Tag Archives: Puffins

Slavery in Black and White (Puffins, that is)

While I was researching at Seven Stories this past year, I started doing an inventory for them of books in their collection that had non-white authors and characters. They have a generous amount, so I didn’t finish the list, but I did get through a collection of Puffins while I was there. Puffins, the juvenile imprint of Penguin, had their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when books were cheap and middle class aspirations were high. Puffin even ran a club, with magazines (including games, book excerpts, and advertisements for new Puffin titles) and outings to places like the Whipsnade Zoo. The magazine is revealing, because it includes photographs of young Puffin Club members at author events and outings. Despite paging through a couple of decades of the Puffin Post, I did not find a single non-white face in the club member pages.


The Puffin Post contained stories, games advertisements for new Puffins and puzzles–and photos of its members.

This does not necessarily suggest there were no Black or Asian Puffin Club members, but it does indicate that the audience for the Puffin Club and Puffin books was largely white (and, in order to be able to afford outings and yet also find them novel and exciting, probably middle-class white in the main). But the books that Puffin published were not exclusively about white Britons during this time period. Most famously, perhaps, Puffin did the paperback edition of Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft in 1977 (and then in several reprints with different covers). This is a book focalized through the white character about his mute Black foster brother, Donovan Croft. Puffin also published other contemporary stories with Black British characters, including Geoffrey Kilner’s Jet: A Gift to the Family (1979), also (like Donovan Croft) by a white author; and reprints of books by West Indian authors Andrew Salkey and James Berry—although these were set in Jamaica.


The 1977 Puffin cover of Andrew Salkey’s Hurricane, from artist Julek Heller, contains nothing to indicate its Jamaican setting.

Historically, however, Black people only existed during one period of time in Puffins during the 1960s and 1970s: slavery, and curiously, most of their depictions of slavery were set in America rather than the British colonies. Or perhaps it is not so curious. British history books, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, tended (indeed, until very recently) to gloss over the British participation in slavery and the slave trade, blaming the Spanish for the plantation slavery system before quickly moving on to extol the work of British campaigners in abolishing the slave trade in 1807 without ever mentioning the British embrace of slavery in between. After abolition in the British colonies, many writers and campaigners moved on to protesting American slavery, and as this campaign coincided with the rise in both Empire and children’s literature during the Victorian period, the idea became cemented, sometimes unintentionally, in textbooks that the British had always been against slavery everywhere.


Puffin’s cover for Sophia Scrooby Preserved, illustrated by David Omar White.

Certainly one of the Puffins that I first encountered at Seven Stories embraces this line of reasoning. Martha Bacon’s Sophia Scrooby Preserved was first published by Puffin in 1973, but like most Puffins it had been published previously in hardback. In Bacon’s case, her book had not only been published by the left-leaning Victor Gollancz in Britain in 1971, but also by Little, Brown and Company in 1968—because Martha Bacon was American. Bacon was the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the wife of an historian, so her credentials as an author of historical fiction are validated by association. Sophia Scrooby Preserved, however, did not make a particular splash in America and I, who read prodigiously as a child in the 1970s, had never seen the book before. There were multiple copies of Scrooby at Seven Stories, however, all of them in Puffins. The Puffin Club sent books and book advertisements out to its members, so the books they chose to publish often had a longer life than they did in other editions.

And there were reasons for Puffin to choose Scrooby. First, it has an element of adventure, since the book starts with the main character—who would eventually be renamed Sophia Scrooby—in her African village, which is burned to the ground by another African tribe. The girl escapes and lives with impala for a while before “accidentally” becoming enslaved when looking for food. She is taken to colonial America, just before the Revolution, and lives with a family of royalists who treat her like family and teach her Latin and to sing operatic arias. Unfortunately, they “accidentally” forget to free her, so that when they are driven out of their home by creditors, Sophia has to be left behind with the goods to be sold. After a number of adventures, during which she preserves her French lace dress and the necklace she wears, and is never once beaten or struck, she ends up escaping once again (this time from a “West Indian voodoo queen” in New Orleans) and goes to Britain. Upon setting foot on English soil, she is treated like royalty and goes to live with a rich old lady as her companion. In London she meets no less than Ignatius Sancho, the composer and anti-slavery companion. Sancho discovers she is from London and complains, “I cannot countenance rebellion. Better to make peace and pay her taxes and free her slaves” (206). This is some forty years before Britain “frees her slaves”, but as with the bad Victorian history textbooks, Bacon’s text assumes that because Britain has passed the Somerset Ruling, all of Britain’s slaves are now free.

Bacon’s book was one that worked for Puffin, because it contained all the elements of an exciting adventure story, as well as being on “the side of the angels” politically at a time when a growing population of Black British students were being told that West Indian students couldn’t learn in the British school system or integrate into British society. Sophia Scrooby Preserved presents a picture of a well-dressed, well-spoken, independent African girl in London who can earn her own living and move in society’s circles. Sadly, what Sophia Scrooby preserves is the idea that the white British were innocent of the brutality of slavery.


