Tag Archives: refugees

Able to Participate: Disability and Race in British Children’s Books

This fall, when I participated in a daylong symposium at Amnesty International UK on children’s books and human rights, the author Alex Wheatle spoke about how he pitched a book to a children’s publisher about a Black British boy growing up in a care home; the publisher worried that there were too many issues to the book.  In other words, a kid can’t be in a care home AND Black AND in a children’s book.  Being Black, for many children’s publishers (even now) is “problem” enough.  The idea that not being white is a problem in British society is also likely to be one of the reasons that the CLPE Reflecting Realities report found that only one of the books with BAME representation could be classified as a “comedy”; if you are a problem, you, and your life, can’t be funny.  For years, it was seen as a generous, liberal white attitude to suggest—as one character does in Josephine Kamm’s 1962 Out of Step—that “there’s nothing wrong in being a West Indian or an African or an Indian.  They’re every bit as good as we are; they look different, that’s all there is to it” (20).  To argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with being yourself suggests that someone else thinks that there is.

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And yet—as the Amnesty symposium emphasized—children have the right to be represented in all aspects of society, including children’s books.  And that means all children, including those who are experiencing either a temporary or permanent disability.  The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has, as its fifth point, “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf). Special education and care should not mean isolating the child and making them feel “othered”, but helping them find ways to participate in society.  British children’s literature has made great strides in the last few years in depicting disabilities in a broad spectrum of books, including the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner, One, by Sarah Crossan about conjoined twins.  But it is unusual to find a main character of colour in a British children’s book who is also disabled—too many “problems” for one book!

The issue is not just academic, or a fictional scenario.  Amelia Hill, writing for the Guardian, highlights the case of two disabled children that the Home Office is trying to deport to Pakistan despite the children being born in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/12/home-office-disabled-children-leave-country). Disabled children often suffer discrimination; disabled children of colour can experience a double discrimination due to racist attitudes that a person’s “race” is a problem.  And being a person of colour doesn’t necessarily mean you are more sensitive to the “problem” of disability–most people need to learn to look for ability and strength in disabled people rather than othering them.

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Brahmachari’s main character, Laila, thinks she understands her best friend Kez–but sometimes all she see is her disability and the way it interrupts their friendship.

It is therefore encouraging to see more books being published that include disabled (temporarily or permanently) characters in books with or by people of colour.  The disabled characters are not just window dressing, but play major roles in the books.  Sita Brahmachari’s character Kez, in Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) is Laila Levenson’s best friend, but that friendship is tested because of Kez’s disability.  She is in a wheelchair, and although she and Laila have been friends since primary school, Kez decides she won’t come over to Laila’s house any more when they start secondary school after Laila’s father carries her down the stairs.  “I never want to be carried” (58), Kez tells Laila.  Laila thinks of herself as being the only one who understands Kez, but has to learn to see her in new and capable ways, and also learn how to make accommodations for her friend without patronizing her, before they can be close again.  Kez is white British, but makes up part of Brahmachari’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-able cast of characters, because as she herself puts it, “These ‘different’ characters populate my books because I know that they’re all ‘here!’ and more than anything I love to give each of them their “rites of passage” moment when they find a voice” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names).

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Depression is a disability that affects all kinds of people–but it’s not always a result of racism for people of colour.

Bali Rai’s Stay a Little Longer (Barrington Stoke 2018) deals with a different kind of disability, the emotional and mental disability of depression.  Rai distinguishes between forms and levels of severity of depression in his novel. Aman, the main character, is thirteen and grieving the death of her father. Although she considers herself “messed up” (69) for still grieving after a year, her friend Lola points out that “It’s not a competition to see who recovers the fastest” (69).  Aman’s grief affects her every day, but it is clear that she will return to her old self, more or less, eventually.  However, an older man that Aman meets, Gurnam, has a more serious form of depression that leads him to attempt suicide.  Aman, who has friends and family supporting her through her grief, wants to be supportive to Gurnam as well, but she has to learn to go about it in the right way.  She learns that love helps, but love alone is not enough; disabilities, even when they are not physical, require medical treatment.  Race plays an interesting role in Rai’s book; Gurnam is harassed by some local boys, but Aman cannot understand why because “The lads are Asian, just like Gurnam” (90).  She assumes that racism is the only reason a man would be harassed in Britain.  However, it turns out that racism has nothing to do with it.  Gurnam is gay, and the boys think that homosexuality is “Against nature” (58).  Rai’s book highlights the way that being “othered” can lead to disabling depression, but in doing so he also reminds readers that race is only one piece of a person’s identity—and not always the “problem.”

