Tag Archives: Petronella Breinburg

The Unexamined Life: What the Reflecting Realities Project from CLPE Tells Us

Plato, in a collection of Socrates speeches, wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living.  Of course, he (or they, I suppose) meant that not examining your OWN life gives you an empty, meaningless existence.  But what happens when you fail to examine the world around you, fail in fact to see the other people who make up your world?

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Does David White’s book help kids wonder about the unexamined lives in children’s book publishing?

There has long been a suggestion (to put it mildly) that British children’s publishing produces, in the main, books for and about white, mostly middle-class children, leaving those from other racial and socioeconomic groups largely unexamined—but because publishers in Britain have never put out industry statistics that would allow them and the public to examine their record, no one could ever say so with authority.  And to be fair to the publishing industry, even had an individual publisher wanted to produce these statistics (and some publishers, like Chicken House, Alanna Books, Firetree Books, Knights of, and Frances Lincoln have been very proud of their record on publishing for diverse child audiences), it still would not have given an industry-wide picture.  When I wrote my book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015, I struggled to find statistics to back up what I innately felt—that BAME readers were not represented very well or sometimes at all by the many children’s publishers in Britain, particularly the mainstream publishers.

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Are BAME children like the one on my book’s front cover doomed to only see white children as book characters?

Last year, however, I was asked to help create a framework for determining the number and quality of BAME representation in children’s books by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).  CLPE then took the framework suggested by me and several other experts and asked publishers to submit all the books that they felt qualified as including BAME representation.  I was not involved with the evaluation of the books by CLPE, but once they had completed the evaluation and statistical analysis, they invited us back to hear the overall results.

You can (and should!) read the full report at the CLPE website (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research) but in the short space of this blog, I just want to highlight a couple of the results.  Keeping in mind that this was not a shaming exercise, but rather one to raise awareness; and also keeping in mind that I did not examine the books sent to CLPE myself, I am going to use some older books as examples of the kinds of things CLPE found.  This works because, at the end of the day, one of the results of this survey is not much has changed in children’s publishing since Britain’s population started changing.  The anecdotal evidence I found for Children’s Publishing and Black Britain played out in the statistics produced by CLPE for last year as well.

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Leila Berg tried to Represent Reality in her reading scheme, Nippers. At first, this meant only background characters with no speaking parts.  Illustration for Julie’s Story by Richard Rose.

One striking result from the survey is that 25% of the books submitted featured BAME characters only in the background.  This statistic can be read cynically—i.e. that “diversity” is a tick-box exercise for book producers and as long as you color some of the faces brown, you’re done—or it can be seen as an honest attempt to include more of the world in a book that would otherwise center on white people only.  Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series from the late 1960s initially had only this kind of representation; she had illustrators and photographers go down to Brixton Market (where many Afro-Caribbean people lived) to make sure that the crowd scenes in her stories about a white, working-class family were accurate.

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But Berg went on to find BAME authors to write for her series. Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

However, Berg did not stop with background representation; as she continued to produce Nippers, she sought out BAME British writers, like Beryl Gilroy and Petronella Breinburg, to write stories that accurately reflected and represented the lives of BAME children.  This suggests to me that an honest desire to change will produce results—if publishers are sufficiently aware of the need and thoughtful about how to address it—even if that change takes time.  The results of the Reflecting Realities survey by CLPE will, we hope, raise some of that awareness for publishers.

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Breinburg also created successful picture books (this is the American version, as you can tell by the spelling of Sean) with illustrator Errol Lloyd, but middle grade books were harder to place with publishers.

Another of the statistics that mirrored what I found in my work was that both picture books and nonfiction had a better level of BAME representation than chapter books.  (Note that the CLPE survey only encompassed books for readers under the age of 11, and not YA literature.) This suggests two things to me: first, that book producers (in which I am including authors, illustrators, publishers and editors—and maybe marketing teams and booksellers as well) feel more comfortable with pictures than with descriptions of BAME people; and second, that they value BAME representation in educational texts and settings more than they do in mainstream middle grade fiction.  I might here highlight the work of Petronella Breinburg, who although she had great success with her picture book series about a little boy named Sean, and wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers reading scheme to be used in schools, she struggled to get her middle grade fiction published and marketed.  There are many conclusions to draw from these results, but the one that I would focus on is the loss of the BAME reader.  If a BAME reader ready for longer, more complex texts only sees her- or himself in books connected with school and not with pleasure reading, they are not going to read for pleasure.  And once readers are lost, it is hard to convince them to come back to reading for pleasure—particularly when many of the YA books they will encounter see racial issues or even racial identity as “problems” to be solved.  I once read a memo from a publisher in the 1980s (I won’t name the publisher) who said that the bottom line was that publishing was a money-making business and “certain groups” didn’t read, so they needn’t be catered for.  I do believe that is the very-small-minority opinion (then and now), but even if true, perhaps the Reflecting Realities statistics will help publishers think about ways they might increase their market share and readership by producing quality chapter books for and about BAME British children.