Let None Tell Me the Past is Wholly Gone: Aborigines and Children’s Literature

The children’s publisher Puffin was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a fabulous success. Part of the reason for this success was its excellent marketing, which was aimed squarely at middle-class, white British children and their parents. The firm encouraged reading by having a book club, whose slogan was There’s Nuffin Like a Puffin (there is a song that goes with this; you can find versions of it on YouTube, but I warn you: you will have it in your head all day); they published a magazine and an annual that gathered together stories and artwork from some of the finest (mostly British) writers and illustrators of the time.



Puffin reached its readers through books, magazines, annuals, and even songs and outings.

While paging through the 1975 Puffin Annual (part of Seven Stories’ Kaye Webb collection), I came across an unusual picture that made me pause. The picture is unusual because it is not of white people. There are very few non-whites in the Puffin Post or Annual, although the books published by Puffin do slightly better at producing visual diversity. The picture is a photograph (by Axel Poignant), not a drawing, and shows two naked children (from the back) walking on a beach. It is not immediately clear from the picture the ethnic origin of the children. The photograph is accompanied by a poem, “The Past” by Kath Walker. The poem’s speaker begins by saying, “Let no one say the past is dead” and then goes on to contrast “tribal memories” with an “easy chair before electric heater” in “suburbia”. Presumably the tribe of the poem is somehow connected with the photographed children, but there is no further explanatory information on the double-page spread. These children do not appear to have lives that suggest even a need for electric heaters, so the placement of photograph and poem side-by-side position them as the past that is not dead, but are they representations of a past that IS past, but remembered? Or a past way of existing that still carries on today?


Whose past?  Whose present? Kath Walker’s poem next to Axel Poignant’s photo.

If one is a highly-skilled reader—which of course all Puffin Club Members were—it is possible to find a clue toward the answer to this question by turning the page. The next story (also with photographs by Axel Poignant, written by Roslyn Poignant) is “A Story of the First Australians.” This piece discusses the lives of contemporary Aborigines, and like many articles about non-Europeans, it walks the line between celebrating the culture and reinforcing imperial stereotypes about “natives” as something vaguely sub-human. For example, the encounter between Europeans and Aborigines is described like this: “When the Europeans first came, 200 years ago, they built their cities along the coasts, turned grasslands into sheep pastures and wheatfields, and scrublands into cattle runs, and they paid scant attention to the black people they found already living there, and so their numbers were greatly reduced” (61). Leaving aside the convoluted nature of this sentence (which seems to suggest that it is the Europeans whose numbers were greatly reduced), the sentence makes European colonization a benign event. It also implies that a lack of European attention will cause a group of people to begin to become extinct. If this were true, I would argue that only Europeans would be left on the planet today.



The Poignants’ article ignores the brutality of colonialism on the Aborigines; the colonizers here are merely indifferent.

Reading through the article itself, you would discover that Kath Walker—the author of the poem that precedes the article—is an Aborigine herself. She was in fact, by the time of the annual’s publication, quite a well-known poet, but part of her poetic fame derived from the fact that she was Aboriginal. She was the first Aborigine to have her poetry published in book form in Australia, though many questioned whether an Aboriginal could write poetry and suggested it was ghostwritten. Walker not only faced her critics, she was crucial in lobbying for citizenship rights of Aboriginals. She also had an MBE, granted in 1970 (which she returned in 1987 in protest against the Australian bicentenary celebrations). None of this information is present in the article or accompanying the poem, and yet it is crucial for understanding how her political views came out in her poetry. Knowing these facts about Walker would, however, have made the Poignants’ article an entirely different animal, because it celebrates the primitiveness of the Aborigines and downplays the ways in which Aborigines interact with white society. Walker’s poem validates her Aboriginal history, but also explores the tension between the comfort of modern life and the way that modern life is devoid of spiritual meaning. The speaker wants to preserve the meaning of her past life while knowing that she will have to—and in the electric heater sort of way, wants to—accept some aspects of white society. The article fails to acknowledge this tension. Kath Walker fought for Aboriginal rights throughout her life but her activism could easily have been missed or mistaken by even the most careful Puffin reader.


And what of the authors of the article itself? Again, the article gives no biographical information, and it is unlikely that the reader would (even if she thought to do so) be able to find anything out about the authors in a pre-internet age. But Roslyn Poignant,continued to have an interest in Aborigines throughout her life. In fact, she published a book about the history of Aboriginal society and its interactions with their Australian colonizers in 2004 entitled Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle. The book discusses the way that Aborigines in the 19th century were often displayed in circus acts, fairs, and museums, and were photographed by anthropologists as examples of human “types”. Let no one tell me the past is wholly gone, indeed.