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Disability doesn’t mean un-ability; Laird’s character Musa has strengths his brother Omar wishes he had.

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere might reasonably be expected to deal with a similar emotional disability, as the novel concerns a Syrian family who become refugees in Jordan before eventually being given asylum in Britain.  Refugees and migrants have formed an ever-increasing part of children’s literature over the past decade, but generally the stories have concerned able-bodied characters; again, the idea that being a refugee is enough of a “problem” for a single book applies.  But Laird includes two disabled characters who play pivotal roles in the story: the main character Omar’s older brother, Musa, who has cerebral palsy, and their younger sister Nadia, who has a heart condition.  Musa’s cerebral palsy affects the plot—his movement is restricted, and at times Omar has to carry him.  But he is also a “total brainbox” (15) who gets involved in the rebellion and has to be saved from being shot by Omar.  Musa uses his disability to his advantage when soldiers approach them, “making babbling noises” (57) and flailing his arms “wildly” (57) to make the soldiers think he is harmless.  His condition and Nadia’s heart problems put them on top of the list for asylum in Britain.  It is only at the end of the novel that race/ethnicity come into play, however.  Musa does not want to leave for Britain, arguing, “You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims?  They think we’re all crazy terrorists” (315).  Laird concludes her story with questions that acknowledge that attitudes toward “others” are still a “problem” : “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen next . . . How will they get on in their new life in Britain?  Will people welcome them? . . . Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams?  The answer to those questions lies with you” (334).  At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to ensure that every person is able to participate in society, and stop closing doors because of what we perceive as their “otherness”.

The Culture Supplement: Black British Supplementary Schools for Children of Windrush

This is refugee week, as well as Windrush week, in the UK, and I wanted to combine those two events by continuing my thinking about the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.  This week my focus is on Principle 7, which states that “The child is entitled to receive education which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. He shall be given an education which will promote his general culture and enable him, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgement, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society.”  In Britain, the first part of this is and has been done, for citizen, immigrant, and refugee alike.  But the second half of the statement, about an education that promotes the child’s culture and sense of self, has been much more difficult to achieve for newcomers to Britain.

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Bernard Coard’s book highlighted the plight of the Black child in British schools in the late 1960s and early 70s–and led to an increase in supplementary education.

In the late 1960s, the children of the Windrush generation—some of whom had come to Britain after their parents got settled, and some of whom were born in the country—began attending British schools in large numbers, particularly in the urban centers of London, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester.  Many schools struggled to accommodate them.  Arguing language difficulties, behavioral problems, and lack of preparedness for school, teachers placed a considerable percentage of Black children (particularly boys) in what were then called ESN (Educationally SubNormal) classrooms.  This was meant to be a temporary measure for most children, but many never left the ESN classrooms, and left school without qualification or skills—sometimes not even knowing how to read—because of it.

The official line from the British government was that these children should assimilate into British society, and accept British customs and traditions.  But parents of Black British children saw the situation differently.  They felt that it was because their children were being asked to give up their culture and not taught their history that they were disinterested in school.  Many of the parents had come to Britain to give their children a better chance at education and they weren’t going to watch them lose that chance because the government felt that their children ought to be just like white Britons.  Through organizations and movements such as the Black Parents Movement, the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association, and the Anti-Banding Campaign, Black parents worked together to provide the missing piece of education for their children: the culture and history of their own people.  Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British Schools, published by Black British publisher John LaRose in 1971, gave parent groups the impetus and the statistics they needed to organize and fight for their children’s rights to maintain a sense of pride in their culture.

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John LaRose, who helped start the George Padmore school, and Jessica and Eric Huntley, who were involved with the Marcus Garvey school and later the Peter Moses school, published children’s books and supported those who did.  Photo from “I Dream to Change a World” exhibition in 2015.

