who attack their own peers in a school or movie theater, or drive cars into peaceful protests, or go on shooting rampages in synagogues or Jewish daycare centers.  He is a member of the oppressed in Noughts and Crosses, a novel set in an alternate universe where Black people are in charge and white people lack access to freedom and power.  Blackman’s novel deliberately makes the point that racism is about power, not innate inferiority/superiority.  By only referring to Callum’s whiteness from time to time in the novel, she also requires the reader to constantly revise assumptions about race.  I have taught this novel several times, and white students as well as Black have told me they had to keep reminding themselves that Callum was white.  Our assumptions about race, power and terrorism are that deeply engrained.  It is this constant revisioning that makes Blackman’s novel so effective.

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The graphic novel version does not force assumptions to be constantly questioned.

It is also, paradoxically, what makes the graphic novel version less successful.  Even though Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s 2015 graphic novel follows Blackman’s story and reproduces its reversed racial hierarchy, the reader no longer needs to repeatedly reconsider what a terrorist looks like, because the pictures show them.  But because Blackman’s novel is set in an alternate world rather than being a version of our contemporary one, the viewer of the graphic novel also can separate these two worlds.  They can think, “Callum is a white terrorist in Blackman’s book, but that is a different world from ours”.  The illustrator’s vision erases the need for the reader to revision.

Jack Gantos concludes his author’s note following “Suicide Bomber” with a quotation from Diderot: “But who shall be the master, the writer or the reader?” (108).  In the best situation, both are master, because the writer presents a range of possibilities and the reader is open to thinking about those possibilities.  The Barthesian failure of both of the graphic novels I discuss here is the closing off of these possibilities, forcing us to accept a world in which suicide bombers come in one color only.

Not Riding the Bus Alone: Doctor Who, Rosa Parks and Malorie Blackman

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Blackman had previously written this Doctor Who story in honor of the 50th anniversary of the series; it featured the seventh doctor.

This past week’s episode of “Doctor Who” was co-written (with Chris Chibnell) by the phenomenally talented Malorie Blackman, author of Noughts and Crosses and British Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, and concerned the 1955 Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, catalyzed by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus and her subsequent arrest.  The episode was of course fantastic, tense and taut in its plotting, horrifying in its historical details, and deeply emotional.  It is good for the audience of “Doctor Who” to be reminded that there was a time, not so long ago, when giving a white lady back her glove could get a Black kid threatened with lynching.  (Now, as nine-year-old Jeremy Harvey knows, it “only” results in the police being called: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/13/black-childs-backpack-brushed-up-against-woman-she-called-report-sexual-assault/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.284fbbbe112d.) In typical “Doctor Who” fashion, the episode contains didactically-delivered history, with the Doctor writing up facts on the wall of a whites-only motel as if it were a schoolroom blackboard and her companion Yas, who is mistaken for a Mexican person in 1955 Montgomery, researches details about the bus boycott in a banker’s lamp-lit library.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m pleased to see the show tackling these historical events.

But.

The episode makes a generalization (I’ll not call it an error, given that it is impossible to deliver all the history of a single event in the space of fifty minutes) that turns Rosa Parks’ story into a mythic one; and it also fails to connect Parks’ story to other histories—particularly those in Britain itself.

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Funny, I don’t see Doctor Who sitting anywhere . . .

The generalization is that Rosa Parks made her decision not to stand up on the bus by herself.  In my own childhood, Parks was described as being too tired to get up; recent children’s books have done better about correcting that idea.  Rosa Parks: My Story by Parks herself, with the assistance of Jim Haskins (Puffin 1999) states firmly several times that Parks was tired, but not physically.  Even the back cover proclaims, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  The “Doctor Who” episode does not make this error; the depiction of Parks shows a quietly determined woman, not a tired and elderly one.  But the idea that the Doctor and her companions had to make sure that Parks got on that bus, that night, or the racists would win (and, as the time-traveling villain says to the Doctor’s Black companion Ryan, “your kind” will stay in their place) suggests that the bus boycott was down to the actions of a single woman.  I do not wish to take away from Parks’ courage, but just as in “Doctor Who” she had the support of the Doctor and her companions as she took her stand, Parks in real life did not make a random decision that night: she did not ride that bus alone.

