Tag Archives: Patrice Lawrence

“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.

Acceptable Racisms and Children’s Literature

There are two kinds of racism: incidental, by which I mean something that happens because of the actions of individuals; and systemic, by which I mean the deep-rooted, institutionally-supported disadvantages experienced by people of color.  These two racisms are not mutually exclusive; often, someone feels that their individual racist comment or belief is justified because the system or society does not censure their speech or action.  Equally, if individuals were more willing to examine and censure the individual racisms of themselves and those around them, systemic racism would begin (or at least be easier) to break down.  But they certainly manifest in different ways.

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Anne Rooney’s Race Hate tries to take a balanced approach by interviewing racists. But Race Hate is apparently an individual, rather than an institutional, problem.

This week, news items in the UK and US showed both kinds of racism.  In the UK, what seem to be examples of incidental racism actually point to systemic problems.  And in the US, a result that seems to suggest systemic problems highlights the responsibility of individuals.  Bonfire Night in the UK saw one group of people delighting over the burning of a model of Grenfell Tower (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/grenfell-tower-model-bonfire-burned-guy-fawkes-party-a8618661.html), and a Tory councilor wearing blackface at a Bonfire Night event in Hever (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/07/tory-councillor-wears-blackface-kent-bonfire-celebrations).  These were both roundly condemned in the media and the public, as well as by officials.  Theresa May criticized the Grenfell Tower bonfire.  And yet, her condemnation was called out by several people who pointed out that many Tower residents are still unhoused nearly a year-and-a-half after the fire (see, for example, Nikesh Shukla’s tweet from 6 November 2018).  The bonfire was unacceptable racism; but the system that allows the people of Grenfell Tower to continue to suffer at the hands of the government is not changed.  Similarly, the Tory councilor was participating in the bonfire as a member of a Church of England school PTA.  The school dissociated itself from the incidental racism, saying, “We are very proud to be a multicultural school with ‘respect, love and wisdom’ as our motto” (Guardian online); but they failed to acknowledge their responsibility to ensuring that all members of their community—PTA included—embraced the slogan.  Neither the government nor the church created or directly encouraged the individual racist behavior.  But the government’s and the church’s own lack of action on racism makes it easier for racists to act.

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“People may have racist ideas instilled in them”: but who is doing the instilling?

Children’s books, even well-intentioned ones, do not always make this link between individual acts and institutional racism.  Anne Rooney’s Voices: Race Hate (Evans Brothers 2006) is part of a series which, according to the back cover, “brings alive a range of modern-day issues—many of them highly controversial—and aims to stimulate debate and discussion.”  Although I am not convinced there is much that is “highly controversial” about any kind of hate (hate is something we tell children is bad, no?)—not to mention the lack of controversy about the issue of hunger or child labour, other titles in the series (also bad, no?)—this series is clearly designed to discourage, rather than encourage, readers’ participation in or support of these issues.  But by failing to address the link between systemic racism and individual acts, the book ends up excusing people from the responsibility for racism.  Thus, the double-page spread, “Why Hate Other Races?” excuses individuals from racism by blaming “stereotypes” without explaining that stereotypes are connected with systemic, structural and institutional racism.  The photo on page 9 includes a caption that says, “Many white families employed black workers to serve them” but does not connect this servitude with a history of slavery, or a lack of other available employment opportunities for Black people.  Claire Heuchan and Nikesh Shukla’s recent book, What is Race? Who are Racists? Why does Skin Colour Matter? And Other Big Questions (Wayland 2018) addresses this failure to link structural and individual racism head on, pointing out the consequences of such a failure: “Even when people are aware of racism, they can hesitate to point it out because of the implication that somebody has been racist . . . So we end up in a strange situation where there is racism but, supposedly, no racists.  Except racism is produced by people who are racist—so if we are ever to pull apart the racist structures of our society, there must be a way to say who is propping them up” (6).

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Heuchan and Shukla’s book recognizes that institutional and individual racisms matter.

While individual racist acts exposed systemic problems in the UK, the news from the US this week highlighted the opposite problem.  One of the headlines of this week’s midterm elections was the record number of women who ran and won in their races.  Some media even called the elections the #MeToo Midterms (https://thehill.com/homenews/house/406183-women-wield-sizable-power-in-me-too-midterms), and election reports frequently mentioned the “suburban women” who helped defeat Trump-approved candidates.  Of course there is nothing racist in women running and supporting candidates for office (indeed, many of the new congresspeople are women of color).  But “suburban women” is media code for white women (here’s one report on “suburban women”: https://www.msnbc.com/stephanie-ruhle/watch/how-will-suburban-women-vote-in-the-midterms-1358101059960?v=railb&), and the #MeToo movement (which was started by an African-American woman) has been criticized for its focus on white women as well.  Just as second-wave feminism was about the middle-class, educated white woman, excluding and eliding the rights of women of color, the midterm elections reveal that white women will unite around an issue that directly affects them, but cannot extend their understanding of oppression to issues such as police brutality against African-Americans or racist and jingoistic language and threats against migrants and refugees.  The system allows racism to exist, and white women—who understand what it is like to be oppressed by that system—do not, through their individual votes, call for an end to that system.

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Curiously, even though White’s book mentions both abolition and the civil war as causes Morris supported, there is not a single African-American depicted in the book.

Again, even well-meaning children’s books can sometimes reinforce systemic racism (and classism) under the guise of individual choice.  Most children’s books about women’s suffrage show photographs of white women only, and have lines like, “only men can vote” (I Could Do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, by Linda Arms White, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2005).  This elides the fact that in America, African-Americans could not vote, and in Britain only rate-paying men could vote until 1918, the same year that women over 30 got the vote. An alternative approach can be found in Nosy Crow’s short story collection, Make More Noise: New Stories in Honour of the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage (2018).  Unlike many books about women’s suffrage, which focus almost exclusively on white women and their struggle, Make More Noise includes stories about all kinds of women and girls, historically and contemporaneously.  Patrice Lawrence’s story, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” for example, tells the story of Olive Malvery, a woman of English and Indian parentage, who “came to London when she was twenty-three and was shocked by the way poorer women were treated” (83).  Lawrence’s story shows Malvery helping a young mixed-race girl who suffers not just from being poor, but from being brown.  When the young girl, Victoria, asks for an extension on her rent, her landlady tells her, “the best thing your father could have done was take you with him back to whatever country he came from!” (59).  This and other stories in the collection show that no woman has an identity based entirely on gender—so all women should band together to ensure everyone’s rights.

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Nosy Crow’s Make More Noise listens to the noise of all kinds of women, not just white suffragettes.

Racism is, or should be, unacceptable to people of all backgrounds because it harms the entire society.  But if we can’t recognize our individual racism, then we can’t fight systemic racism.  And if we don’t see the systemic, structural and institutional ways that racism is supported, then fighting individual racism will never lead to victory.  Racism will go on being acceptable, and we will all be the worse for it.

A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories

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The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.

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Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”

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Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”

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Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”

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S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”

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Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.

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We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.