Tag Archives: Nutcracker

Christmas in Another Color: Children’s Books for the Holiday Season

I have, in previous years, complained about the whiteness of Christmas books, so it is pleasant to be able to report *some* progress recently in British books that represent a wider variety of people.  Some of the best multiracial holiday books are coming out of smaller presses, who in many ways have led the charge toward changing the culture of British children’s books; hopefully the leadership of publishers such as Stripes and Nosy Crow will spill over into the mainstream presses—many of whom continue to reproduce a nostalgia for white Christmases in the UK.

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Jannie Ho’s Christmas alphabet includes all kinds of kids.

Since my last blog was about books for babies, I’ll start this one with a Christmas board book, Jannie Ho’s Christmas ABC (Nosy Crow 2016).  Ho is a Boston-based illustrator who once worked for Nickelodeon, but Nosy Crow is a London-based publisher who won the British Bookseller’s children’s publisher of the year for 2017. The idea of an early concept book related to Christmas is hardly a new one; the children’s publisher Frederick Warne (who would later publish A Tale of Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter stories) published The Father Christmas ABC in 1894 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2251033/The-ABC-Victorian-Christmas-revealed-Beautifully-illustrated-edition-childrens-book-discovered-University-library-P-plum-pudding-PlayStation.html), for example; and Little Golden Books (the “supermarket” bookseller of my childhood, known for The Poky Little Puppy and other books strategically priced and placed near the supermarket checkouts to entice weary parents with whinging children—not that my mother EVER had this problem of course) published The Christmas ABC by Florence Johnson, with pictures by Eloise Wilkin in 1962.  These books often repeat ideas—B is for Bell in all three, for example—but the images change.  The letter I is for ice in all three, and more specifically ice skating, but I’ll just leave the images to tell a story of a changing idea of who skates on the Christmas ice.

The letter G stands for games and shows children playing Blind Man's Buff, a popular parlour game at the time Father Christmas ABC from 1894; this book was found in Cambridge University’s rare book room in 2012.

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Eloise Wilkins’ 1962 illustrations from Golden Book’s Christmas ABC.

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Jannie Ho’s ice skater is different–and not just because of her Christmas sweater.

Jane Ray’s version of The Nutcracker (Hachette 2016) follows the general storyline of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, albeit in a modernized setting; Clara wears pajamas rather than the white lace-edged nightgown found in most ballet versions and she has multiracial friends who come to her party.  These friends unfortunately disappear at bedtime (though the text implies they stay at the house).  While it is true that in the ballet, Clara travels to the land of sweets with only the Nutcracker Prince to accompany her (not even her brother comes along), the final illustration in Ray’s book restores the unity of the white family only.  Nonetheless, Ray’s Sugar Plum Fairy is Black, and has not only a prominent place on the cover, but an illustration all to herself in Ray’s book, making it a lovely change in the traditional Christmas story.

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Tradition and change in Jane Ray’s version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

Christmas is a time for thinking about others, and for older readers in Britain, Stripes Publishing produced I’ll Be Home for Christmas in 2016 in part to help raise funds for Crisis, a charity providing services for the homeless across the UK.  Prominent, award-winning writers contributed poems and short stories to the collection, including Benjamin Zephaniah and Sita Brahmachari.  Zephaniah’s poem, “Home and Away,” opens the collection with a very different version of Christmas than that produced by nostalgia merchants, but one that forms a familiar experience for many readers.  “I’d like to be home for Christmas/That’s where the rhythm wise hip-hop is,/ That’s where the rock and the jazz is/ The place where I dream happy/ Where I dance to sweet homemade reggae” (19).  Zepahniah’s Christmas carols of a different color remind readers that different doesn’t mean unhappy or unChristmassy.

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A time for giving–Benjamin Zephaniah and Sita Brahmachari are among the authors helping Crisis at Christmas.

These recent Christmas books make all the more disappointing a recently reissued edition of Terry Deary and Martin Brown’s Horrible Christmas (Scholastic 2016).  The concept of horrible history is a fabulous one, and really draws the interest of many children (including, when she was younger, my own daughter) who are otherwise reluctant readers.  BAME history has always proved a tricky subject for the Horrible History franchise, as I’ve detailed in other blogs, books and articles.  While I’m aware that it might not be easy to make light of some BAME historical topics (probably a book on “Slimy Slavery” or “Egregious Empire” would raise eyebrows, to say the least), Deary and Brown often fail to include BAME people in British history even in noncontroversial ways.  This is true of Horrible Christmas as well.  The cover image provides a hint of what is between the covers, showing five white people (four of them men).  The only image throughout the 96 pages of horrible Christmas trivia that includes people who aren’t white is a tiny one of a group of carol singers on page seven.  They are about to have the door slammed on them.

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Does tradition have to mean a White Christmas? Deary and Brown’s horrible holiday.