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Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus more than half a year before Parks, but at 15 and pregnant, she was far from the “model minority” that the NAACP needed.

Parks was in fact the secretary of the local NAACP chapter; she was an advisor to the chapter’s youth group, whose members included 15-year-old Claudette Colvin.  Colvin had, the previous March, been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, but because she was young, unwed and pregnant, the NAACP did not see her as a suitable person around whom to organize a boycott—something they had long planned.  Parks had been moved to take a stand in part because of the case of Emmett Till, whose murderers had recently been set free; a rally at the Dexter Street Baptist Church (Martin Luther King, Jr’s church) four days prior to Parks’ action had been organized to discuss how to respond to the violence against Black people and specifically discussed Till’s case.  The “Doctor Who” episode mentions both Till and a “movement”, but the specific connections are not made clear.  This is, I think, unfortunate, because community organization was key to many of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

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Stephenson’s story, and that of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963, would make an excellent children’s history book. Or Doctor Who episode.

Also, I think the episode missed an opportunity to connect Parks’ story with the wider African diasporic community.  At the beginning of the episode, Ryan says in response to the question, who was Rosa Parks, “She was the first Black woman to drive a bus”.  When chastised by Yas, he shrugs and says he didn’t pay attention to her story in school because Parks was American.  The episode works to show how “Rosa Parks changed the world” and thus should be important to all viewers—but this doesn’t really address Ryan’s complaint.  At the conclusion of the episode, the Doctor tells them that not only did Parks change the world, she changed the universe; she then shows them an asteroid named after Parks.  I get the science fiction connection, but it might have been more powerful—and more relevant to Ryan—if the Doctor had explained how Parks’ action had, in 1963, inspired Bristol resident and Black Briton Paul Stephenson to organize the Bristol Bus Boycott, protesting the “colour bar” that kept Black Britons from becoming city bus drivers.  Stephenson writes about how, “Seeing what was happening in the USA I decided we should draw more attention to what was happening here with black people, particularly in Bristol.  I then decided to take on the Bristol Bus Company because it was a symbol of all that was wrong with Bristol as it advocated racism, defended racism and was the most notorious racist employer in the city” (Memoirs of a Black Englishman 51).  The boycott, which was successful, led not only to Afro-Caribbean drivers being hired, but Indian and Pakistani drivers (who were also, at the time, considered Black).  In fact, the first driver to be hired was Raghbir Singh, a Punjabi.  Bringing this connection to Parks’ story up could therefore have connected Black British history with Parks’ efforts—and also shown how communities of colour, including the communities that Doctor Who companions Ryan and Yas belong to, worked together for change.

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The Bristol Bus Station has a plaque to the boycott that shows its leaders, as well as Singh, the first bus driver hired after the boycott ended (far right).

As I said, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, and teared up at the end like many other sentimental viewers (https://metro.co.uk/2018/10/21/doctor-who-fans-left-sobbing-and-inspired-by-rosa-parks-episode-i-have-literal-goosebumps-8061149/).  I can only hope Blackman will get more chances to write for “Doctor Who”—and that next time, she will introduce her viewers to some Black British heroes.  Mary Seacole and Claudia Jones, anyone?

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).

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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?

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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.

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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).

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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.

To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part Two

This week’s blog continues the history of Black and BAME British YA literature.  1981, the year that starts the second half of the timeline, is significant for YA literature.  The end of what scholar Anthony DiGesare calls “the long 1970s”, a period when race was the focus for both Black and white Britons from Enoch Powell to future Guardian prize-winner Alex Wheatle, 1981 saw the Brixton Riots bring institutional racism into the spotlight for the first—but by no means the last—time.

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YA novelist Alex Wheatle was among the people who experienced the Brixton Riot of 1981.

1981: The Brixton riots erupt as a response to the perceived racist attitudes of police against the Black British community.  West Indian Children in our Schools, a government report authored by Anthony Rampton, calls for mainstream literature to better represent the increasingly diverse cultures of Britain.  The Rampton report was written in response to increasing tension between the Black and Asian British communities and law enforcement.

1982: The first of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books is held in Islington Town Hall, London, partly due to lack of outlets for BAME books for children.  New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture are major sponsors.