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Rats, yes. BAME figures, not so much. Terry Deary’s and Martin Brown’s amusing version of British history does not include the West Indian troops who participated, nor the Black Britons like Walter Tull.

One place publishers might start producing middle grade literature is with funny books, which many children of all ages, classes, genders and ethnic groups enjoy.  The Reflecting Realities report demonstrated that BAME characters almost never appeared in books classed as comedies.  Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series rarely includes BAME people in the long stretch of British history, though they laugh with and at just about every group of white Britons (and pre-Britons for that matter).  I think it’s safe to say that most kids are goofier than most adults, and the goofier the kid, the more they want to read about other goofy kids.

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Is Mary Seacole a great Briton, or a great Black Briton? Biographies of Seacole always mention her white contemporary, Florence Nightingale, but biographies of Nightingale rarely mention Seacole.

And that highlights another idea that all of us on the Reflecting Realities team believe: books about BAME characters are for all readers.  I recently had someone—meaning to compliment me—tell me that my work on BAME children’s books was “niche” (he was saying we needed more interesting “niche” projects like mine).  The more that children’s books reflect the reality of the British population, the less “niche” books with BAME characters will appear—and the more readers will feel that other people think their lives are worth reading about too.

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

Last week, academic librarian and YA social justice activist Edi Campbell produced a list of milestones in American YA literature, beginning in 1965 with the founding of the Council for Interracial Books for Children (the CIBC) and ending (at the time of me writing this blog) with the 2017 establishment of the journal Research on Diversity in Youth Literature.  In between are a host of important book publications, special journal issues, awards, blogs and podcasts, many of which are linked within the document to websites.  You can find her list, 50 Years of Diversity in Young Adult Literature, here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PVuxIihW4_3gAab-CHT5W0RXH61F0HeD6ouy1yMFOac/edit.

Campbell’s list covers many different types of diversity (including racial, sexual, gender, and ability diversity) but Campbell did not want the list to be only useful to Americans.  She put out a call on Twitter for other scholars to add to the list, including—thanks for the shout-out, Edi!—me.  So what follows are some highlights for BAME Young Adult lit that I hope to add to her list (or at least run parallel with it).  I’ve started a bit earlier than Campbell’s 1965 point of origin, because the British pioneers in the field came in response to a changing Britain (particularly in response to the 1958 Notting Hill riots). It is heavily weighted to Afro-Caribbean authors/characters, because that is my specialty, but I have tried to widen the spectrum as well.  I’ve tried to indicate the author’s background where I can, and have stuck to authors who for at least part of their life lived and worked in the UK (thus, I’ve left off authors published in the UK like VS Reid and Rosa Guy).  Also, it’s important to note that Black Britons were referred to as “West Indians” if they (or their parents) were from the Caribbean until at least 1980, and that British Asians were often considered Black.  If you know of things that should be added to the list, please let me know—and add them to Campbell’s google document yourself.  A more extensive account of the importance of these texts can be found in my recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Children's Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 - Critical Approaches to Children's Literature (Hardback)

This week, I am publishing the timeline to 1980; this covers the period when Windrush generation writers began producing literature for the children of immigrants struggling to fit into and make sense of British society.  It also highlights the nascent and increasing political anger of the new Black Britons.  Next week, I’ll publish the timeline from 1981 onward.

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Of course the teenager’s brother is part of the racist National Front–early teen soap opera where “race” is a factor.

1962: White British author Josephine Kamm publishes Out of Step (Heinemann), an early “problem” novel about a white teenager in love with a West Indian.

1963: The Newsom Report, also known as “Half Our Future,” focuses attention on secondary students in poor (“slum”) areas of Britain.  It is the first major education report to consider what was then called “coloured immigration.”

1964-1967: Andrew Salkey, the Windrush-era writer who had a prominent place in both the BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, and the Caribbean Artists Movement, becomes the first West Indian to publish children’s books with a major British publisher, his “disaster sequence” with Oxford University Press.

1966: New Beacon Books founded in London by Trinidadian activist John La Rose and his British partner Sarah White.  The publisher/bookstore would be a primary outlet for the Black British community.  Indian-born English writer, Morna Stuart, publishes Marassa and Midnight (Heinemann), about Haitian twins separated during the French Revolution.

1967: The Plowden Report argues that books in schools (both educational and mainstream) should be re-examined to root out “out of date attitudes toward foreigners, coloured people, and even coloured dolls” (London: HMSO, 1967: 71).