In fact, Deary and Brown’s book ends with a vision of Christmas future that is both a very white Christmas and a plea for helping others less fortunate—a page which recalls for me charity Christmas songs of the 1980s (yes, people around the world DO know it’s Christmas, even when they don’t or can’t celebrate it after all, you patronising so-and-so).  I prefer the final image in Jannie Ho’s Christmas ABC, and leave it with you along with Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 wish for a “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

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Dreaming of a White Christmas: ‘Race,’ Christmas, and Children’s Literature

It’s December, and my thoughts turn to . . . well, my thoughts turn to the end of term and not having to grade another undergraduate essay for a while. But the commercial world is thinking about Christmas, and many in the political world are wondering what 2017 will bring after the surprises of 2016. A report on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday reflected this latter focus; reporter Frank Langfitt was in the northeastern England town of Sunderland, quite close to where I spent my sabbatical last year, trying to find out why people voted for Brexit. Langfitt commented, “what I found really interesting is people kept saying immigration. And immigration, I think, is a code word, frankly – and I had this long conversation with a bunch of guys basically in a pub working-class folk – for white identity politics, which we’ve been hearing a lot about in the United States. People feel that England is changing, that it’s not the same culture that it’s been” (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/08/504792243/the-challenges-facing-globalization); the report goes on to suggest that white working-class people don’t like immigrants because they don’t assimilate into the “culture”. The mainstream media, including the BBC and NPR, has received some criticism for their reporting of the apparently monolithic viewpoint of the white working-class, and this report is no exception, going onto compare British white working-class with American white working-class as well as going so far to suggest that a rise in suicide rates among “the” white working-class is connected with globalization (which is not, of course, the same as immigration, but never mind).

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The Mall of America’s first Black Santa is also a veteran of the US Army . . . but racists complain that anything other than a white Santa usurps their “culture”.

But I want to return to this notion of “culture” and change, because if ever there is a period in the calendar year when white culture is dominant, it’s Christmastime. In Britain and the US, resistance to redefining Christmas as a multiracial or multicultural holiday is high. In the US, the Mall of America appointed its first African-American Santa Claus—and was inundated with racial abuse because of it that surprised even Fox News (http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2016/12/05/backlash-ensues-after-mall-america-hires-first-ever-african-american-santa.html). In the UK, some people complained that department store John Lewis had used a Black British family in their Christmas advertisement (https://politicalscrapbook.net/2016/12/racists-are-complaining-to-john-lewis-about-their-christmas-ad-because-it-features-a-black-family/). These stories are troubling, but it would be possible to argue that they are isolated incidents (or isolated racists)—if it weren’t for other cultural markers that suggest otherwise. One way of measuring the whiteness of Christmas in American or British “culture” is in the holiday section of the children’s bookstore. I went this year and looked at two: the big chain bookstore in the strip mall, and the independent bookstore within walking distance of my house. One glance at the chain bookstore display told me that white people had nothing to fear from other cultures taking over; 95% or more of the book covers had only white people or animals on the cover (perhaps we should send all the animals back where they came from—or at least send the Whos back to Whoville).

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It looks as though the brown child is in the lead . . .

There was one book in the “Bargain” section that had a single brown face, a mass-market board book edition of the song Over the River and through the Woods. Although prominent on the cover illustration, the African-American (?) child’s presence was actually considerably diminished in the inside illustrations. From one of three, the child became one of six, all the rest of whom were white; additionally, the brown child’s face or body is almost always obscured by something (usually a white child). The children travel the eponymous journey to grandmother’s house, where they are welcomed by two white grandparents. Since there are no parents present in the story, the reader is left to ponder the place of the brown child—a friend? a grandchild whose parents are of different races? or just a cynical marketing ploy?

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. . . but in the inside pictures, the child is almost always obscured.

The full-price children’s holiday section in the chain bookstore was almost exclusively white, both on the cover and in the texts/illustrations inside the books (I did check). One exception—although just based on the cover, I had to look twice—was James Mayhew’s Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker (2012). Perhaps I had to look twice because, according to the Ella Bella website, the books are “Illustrated in a charming vintage style, inspired by screen printed books of the ’40s and ’50s, Ella Bella Ballerina’s adventures are full of colour and fun.Illustrated in a charming vintage style, inspired by screen printed books of the ‘40s and ‘50s” (http://www.jamesmayhew.co.uk/books/ella-bella).

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The cover of Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker by James Mayhew.

“Vintage” is often—like Frank Langfitt says of “immigration”—a racially-coded word when it comes to American and British children’s books, but not in Mayhew’s case. Ella Bella is part of a racially-mixed ballet class who are learning about Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet (the book is part of a series that includes books about “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as well). Ella Bella herself might be of Asian descent, although the lack of any cultural context (or, again, parents) makes it difficult to tell (I haven’t seen the other books except for the covers).

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Ella Bella’s ballet class.

Mayhew’s book almost normalizes the idea of a multiracial Christmas ballet. I say “almost” because—unlike other ballets, where racial background is unspecified (usually because presumed white), “Nutcracker” has as part of its second act (“The Land of Sweets”) exotic, racialized character dances. Mayhew depicts the Spanish chocolate, the Chinese tea, and the Arabian coffee dancers as distinctly not-white, with darker and more exaggerated racial features than those found in the ballet class girls, bringing their wares to a very white, very blonde Clara. “Isn’t this the best Christmas party ever?” Clara asks Ella Bella, who readily agrees: the vision of a white-dominated Christmas remains intact.

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Like pictures of the three kings bringing gifts to the blonde baby in the manger, Mayhew’s exotic foreigners bring gifts to blonde Clara. Isn’t this the best Christmas party ever?

I had hoped to find something different at the independent bookstore, but—although they are normally quite wide-ranging in their children’s section—their holiday section contained the same sorts of books as the chain bookstore, perhaps with a higher percentage (or maybe just more obvious display) of Hanukah books. All the humans on all the holiday book covers (Christmas or Hanukah) were white. It could have been just that there was a rush on books with other kinds of characters (I can live in hope), but I think it might be time to ask both the chain and the independent bookstores to consider a kind of Christmas other than a white one.  Because having children’s books that represent all our children is everyone’s responsibility.