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The cover of one of the IRR’s histories of racism. The fourth book, The Fight Against Racism, shows pictures of the Brixton Riots.

1982: The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a series of informational books for older readers on racism, starting with The Roots of Racism.  The four books touch on issues of colonialism, slavery, white privilege, police brutality, protests and riots.

1983: Valerie Bloom’s first UK collection of poems, Touch Mi! Tell Mi! is published by Bogle L’Ouverture, aimed at a young adult audience.  Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea (Heinemann), about an Indian village, wins the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

1984: Geraldine Kaye’s Comfort Herself, about a young Black Briton who goes to live with her father in Ghana, wins the Other Award.  Grace Hallworth’s collection of ghost stories from the Caribbean, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out (Methuen) is published.

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Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah was recommended by the Youth Library Group for older readers in the year of the Handsworth riots.

1985: Brixton and Handsworth (in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city) again face clashes between police and Black British youth.  The Youth Libraries Group, in their newly revised list of Multiracial Books for the Classroom, recommend Pen Rhythm, “a lively collection by this well known poet” (100), Benjamin Zephaniah.

1986: 13-year-old Bangladeshi Briton Ahmed Iqbal Ullah is murdered by a classmate on the school playground in Manchester.  Ullah’s murder was racially motivated.

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Nichols’ poetry collection includes British Asian as well as Black British poets.

1988: Britain introduces a National Curriculum; many complain it does not address the needs of diverse Britain, but instead urges assimilation.  Blackie publishes Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’ collection from Black and Asian poets around the world, Black Poetry (the title was changed to Poetry Jump-Up in the paperback edition).

1993: 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence is killed by a gang of white British youths while he is waiting for a bus.  Lawrence did not know his attackers.  The murder was racially motivated. The official inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson Report (1999), would call for many changes, including revisions to the National Curriculum to include anti-racist and diverse teaching and reading materials.  Meiling Jin, a London-based writer of Guyanese Chinese descent, publishes Thieving Summer (Hamish Hamilton)

1997: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah publishes his collection for older readers, School’s Out: Poems Not for School (AK).

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Bali Rai has produced several titles for Barrington Stoke on high interest topics such as football for reluctant readers.

1998: Barrington Stoke, a publisher focused on reluctant and dyslexic children and YA readers, is founded.  They publish books for YA readers by many high-impact BAME authors, including Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, and Sita Brahmachari.

1999: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (http://www.racearchive.org.uk/) is set up in Manchester to honor the 13-year-old killed by his classmate; the trust would publish stories of young refugees and immigrants to Manchester, as well as illustrated biographies of BAME Britons created by young people.  Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel, Face (Bloomsbury), “a story of facial discrimination,” as he calls it, is published.

2000: Black British publisher Tamarind Press publishes the first in its Black Profiles (later renamed Black Stars) series by Verna Wilkins, biographies of living Black Britons of achievement, including author Malorie Blackman.  The Carnegie Medal goes to South African-born white British author Beverley Naidoo for her book about Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses led to a series of successful novels–and to her becoming the first Black British Children’s Laureate.

2001: Black British author Malorie Blackman’s novel, Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday), detailing an imagined England where Black Britons have all the power positions, is published.  The book would go on to win a number of book awards.

2003: Black British poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah refuses an OBE because of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery.

2004: Guyanese-born poet John Agard publishes Half-Caste (Hodder), a book of poems which encourages readers to “check out” their Black British history.

2009: Publisher Frances Lincoln teams up with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, to offer the Diverse Voices Award.  Poet John Agard’s revision of Dante, The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln), with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, appears and is nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie Medal.

2013: Malorie Blackman is appointed the first Black British Children’s Laureate. Pakistani-born Tariq Mehmood becomes the only non-white author to win the Diverse Voices Award, for his novel You’re Not Proper (Hope Road).  White British author Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury), about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

2014: Seven Stories and Frances Lincoln publish a list of “Diverse Voices: 50 of the Best” books for children and young adults (https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/diverse-voice-top-50).  The BBC and BookTrust collaborate to offer the first BBC Young Writers Award, for short stories by 14-18 year olds.