Since they generally could not get the schools to teach Black history and culture (and to be fair, most white British teachers had never been prepared to do so), Black parents set up a number of Supplementary Schools: local, after school or Saturday programmes staffed by some trained teachers and many more interested but untrained parent volunteers.  Some of these schools had only a few children; others had fifty or more.  The George Padmore school, started by John LaRose in his own living room, began with only four children: his own two sons, and two of their friends.  But large or small, the critical element was improving the experience of Black children in the British schools.  Initially, the supplementary schools concentrated on what one school, the Marcus Garvey school in Shepherds Bush, called “simple MATHS and elementary ENGLISH” (note to parents, found in the London Metropolitan Archives, LMA/4463/D/01/006) because the children were so far behind their white counterparts.  But even early on the supplementary schools wanted to improve the children’s sense of self; John LaRose, writing about the founding of the George Padmore school in Finsbury Park, said that the late 1960s “was a time when anxiety about the education system in Britain and what it was doing to black children had already surfaced . . . the schools gave black children no understanding of their own background history and culture and no help in understanding their experience of the society in Britain” (George Padmore Institute Archives, BEM 3/1).  One of the important ways that supplementary schools helped Black children develop a sense of identity was through a study of their history and culture in their reading material.

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Longmans history of Equiano was used by the George Padmore school. Illustrated by Sylvia and Cyril Deakins.

We can get a look at that reading material because fortunately, some of the schools kept records of the books they used.  Many schools included biographies, from the self-produced biographies of Caribbean figures like Alexander Bustamante at the George Padmore school to standardized educational biographies (the George Padmore also used biographies of people like Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain from the American group, Science Research Associates or SRA, which produced a graded reading scheme in the 1960s and 1970s that I used in my own childhood).  Some of the material came from mainstream publishers, such as John R. Milsome’s biography of Olaudah Equiano: The slave who helped to end the slave trade (Longmans 1969) or Phyllis M. Cousins Queen of the Mountains (jointly published by Ginn and the Jamaican Ministry of Education 1967, about Nanny of the Maroons).

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The publishers Ginn and Co. worked with the Jamaican Ministry of Education to produce this biography of Nanny of the Maroons. Illustrated by Gay Galsworthy.

The fact that Queen of the Mountains was a joint publication between Ginn and the Jamaican Ministry of Education was important, because much of the history used by supplementary schools was not available in British textbooks.  Supplementary schools had to look back to the Caribbean for reading texts that reflected their own children’s history and culture as well.  Although several reading schemes, including Leila Berg’s Nippers published by Macmillan and the Breakthrough series published by Longman, did by the early 1970s include Black characters in some of their stories, very little reflected the traditions or a positive view of the contemporary Caribbean.  This may be why the George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester School (the two schools combined to share resources) used reading texts from the Caribbean, such as Inez M. Grant’s The Island Readers from Collins and the Jamaican Ministry of Education instead of British readers. In reader 2A, Stories for Work and Play (1966), children in the supplementary school could read about the modern manufacturing of condensed milk in Jamaica, as well as the traditional celebration of John Canoe—which came originally from an African source.  In this, the Black British child had his or her culture supported, and have a firmer foundation on which to build a future.

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An illustration of the John Canoe celebrations by Dennis Carabine for Inez Grant’s story, “Betty and Harold see John Canoe” in the Island Readers Stories for Work and Play.

The supplementary school was an important feature of Black British life in the 1970s and beyond (many still are running today).  It led me to wonder if refugee or other immigrant children might be having similar issues as Black children had in the 1970s—and whether book publishers might think about ways to support them in understanding their past, present and future through books that recognize and celebrate their culture.

I’ve Got a Name: Children’s Books, naming, and diversity

I’ve been thinking about names and naming lately for a few reasons.  First, because of the difference it often makes to an issue when individuals’ names are attached to a story—the Windrush scandal got more press after individual stories were highlighted by The Guardian (beginning in November 2017 with the case of Paulette Wilson, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/28/i-cant-eat-or-sleep-the-grandmother-threatened-with-deportation-after-50-years-in-britain, and coming to a head with an article that told the stories of 18 individuals, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/20/its-inhumane-the-windrush-victims-who-have-lost-jobs-homes-and-loved-ones). The Windrush scandal resulted in part because of children being brought over to the UK by their parents at a time when children did not have their own passports, but were listed on their parents’ papers—which sometimes meant they had no proof as to when they entered the country.  The #metoo movement and the Michigan State University/ USA gymnastics scandal also gained ground when it became about people with names instead of “sexual assault”.  The US media could take a lesson from the power of naming individuals and stressing the real consequences of political actions in its own growing scandal over separating children from their parents at the Mexican border.