1968: Jessica and Eric Huntley start Bogle L’Ouverture Press, a Black British press that would publish poetry by Linton Kwesi Johnson and Valerie Bloom, and the later novels of Andrew Salkey.  In Birmingham, Enoch Powell suggests in his “Rivers of Blood” speech that if immigration—by which he meant “coloured” immigration—wasn’t stopped, blood would flow in the rivers of England.

1969: The George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester Black Supplementary Schools were started by John La Rose and others in the Finsbury Park area, although the schools were formally registered in 1973.  Supplementary schools, which originally started with the British Black Panthers in the mid-1960s, were designed to improve basic skills and teach Black history and culture to young Black Britons; the George Padmore school was specifically for young adults. (http://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/archive/collection/black-education-movement). This same year, the charity Book Trust secures Arts Council funding to allow it to develop new programmes for providing books to low-income families.

1971: University of Sussex doctoral student, Bernard Coard, publishes his pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (New Beacon/Bogle L’Ouverture).  In it, he called for Black literature for Black British children.

1972: Community publisher Centerprise, based in the Hackney area of London, publishes Hackney Half-Term Adventure and the poems of Viven Usherwood, a young West Indian boy; these two books, along with communist teacher Chris Searle’s edited collection of poetry from his multiracial classroom, Stepney Words, would sell over 20,000 copies by 1977.

1974: The National Association for Multiracial Education (NAME) is founded in Britain.  White British author Robert Leeson’s novel about slavery, Maroon Boy (Collins), is published. White British author Jean MacGibbon publishes Hal (Heinemann), a novel about a friendship between a white boy recovering from a long illness and a lively West Indian girl.  This book would win the Other Award in 1975.

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The voice of a generation of disaffected Black British youth in the 1970s.

1975: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry collection, Dread Beat an’ Blood, is published by Bogle L’Ouverture.  The Children’s Rights Workshop, started by Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann, create the Other Award to recognize books celebrating gender, racial and economic diversity in children’s books.  Horace Ové’s film “Pressure,” about the struggles of second generation Black British youth, debuts.  Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys at Westcroft appears from Topliners.

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Aidan Chambers, the editor of Macmillan’s imprint for teenagers Topliners, recruited Breinburg and Farrukh Dhondy to write for him.

1976: The Notting Hill Carnival erupts into riots when British police attempt to arrest a pickpocket.  Most of those subsequently arrested would be Black British teenagers.  British publisher Collins launches a prize for Multi-Ethnic Fiction; one of its early winners was Farrukh Dhondy for his collection, Come to Mecca—which includes a story based at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival.  Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet is published.  Black and Pakistani British youth make an unusual appearance in British fantasy, in Michael de Larrabeiti’s urban adventure Borribles trilogy, the first of which appears in 1976.

1978: Farrukh Dhondy’s Siege of Babylon is published in Macmillan’s Topliners series, a young adult series edited by Aidan Chambers.  White British author Jan Needle’s controversial My Mate Shofiq (Collins), about racism against Asian Britons in the north of England, is published.  The first in white British author Marjorie Darke’s historical series, The First of Midnight (Kestrel) appears; with the other books in the series, it follows Black Britons from the 18th century to the present. Rock Against Racism, an anti-fascist, punk and reggae music organization, attracts thousands of Black and White British youth to anti-racist causes.

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Darke was one of the first British writers to trace Black History in Britain back through the 18th Century.

1979: The National Committee on Racism in Children’s Books begins publication of a journal, Dragon’s Teeth, to review and comment on multicultural children’s literature.  The journal is edited by Black British librarian Dorothy Kuya.  White British activist Rosemary Stones becomes editor for the Children’s Book Bulletin “for news of progressive moves in children’s literature”.  The first issue has criteria and guidelines for evaluating books for racist attitudes.  The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) produces Our Lives, a collection of stories (many autobiographical) of immigrant teenagers.  White Briton Tony Drake’s Playing it Right (Collins) depicts a multiracial middle school cricket team, including West Indian and Pakistani British players.

1980: The anti-colonial Communist publisher Liberation begins publishing books for children and young adults under the Young World imprint. Andrew Salkey publishes his only novel for young people set in England, Danny Jones (Bogle L’Ouverture); the climax takes place during Notting Hill Carnival.

We Didn’t Ask for Tolerance: Acceptance versus Tolerance in Children’s Literature

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In Keeping’s book, neither of the children are “tolerated”.