2015: The Carnegie Medal is awarded to white British author Tanya Landman for her book about post-Civil War African Americans, Buffalo Soldier.  Catherine Johnson’s novel of a poor, Black British woman masquerading as a princess in the early 19th century in order to survive, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, appears from Corgi; it would be shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in 2016.  A graphic novel version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by John Aggs, appears.

2016: White American author Robin Talley wins the first Amnesty CILIP Honour medal for her book about Civil Rights-era America, The Lies We Tell Ourselves.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom) becomes the first story about Black Britons written by a Black British author to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) is shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award; it would win the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the YA Bookseller’s prize in 2017.

2017: The UK’s Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories in Newcastle, hosts “Diverse Voices?” (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/diversevoices/),  a symposium designed to think about ways to better represent BAME voices in children’s books, archives, museums, prizes and publishing on November 24th.  If you are reading this at first publication, you’ll know that this event has not yet happened, but it’s something I’ve been involved with planning over the last year.  YA authors Alex Wheatle, Catherine Johnson, and Patrice Lawrence are among the invited guests (several other authors, including picture book and middle grade authors, are also participating), and author and publisher Verna Wilkins will also be discussing publishing for a BAME audience.  I’ll be getting ready for the symposium next week, but hope to have a blog or two following the event discussing some of the salient points.  Watch this space!

Decolonizing Children’s Literature

This week, (another) row erupted over Oxbridge’s university curriculum, but this one hit the front pages of the Telegraph and Mail in a particularly disturbing way.  The Telegraph had a photograph of Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge’s student union, with the headline, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/25/decolonise-cambridge-university-row-attack-students-colour-lola-olufemi-curriculums).  To be honest, when I first read it, I laughed; the day that a BAME woman “forces” Oxbridge to do anything will be the day that Queen Elizabeth will hand over her crown to Paddington Bear.  But these papers (I have a hard time attaching the word “news” to them) do not believe what they are printing either; it is a good headline that fuels the hate and suspicion of “foreigners” trying to “destroy our way of life”.  In fact, the letter signed by Olufemi—and about 100 other students, by the way—did not call for the dropping of white authors, but the inclusion of marginalized authors.  A similar “threat” was, according to Sky News, posed by Malorie Blackman when she called for more diversity in children’s books.  Sky reported her comments, erroneously, as children’s literature having “too many white faces” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/26/malorie-blackman-racist-abuse-diversity-childrens-books). Blackman faced a volley of racist abuse on Twitter following the Sky report, which is of course ridiculous—since Blackman’s own work often references “canonical” literature, such as that sort-of-famous writer William Shakespeare.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which they promoted as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

Why is it that literature is such a focus of fear when it comes to decolonization?  Music has always been open to crossover influences.  In Britain’s relatively recent history, music has even been a catalyst for societal change.  In the 1950s, calypso musicians helped London clubbers cross racial lines (see http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/uncategorized/co-existence-through-calypsos-and-cockney-cabaret/ for a discussion of this, with a link to a British Pathé newsreel of one such event).  White jazz artists and Black calypsonians learned from each other. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk and reggae artists united to fight the National Front in the organization Rock Against Racism; the Clash began incorporating reggae influence into their music and no one worried that British punk would collapse.  Literature, like music, involves dialogues with other works of art and with society at large.  New books do not replace old books, they expand our understanding of life.  More is more, not less.

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Members of the Clash and Steel Pulse did not think twice about decolonizing music.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest some ways that books by white Britons, often canonical, can be introduced to readers in tandem with BAME writers in order to illuminate both—and more importantly, to light up the minds of young readers.  The first comparison I’ll suggest is one that I stole from Lissa Paul, who in Beverly Lyon Clark’s and Margaret Higgonet’s Girls, Boys, Books, Toys suggests pairing Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with Grace Nichols’ Come on into my Tropical Garden (A&C Black, 1988).  This works nicely, but then, most of Nichols’ collections can be thought about sitting comfortably alongside canonical British poets, as Nichols was of the Caribbean generation brought up reading Wordsworth and others—particularly the romantics and Victorians.  Nichols’ poems can also be used to give depth to a study of art—but that is another story (or painting).