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Children of UN staff members examine the universal declaration of human rights (UN Photo # 123898). Children got their own specific declaration of rights in 1959.

In case you are unaware of this latter story, this week the UN let the US know in no uncertain terms that they were breaking international law by separating parents from children (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/world/americas/us-un-migrant-children-families.html). In the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, principle six states that, “a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf).  Although the New York Times article points out that the US is the only country that has not ratified the Declaration, it adds, “the practice of separating and detaining children breached its obligations under other international human rights conventions it has joined”.

The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has ten points in total.  It’s nearly sixty years old now (originally proclaimed in November 1959—although not adopted by the UN General Assembly for another thirty years).  I’d like to do some thinking about some of the points in this and perhaps some future editions of this blog, and how the points relate to children’s books about diversity particularly.  Today I want to start with the shortest—and perhaps simplest—one, Point Three: “The child shall be entitled from his birth to a name and a nationality.”  The reason to insist on a nationality seems obvious, then (Jews and then Palestininans as stateless people) and now (Windrush); but the right to a name surprised me when I first read it.  A name, of course, gives human dignity, it can be an indication of uniqueness and of family ties.  But children are given names by their family, not the state, I thought.  And then I remembered: children are given names by their family, except when the state—or its legalized institutions—play a role in giving or denying people their names.

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In Marjorie Darke’s The First of Midnight, Midnight was the slave name of a man who was ultimately unknowable to his white wife.

In children’s books, the most obvious place to start thinking about names is in books about slavery and the slave trade.  In my article, “After Midnight: Naming, West Indians and British Children’s Literature” (Names: A Journal of Onomastics 56.1: 41-46), I comment that “Slave names, for example, either ironically mark the low status of a figure (Caesar is an extremely popular slave name in children’s literature) or highlight the slave’s physical features (usually through names that denote darkness, such as Inky or Midnight)” (43) and that both these types of names serve to dehumanize the enslaved person.  It also takes away any family name (either given or surname), disconnecting the enslaved person from their birth family ties.  Of course, characters in books are all given their names by authors and not by slave-owners; however, as I further discuss in the article, “The notion of certain names as ‘slave names’ may have been an historical fact, but their use in fiction continues to underline the concept of ownership by whites of blacks” (43-44).  Children’s books (fictional or not) can choose to recognize the right of a person to a name of dignity, even when they are trying to be historically accurate.  One example is in Jean-Jacques Vayssières The Amazing Adventures of Equiano (Ian Randle 2001).  This book recognizes that Olaudah Equiano was taken into slavery and given the name Gustavus Vassa (an ironic name: Vassa was a 16th century Swedish king) but adds that Equiano “never accepted this name so, to please him, we will continue to call him Equiano” (18).

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Olaudah Equiano has a slave name, but Jean-Jacques Vayssieres chooses not to use it.

The practice of giving or omitting names of dignity for people of color is rife throughout children’s literature.  One only has to look to the continuous and negative emphasis on the word “Black” in Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman (1901), not to mention the fact that Sambo’s parents’ names were literally Mumbo Jumbo.  Often, secondary characters were referred to based on their skin color rather than by their name, even if their name was known.

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A color and not a name: people in Bannerman’s book are constantly referred to as black, equated with objects–because the clothes Sambo wears are colored, but the tigers are not.

In these enlightened (ahem) days, authors would never dream of writing a book about a character and referring to her as Little Brown Jenny (or whatever).  But naming is still important, especially for people of color.  One place this is especially noticeable is in books about refugees, many of whom are traveling from the global south to countries like the US and UK.  I’ve spoken in this blog about Sarah Garland’s Azzi In Between (Frances Lincoln 2012) before, but I’d just add that the book starts out with a nameless country, and a named girl—Azzi.  Azzi is in fact the only named character throughout the refugee journey (family members are called Mother, Father, Grandma, but not given any personal names).  Azzi’s name therefore becomes the focal point, and the book never mentions the word “refugee”.  Azzi is thus made, by Garland, a human being and not a problem.  Other people are named in the book only if they are helpful and friendly to Azzi (and only after she arrives in a place of safety).