A Thousand and Seven Stories: Working in the Seven Stories Archives in Newcastle

Thanks to the support of many colleagues, I was able to take this academic year to study in Britain on a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship. Initially, I had wanted to apply somewhere in London. I am doing archival work on publishers who publish(ed) for a Black British child audience, and many important archives are in London, including the London Metropolitan Archives, the Black Cultural Archives, and the George Padmore Archives. But sometimes things don’t work out just the way you had planned, and this was one such case; the university that offered me space and place and time to think was Newcastle University, in the far north of the country. Despite the university’s distance from London (three hours by train—making for a very long daytrip at minimum. . .), they had one asset that London didn’t have: the National Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories Museum and Archives.

I had been to Seven Stories before, but was uncertain if I would be able to fill my time there. I knew that their authors’ and artists’ collections did not include many Black British or other minority ethnic writers (and if you are one, and are reading this blog, then think about Seven Stories as a place for your archives!). I knew they had the archives of Leila Berg, the radical author and editor who created the Nippers series. She had actively recruited Black British writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s to write for the series. So I began there.

Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose's New Beacon Bookshop.  Illustration by Richard Rose.

Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

Considering Leila Berg’s reading series (she didn’t want it to be called a reading scheme, but Macmillan insisted on marking the books with colors to indicate levels) started me thinking about those books that teach children how to read, and when they started to be multicultural. Here was one of the first revelations at Seven Stories, because they not only have a number of early reading texts in their book collection, they also have a collection of Ladybird Books, and I was able to look through them. Many people make fun of the Ladybirds (there have been several recent parodies, both official and unofficial) but I was surprised to find that even though Peter and Jane, the Ladybird Reading Scheme protagonists, live a boring, middle-class life, multicultural Britain is never far away.

Multiculturalism is everywhere in Britain (but mostly on trains)!  Illustrations by Martin Aitchison from the Ladybirds Boys and Girls and Where We Go.

Multiculturalism is everywhere in Britain (but mostly on trains)! Illustrations by Martin Aitchison from the Ladybirds Boys and Girls and Where We Go.

Multicultural Britain is also a part of the work of many of the authors in the archive. I recently gave a talk on (white South African-born) Beverley Naidoo, who wrote books about her home country’s apartheid regime, such as Journey to Jo’Burg, and then went on to write about Nigerian and Somalian refugees in Britain in her Carnegie medal-winning The Other Side of Truth. I was curious about what led her to write about these refugees, and found many supporting documents in the Seven Stories archive that allowed me to build up a picture of her long-term interest in the subject. I am looking forward to examining the archives of Bernard Ashley, author of The Trouble with Donovan Croft, and Michael Morpurgo, author of A Medal for Leroy, to learn more about their thought processes in writing and revising their books, and their publishers comments about them as well.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the archives for me at the moment, though, is their book collection, which provides a wealth of resources for building a picture of Britain as it changed over the course of the twentieth century. The book collection holds a number of magazines, story papers, comics, and annuals from Boys’ Own to Empire Annual to World of Wonder and Beano. These often overlooked resources can provide a snapshot of acceptable attitudes toward race and diversity over time. Golliwog figures have disappeared when once they were prevalent in the comics, for example. And stories about savages and cannibals were exchanged around the 1970s for non-fiction “tourist” style pieces about the islands of the Caribbean.

Spot the difference: two Puffins published a year apart, in 1963 and 1964.

Spot the difference: two Puffins published a year apart, in 1963 and 1964.

The book collection also includes Kaye Webb’s collection of Puffins. Kaye Webb, who was the longtime editor of Puffin, was the first major figure that Seven Stories “archived”—her papers are all there, a massively important collection that will serve researchers like me for years to come. But in the book collection, there is a visual sense of the way that publishing changed over the time of her tenure at Penguin (she was editor from 1961 to 1979) and beyond, for the archives include copies of more recent Puffins.

Seven Stories has journals for all kinds of researchers interested in children and their books.

Seven Stories has journals for all kinds of researchers interested in children and their books.

When I can tear myself away from the book collections, I have been reading through several years of Multicultural Teaching, the journal edited in the 1980s and 1990s by Gillian Klein. These were brought to my attention by Collections Officer Paula Wride, who had heard one of my lectures and thought they might be useful. They have, indeed! I am certain that several articles will find their way into my next lecture, on Stephen Lawrence, Mary Seacole, and the National Curriculum (November 18th in 152 Robinson Library, 5:30 pm, in case you happen to be in Newcastle next week). The book collections include many complete or near-complete runs of the major children’s literature journals from literary, education, publishing and librarianship perspectives. Although I’ve been in university libraries that hold several of these, it is rare to find so many—from so many different approaches—in one place.

I came to Seven Stories in September thinking that I would not find resources enough to keep me busy all year, but now I realize the wealth of information that can be gleaned about diversity in Britain from what they already have. With a dynamic staff who love and understand books and are thoughtful and celebratory of authors and researchers, I know that my year at the archive will leave me hoping to come back for more.

If you want to learn more about Seven Stories archives and/or arrange your own visit, you can visit their website’s Collections page: http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/collection/collection-highlights.