The picture book canon in Britain might also be radically revisioned by looking at BAME authors.  I am a great advocate for teaching young readers the politics of ABC books, for example.  “A” is only for apple in certain parts of the world, as putting Brian Wildsmith’s beautiful ABC book from 1962 next to Valerie Bloom’s Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo (Bogle L’Ouverture, 1999) will instantly reveal.  That doesn’t make Wildsmith’s apple any less beautiful—but it does allow young people to think more flexibly about what language (and not just letters) are for.

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A is for Apple–or Ackee. Illustrations by Brian Wildsmith (apple) and Kim Harley (ackee).

One of my favorite books growing up was Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and of course this can be discussed with any of the many refugee books that have appeared about characters from Africa or the Middle East in recent years.  A book such as Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (Bloomsbury, 2001) shares some similarities with Kerr’s book, but has key differences too.  Having kids think about the difference between being a refugee family and being a refugee on your own, for example, can help them think about what it means to belong, and what helps a person cope with trauma.

The “desert island adventure story” has not really been the same in Britain since William Golding’s dreary, dystopic 1954 Lord of the Flies, a re-imagining of Ballantyne’s 1858 Coral Island (itself a “boys’ version” of Robinson Crusoe).  LOTF is a text that can stimulate discussion about community, leadership, gangs, bullying and violence.  So too is Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom, 2016); and Crongton can be seen as an “island” in the midst of London, since most of the main characters never leave its confines.  Does Wheatle’s book present an urban dystopia similar to Golding’s dystopian island?  Or do the Crongton boys have skills, resources, values and attitudes that help them survive better than Golding’s post-war public school boys?  Or both?

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Perhaps she’s looking so grumpy because she’s about to be decolonized . . .

But books do not have to be of the same genre to be compared.  Take Alice in Wonderland—you can’t get more canonical than that—and think about Alice, a girl in a world that makes no sense to her, where the rules seem arbitrary and designed to threaten everyone in general but her in particular.  Even if you don’t discuss the commentary on Victorian society that is highlighted through John Tenniel’s illustration, you can still compare Alice’s situation with a character such as Mary Wilcox in The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Penguin 2015).  Both girls face threats to their own existence and both survive through refusing to accept society’s arbitrary rules.  Maybe it’s time we stop applying our own arbitrary rules to literature, and start decolonizing our minds.

When It’s Safer to be Someone Else: BAME characters and “dressing-up”

The “revelations” this past week over Harvey Weinstein’s repeated assaults on women brought up some very troubling conversations about women.  Many of the news reports showed Weinstein with various actresses who have accused him of sexual assault; the actresses were often smiling and near enough to Weinstein for him to have his arm around them.  But as anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted by someone more powerful than them knows, smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy.  It means you are being someone else, trying to survive.  An article in the Independent this week (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/harvey-weinstein-sexual-harassment-mental-health-women-suffering-anxiety-a7996511.html) suggests that most women, once they hit puberty, have to learn psychological coping skills to deal with the gaze of powerful men—and even then may be labelled as anxious or depressed.  The reaction to the hashtag #MeToo (tweeted over half a million times as of Monday, according to CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/15/entertainment/me-too-twitter-alyssa-milano/index.html) shows that sexual assault—for men as well as for women—is all too prevalent in our society, and yet those assaulted feel so alone and so threatened that it is hard to speak up about it.  For many of us (yes, #MeToo), it is safer to smile if we want to survive.  It is safer to be someone else.

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In Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival, Nini gains power through the act of dressing up as an African queen.

This coping mechanism of being someone else has various translations in literature; in children’s books, it is often through the trope of dressing up.  Dressing up can simply allow a character to try out a different persona and see if it fits; but it is interesting to look at how BAME characters in books “dress up,” especially female characters.  Prior to puberty, dressing up is about becoming powerful.  Two very different notions of power can be seen in comparing Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978) with Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (Frances Lincoln, 1991).  In Lloyd’s book, the titular character is part of a carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume.  Her “fairy godmother” (really her friend dressed up in a fairy costume) comes along and gives her a piece of cloth in a pattern that could be intended as a Kente cloth (the royal cloth of the Akan people in Africa), wrapping it around her like an African ceremonial dress  and saying that Nini is now “pretty enough to be Queen of the Carnival” (n.p.) which Nini, in fact, then becomes.  In Hoffman’s story, on the other hand, Grace likes to dress up as story characters; “she always gave herself the most exciting part” (n.p.) according to Hoffman—which in most cases, happens to be the male part.  Lloyd invests power for his Black female character in the historical traditions of African civilizations; Hoffman invests it in male characters, and often those male characters as written by white male “classic” authors such as Kipling, Longfellow, and of course J. M. Barrie.  Guess which one of these two books has never been out of print since publication?  No wonder World Book Day costumes are fraught for BAME Britons.