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The first page of Garland’s book: Azzi has a name, even though her wartorn country does not.

I prefer this approach to that used in Kate Milner’s My Name is not Refugee (Bucket List 2016).  Milner’s book uses the conversation of an unnamed boy and his mother talking about their upcoming refugee journey to ask the reader, in text boxes, questions that imagine what it would be like to be a refugee.  Some of the questions are open-ended (asking “What would you take?”) but others are leading (“Do you think you could live in a place where there is no water in the taps and no one to pick up the rubbish?”), positing a reader who is privileged and always distanced from the nameless boy in the book.  Milner may have hoped that by leaving her character nameless, she would encourage children to empathize by imagining themselves as refugees, but it is difficult to empathize with someone we can never really know.  And you can’t begin to know someone until you speak their name.

What is the City but the People? Manchester, Children’s Literature, and the World

Last week I took my MA students to Manchester.  Officially, they are on a course I designed called Race, Literature and the Archive—but students don’t come on Summer Abroad Courses just for extra library time (shock horror).  Many of them were particularly interested in Manchester because of the recent terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena during the Ariana Grande concert in which 22 (mostly young) people were killed.  We had discussed the diversity in Manchester prior to coming to England, and they wanted to know how the city was handling the attack.  I have, of course, been to Manchester several times, and knew exactly how Manchester would be handling it—but I was pleased to see signs all over the city advertising the Manchester International Festival (currently in progress).  They said, simply, What is the City but the People?

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This sign was everywhere in the city–and sometimes it even mentioned the International Festival that it was advertising . . . 

This sign was a perfect introduction for my students before we went to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.  I’ve mentioned the centre in previous blogs; it was set up to honor the school boy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, who was murdered by a classmate in 1986 on the school playground.  The classmate then went on to brag that he had killed “a Paki”.  Ullah was not Pakistani, but Bangladeshi; however, he had been known in the school for defending Pakistani classmates when they were being bullied for their ethnic origins.  Jackie Ould, the director of the education arm of the AIU Centre, talked with my students about the tragedy of Ullah’s death, but also about the positive ways that the community (local and global) came together after the murder.  The legacy of Ullah if he had lived we will never know, but the legacy of his death is described in a booklet which anyone can download: http://www.racearchive.org.uk/legacy-ahmed-iqbal-ullah-2/.  For me, the most important part of the legacy has been the Race Relations Centre, as it not only provided research support for my forthcoming book (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015, appearing from Palgrave Macmillan in a few weeks) but also introduced me to the projects that Ould initiates with school children of Manchester.

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This booklet is downloadable from the AIU Centre website.

These book projects have ranged from biographies of Black and Asian Britons to folktales of the places where Manchester’s immigrants have come.  While early folktales came from Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Roma or Travellers, the most recent two came from communities who represent newer waves of immigration to Manchester, the Somalis and the Sudanese.  Both countries suffered under civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK opened its doors to migrants and refugees fleeing from violence.  England has the largest Somali immigrant population in Europe.  Refugees from South Sudan are the third largest asylum-seeking group in the world.  Nonetheless, they represent a tiny proportion of the population of Britain.  According to the Red Cross, “There are an estimated 118,995 refugees living in the UK. That’s just 0.18 per cent of the total population (65.1 million people)” (http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Refugee-support/Refugee-facts-and-figures) – hardly the “swarm” of people that the anti-immigration groups (and tabloids) like to suggest.  Like other immigrants to Britain, they suffer discrimination and racism, even when they don’t struggle to find work that suits their qualifications or decent housing.

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Folktales may seem distant from the present, but interacting with the past the way these schoolchildren did can also make sense of the current moment.