This week, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission released their report, Healing a Divided Britain: The need for a comprehensive race equality strategy. The report begins with pointing out that “inequalities of significant concern . . . mean that individuals are facing barriers in accessing jobs and services that impact on their ability to fulfil their potential, [and] they also indicate that some parts of our community are falling behind and can expect poorer life chances than their neighbours” (7). The report went on to say that “Britain is a very different place today compared to the 1960s, when casual racism and ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs were commonplace. Race equality legislation and changes in social attitudes have had an enormous impact. This is a cause for celebration. However, the evidence shows that, 50 years after the Race Relations Act 1965, stark inequalities remain” (7). Mishal Husain, introducing the report on the Today Show on Radio 4, commented that, “We may like to believe that we are a nation of tolerance and equality of opportunity, whatever our background, but are we instead a nation where racial inequality is entrenched and far-reaching?” (Today on Radio 4 18 August 2016). There is a lot that can be said about the report (and the reporting on the report), but I want to focus on Husain’s opening statement about tolerance. Upon hearing it, Dr. Nicola Rollock, the Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education, tweeted, “Always baffled by statement that UK tolerant re race relations. Do we want ‘tolerance’ or understanding, acceptance & equity? #r4today” (@NicolaRollock 18 August 2016).

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But Keeping’s palette makes subtle comments about equity and gentrification in Britain.

It is interesting to look at the report and Rollock’s response (which was echoed by several who retweeted her) in the context of children’s literature from both the “dark ages” of the 1960s and 1970s and the present time. During the 1960s and 1970s, Black British youth demanded fair treatment from the police and Black parents demanded equitable treatment for their children in Britain’s schools. From the Black Parents Movement in the late 1960s to the Black People’s Day of Action that was a response to the New Cross Massacre of 1981, Black people in Britain were not requesting tolerance from their white counterparts. They were demanding to be heard, and claiming their rights as British citizens. Children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s did not ask for tolerance either, because tolerance suggests a hierarchical relationship (as does asking for society to listen and respond). In fact, children’s books such as the Kate Greenaway award-winning book Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary (1967) by the fabulous Charles Keeping subtly suggests society’s inequities while at the same time promoting a cross-racial friendship that is not questioned or highlighted as something unusual or different. Charley and Charlotte live in the ironically named “Paradise Street, somewhere in the big city of London” (n.p.); all the text says about their relationship is that “They were great friends, and every day they played together” (n.p.). What tears them apart is gentrification; Charley, the Black child, remains in Paradise Street as the houses are slowly torn down, while Charlotte, the white child, goes to “live in a flat at the very top of a brand-new building” (n.p.). The contrast in Keeping’s colour palette between the somber depiction of the slums of Paradise Street and the golden new tower block makes an unspoken commentary on race and housing in 1960s London. Charley does not see gentrification as a barrier however; he doggedly goes in search of his lost friend until he finds her.

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The children in Breinburg and Lloyd’s Sean Goes to School do not simply “tolerate” Sean, but actively seek him out as a friend.

Petronella Breinburg’s 1973’s Sean Goes to School, with illustrations from Errol Lloyd, is one of the earliest picture books from a mainstream publisher (the Bodley Head) to feature a Black child on the cover. Given the publication date which came not too long after Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian is made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (1971), this could have been a demand from two Black British authors for “tolerance” in the education system. But in fact, it is simply the story of a child’s first day of school. Sean is frightened, and cries, but he is not labeled by the teacher as bad (or educationally sub-normal). He is not depicted as a suspicious character by the white children in the room. In fact he is welcomed like all the other children in the class, and treated with kindness without patronization. And because he is understood and accepted, he joins in the classroom activities and enjoys himself. Children’s literature in this period does not demand tolerance, but acceptance.

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When Azzi in Garland’s Azzi in Between realizes that she has not only been accepted but understood . . .

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. . . Azzi makes an effort to understand and accept someone else. This understanding and acceptance, rather than tolerance, empowers all people.

The report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission does not, of course focus on the 1960s, but only uses it to contrast with the contemporary moment. It reports that little has changed for the Afro-Caribbean Britain, and that since Brexit, things have worsened for many other groups as well. So the last book I would point to is Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between (2012). This books look at Azzi, a young war refugee, as she enters Britain with her family. Like the immigrants of the 1960s, Azzi and her family have concerns about equitable treatment in their new home. But unlike the 1960s, Azzi and refugees like her have a greater fear that any rights they might have will be taken away. This fear is expressed in Azzi in Between, but Azzi herself is more concerned with being understood and accepted. When she meets people who help her, she in turn becomes helpful. When she is accepted, she becomes accepting. It is a lesson worth considering as Britain faces the challenge of a divided society. Tolerance does not heal. Acceptance does.

In the same Radio 4 report, Birmingham community activist Desmond Jaddoo commented that, “racial relations has never really been tackled properly on a no-tolerance basis”. Maybe we should stop thinking about tolerance of people who look or act differently from us, and start thinking about acting with “no tolerance” for racism instead.