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Grace in Mary Hoffman’s book feels powerful when she acts out stories of white and/or male heroes. Illustrations by Caroline Binch.

In YA books, dressing up changes from a focus on power to a focus on survival, particularly for BAME young women.  Two different approaches to dressing up can be seen in Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke, 2017) and Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Corgi, 2015).  In both books, the main female protagonist must escape those who have the power to destroy her happiness and security by becoming someone else.  Rosa, in Landman’s book, is light enough to “pass for white” because she is the daughter of her slave master.  Her master wants to keep Rosa enslaved, and destroy her family life and chances for happiness.  And as Rosa and Benjamin, another slave with whom she falls in love, knows, “White folks can do whatever the hell they pleased . . . And then they’d say it was your own damned fault” (3).  So Rosa dresses up in the most powerful costume she can think of: that of a rich, elderly, white man, with Benjamin as her slave, in order to escape to freedom.  A colleague who teaches slave narratives said that students often argue that passing for white is being a “traitor to your race”—but such attitudes are similar to those who say that women who accept contracts in Hollywood after being assaulted were “trading on sex”.  Survival in the face of overwhelmingly powerful enemies sometimes depends on pretending to be like the powerful.

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For BAME characters in YA novels, “dressing up” was not just fun and games.

Johnson’s book addresses sexual assault head-on, also in a historical novel, by opening her book with the main character’s rape. Mary Wilcox, alone and friendless, is raped by two farm boys even though she is dirty, weak, and “looked like a savage” (2).  Mary knew that rape happened to women “acting the coquette and suffering the consequences” (1) but when she is raped that night, she understands that it is not about women “asking for it” but about men exerting power.  And while she rejects that kind of power, she still knows that to survive, she would have to be somebody else: “an Amazon warrior woman who could turn on her attackers.  Better still, a fighting princess, a beautiful girl with a dagger at her waist and a quiver of magical arrows.  They would not dare touch her then” (4).  Mary does not become a warrior, but she does become a princess from an exotic land, the Lady Caraboo, who speaks no English but reflects back “only what your people wanted me to be” (193)—the beautiful, the strange—to a white family who takes her in.  In becoming someone else, she survives; but her disguise also allows her “to be something other than who I was; something fresh, something good, something capable of love and being loved” (194).  This heartbreaking statement—that Mary thinks she has to be someone else to be loved—rings true for many women who think that their broken self will never be good enough to be worthy of love.

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Becoming “what they want you to be” is another way to survive, as in Catherine Johnson’s novel. Cover photo by Bella Kotak.

Historical fiction is perhaps the easiest genre in which YA literature can represent the concept of becoming someone else for survival, but I want to end with one last example from fantastic fiction.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday, 2001) concerns a world where the power positions between Black people and White people are reversed from contemporary society.  But Blackman’s novel is less about race and more about power; both Crosses (Black people who hold most of the society’s power positions) and Noughts (White people who generally have to serve the Crosses) suffer from unequal power relations, but Noughts suffer far more.  Callum, the Nought protagonist, has a sister named Lynette, who was “beaten and left for dead because she was dating a Cross” (124).  Her way of coping with her powerlessness is through disguise: she tries to convince those around her that she is a Cross.  As a blonde, White girl, her disguise is only self-deception.  When forced to confront her despised whiteness, Lynette commits suicide, knowing she will never be able to cope with “a return to reality” (170).

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From Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s graphic novel version of Noughts and Crosses–Lynette’s “madness” is her only chance at survival.

Everyone, at every age, practices “dressing up” to be a little bit different from our ordinary selves sometimes.  But we need to be aware that dressing up can also be a way of hiding—or of surviving.  Literature for children can remind us that sometimes it is safer to be someone else in societies where powerful people get away with crimes against the powerless.