It may seem that folktales, set in the distant past, have little to do with the struggles of refugee groups in Britain today.  But Ould’s folktale projects do important work.  First, the two recent folktales immediately align these immigrant groups with positive attributes just by virtue of their titles: the Somali story is entitled The Clever Princess and the Sudanese story is The Kindly Ghost.  The main characters in these stories not only help others, they also are active in achieving their own destiny.  Both protagonists are beset by problems that they overcome through their strength and quick thinking.  They learn that kindness toward bullies is not worth it, and that persistence is needed to win out over despair.  These are all useful lessons for immigrants—but importantly, they are also useful lessons for everyone.  The book projects that Ould and the school children produce are not done exclusively (or sometimes even at all) by members of those immigrant communities.  In fact, part of the point for Ould is that school children learn about each other.  This includes learning about their similarities as well as their differences: by retelling folktales, school children learn how folktales have universal ideas, common characters, settings and plots.  Characters journey seeking wisdom and happiness all over the world.

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Jackie Ould, education director at the AIU Centre, helps students interact with Manchester’s history through the Archives+ project in the Central Library.

After her presentation on the origins of the centre, Ould took us upstairs in the central library to show us the Archives+ project (http://www.archivesplus.org/), where through digitization of documents and central displays, ordinary library users can unlock the secrets of the archives to learn about the history of Manchester.  My students immediately started looking through the artifacts that told about the various waves of immigration to the city.  They learned about the Sikh struggles to be allowed to legally wear turbans at their jobs or on motorcycles; they found out more about Ahmed Iqbal Ullah’s Bangladeshi community; they looked at pictures of the Afro-Caribbean community at Moss Side.  Being able to interact with the material—just like the Manchester school children who retold and illustrated the folktales—encouraged them to dig deeper, find out more, be aware of the different people that made up this city.  The Archives+ project, like the folktale project, promotes the idea that everyone’s story matters, and that stories of the city are for everyone.  Manchester is not alone in this; it may take more digging, but most cities have histories worth uncovering, and it would be worth examining the treasures of your local archives.  Because, at the end of the day, what is the city but the people?

 

Into the Wild, Into the World: David Almond’s Island

British author David Almond has spent his career writing books for children and young adults that explore the idea of wildness.  Sometimes it is the wildness outside the main character, such as in the much-lauded 1998 novel Skellig.  Sometimes it is the wilderness and the ancient myths called forth by landscape, as in the 2014 A Song for Ella Grey which retells Orpheus and Eurydice along the Bamburgh dunes.  Sometimes it is the wildness within a character, as in the 2008 graphic novel, created with illustrator Dave McKean, The Savage.  The idea of the wild and untamed is, Almond’s novels suggest, a part of all of us as well as all that surrounds us; understanding it can give us insight into our pain and accepting it can often help us heal what is broken.

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Almond’s books connect young people with an ancient wildness, inside and outside of themselves.

Knowing about Almond’s focus on the wild is important for understanding his recent novella, Island (Hodder, 2017).  Island was a £1 World Book Day selection in the UK, meaning that the book is sold for a single pound, until it is out of print, and school children in the UK can use their National Book Token to get it for free.  World Book Day is connected with UNESCO; however, the British celebration is not a government initiative but a charity, and therefore reliant on the generous support of authors and publishers who are willing to participate (you can read more about it here: http://www.worldbookday.com/about/).  The books this year, like the shortlisted books for the Carnegie Medal, were all written by white authors, something I (and others—see http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/childrens-literature/world-book-day-2017-selections-criticism/13835 for a summary) complained about (in this particular moment, when there are so many great writers of colour in the UK, it seemed absurd that not one was asked to write for this celebration).  I doubt it had anything to do with me, but I do want to point out that since the announcement of the selections and resulting criticism, the World Book Day website has highlighted several books with diverse authors and characters.

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Almond’s Island was a 2017 World Book Day selection.

However, the lack of diversity in authors made me even keener to read Almond’s selection.  In addition to admiring Almond’s dreamlike prose, and having had my own personal pilgrimage to the book’s setting of Lindisfarne (Northumbria’s Holy Island), I was curious to see how Almond would develop the character of Hassan, a boy from Syria.  His initial appearance in the novella comes as white British Louise, through whom the novel is focalized, is traveling with her father to Lindisfarne, an island only reachable by a causeway in low tide.  Louise and her father travel to the Holy Island every year to remember Louise’s mother, now dead, and the happy times they had as a family there.  The island, therefore, is both wild and familiar to Louise, and—as with the wild in Almond’s other books—represents a place where she can connect with her past and heal her pain in the beauty of nature.  “We’ve been coming here every year, ever since Mum died.  It’s a holiday that’s also a pilgrimage, a journey into the beautiful past” (6), Louise says.

The boy they pass on the causeway seems to be an intrusion into this beautiful past; Louise’s father instantly labels the boy an outsider (“doesn’t look like he comes from here, does he?” he says on page eight) and refuses to offer him a ride or any other assistance.  Strangers, for Louise’s father, are dangerous.  He tells her, “The world’s going through some very dark days.  You’ve got to be careful” (10).  Louise has a more sympathetic view of the boy, but she nonetheless also describes him in terms of otherness; she writes in her journal that “He comes from nothing, from nowhere” and “He seems to be walking from a dream . . . I think he might be very beautiful” (16).  Beauty is not entirely redeeming for Louise, because she concludes her journal entry by saying, “I think he might be terrifying” (17).  It is no coincidence that both Louise and her father connect the boy with terror, since it turns out that the boy—Hassan—is from Syria.  Almond constantly exposes the orientalist ideas that white British people have about Syrians; Hassan even exploits these ideas by performing magic tricks for tourists’ money.  Hassan tells them that in Syria, “I perform, with the snake charmers and the acrobats and the singers and the storytellers” (73); Almond says that the tourists are “entranced by him . . . they want to be entranced by him” (73).  This is the acceptable version of the mysterious East, but more troublesome versions of the stereotype—the terrorist and the refugee—are also lurking.  Hassan asks Louise if she thinks of him as a refugee and the question “embarrasses” her because she “doesn’t know” the answer (59).  Hassan questions Louise’s father’s new girlfriend directly as well: “Do you think I am one of those people? Because of Syria and my skin.  That I was in London with my knife? That I am a terrorist come to Lindisfarne with dreams of slaughter?” (85-86).  Almond’s island is a microcosm of white British (and American—Louise’s father’s girlfriend is from Missouri) attitudes toward Syrians and Middle Easterners

But Almond also shows us—literally—a different picture.  Two different pictures, in fact.  One is Louise’s childhood drawing, still preserved, in the upside-down boat which has been turned into a shed that comes with the cottage they return to every year.  Louise looks for the drawing upon her arrival, “the pencil drawing I made when I was four, the three of us in an upside-down boat surrounded by moons and stars . . . Dad calls it my cave painting, created in a distant past, at the very birth of the world” (18).  This “cave painting,” connecting Louise with wildness, contrasts with Hassan’s very modern picture—a photograph that he shows her, evidence that Syrians too are connected with Lindisfarne.  The photographer, Hassan’s father, took the picture of Louise and her parents years ago.  Hassan’s pilgrimage is to a place that he, like Louise, belongs to, its wild and civilized parts, its modern and its ancient.  In typical poetic fashion, Almond breaks down stereotypes and connects humanity through the timelessness of nature.  At the end of the book Louise kisses Hassan, at the same time imagining, not just herself in the upside-down boat, but “all of us . . . all the living and the dead, all carried upside down through the astounding stars” (119).  Island is a hopeful small book that takes readers into the wild—and into the diverse and astounding world.

And the Ship Sails On: The Sea and the Racialized Other in Children’s Literature

In Federico Fellini’s 1983 film, And the Ship Sails On, all the pretty (and not so pretty, but rich) people of society are gathered on a luxury ocean liner to scatter the ashes of a famous opera singer; their memorial is interrupted by some refugees that the captain brings on the ship’s deck. The society doyennes believe that the refugees are terrorists, and demand that they be isolated. When another ship demands the refugees be returned, the captain agrees—but one of the refugees hurls a bomb at the other ship, causing it to open fire on the luxury liner. The liner sinks while the orchestra plays and the cinema projectionist watches film clips of the dead opera singer saying goodbye at the end of a concert.

This is a very brief summary of Fellini’s brilliant satire (among other things, it ignores the love-sick rhinoceros) but I wanted to include it for any of my blog readers who haven’t seen it. Despite the film being set in 1914, and concerning Austro-Hungarian aggression, I was reminded of Fellini’s film this past weekend when, at the BAMEed 2017 conference in Birmingham, I listened to Darren Chetty’s talk on education and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people. Chetty commented that Britain’s education rhetoric is often expressed in nautical terms—running a tight ship, for example—and he wondered if this was a hangover of Empire, when “Britannia Ruled the Waves”. I would go so far as to suggest that it is not just education that suffers from this hangover, but government rhetoric in general. By recalling an imperial past, Britain not only recalls its days as global superpower, but racializes the discourse. White people sail and run tight ships. Racialized others are refugees to be rescued, or impediments to the success of the mission. Or terrorists.

This can be seen throughout British children’s literature. In days when Britain thrived as a seafaring nation, primarily due to the slave trade, the hierarchy was obvious, with white sailors on deck and African slaves in the ship’s bowels. But even as slavery was abolished, children’s books continued to highlight the global inequality Britain had helped create through the presentation of racialized situations. Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge (Collins 1895), for example, has sailors rescuing two West Indians when their canoe gets in trouble. The illustrations, by WS Stacey, show an angry West Indian man, dressed in rags, preparing to smash an idol which was meant to bring him luck, while well-dressed sailors do nothing to alleviate his distress but stand around and look amused. Clearly, they would never be superstitious enough to believe in idols and “luck”, like West Indians, and so they would never end up in rags and rage on someone else’s ship.

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Britons rule the waves, while racialized others foolishly depend on superstition to keep them safe from the sea. WS Stacey’s illustration from Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge.

During the 1920s, Britain’s empire was at its largest, but was also beginning to face the rumblings of independence movements throughout the colonies. British children’s literature during this period was filled with children (and water-rats and moles) “messing about in boats”. As Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons children’s father says, “Better drowned than duffers.” The white British child was now in charge of ruling the waves, as this cover from the children’s magazine Fairyland Tales from 1925 indicates, and they, like the sailors in The Cruise of the Midge, find it amusing to leave the racialized other—in this instance a caricatured toy version of a racialized other, further indicating their position on top of the racial hierarchy—in a precarious position. Britain continued to enjoy its position of privilege without regard to how the rest of the world was affected by its assumption of control.

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The Non-Stop Boat of British racial imperialism carries on.

It might be argued that this is not, in fact, a racial issue; that Britain’s (idea of) control over the seas extended to other European countries and often America as well. But it is important to look at how white Britons are placed in comparison with not-white others in children’s literature to understand the way that the trope of British control over the seas becomes naturalized and normalized. In 1953, for example, Alice Berry-Hart published To School in the Spanish Main (Puffin), a WWII story about British children sent to the Caribbean to sit out the war. Rather than being portrayed as war refugees, welcomed in by Black Caribbean foster families (as so many evacuee stories set in England show white British families doing), the children are portrayed as being on an extended holiday, even when they have to deal with German spy ships. The Caribbean islanders are portrayed as incidental to the action. Britain still owns the Caribbean, and even as technical refugees they rule the waves.

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You don’t have to live like a refugee–at least not if you’re white. Richard Kennedy illustrated the cover.

Now that Britain is no longer a naval—or any other kind of—superpower, however, the rhetoric has shifted. The language of ships, as Darren Chetty points out, is still used to demonstrate white British need for control. But in children’s books now, the control is over the land and borders. White people can isolate racialized others on islands, as in Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything. The sea segregates “us” from “them”. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s The Lines We Cross (Scholastic 2017) is set in Australia, but demonstrates a similar rhetoric. White people (who first came to Australia by sea as British colonizers) “own” the land. The main white character, Michael Blainey, is the son of the founder of “Aussie Values” which tries to “Turn Back the Boats” (1) of refugees. “Australia has the right to protect its borders” (35), Michael comments, and, “There has to be a limit [to immigration] or we’ll be flooded” (71; there is no irony displayed in any of this rhetoric because “Aussies”–whites–are not immigrants and have a right to the land). Mina, a “boat person” refugee from Afghanistan, is not buying his attitude, and calls it racist: “Is it all immigration, or just Muslim immigration?” (170) she asks him. Michael argues that he’s not racist, and that “we don’t have a choice who we’re born to, or where” (219), but Mina counters, “You want me to make it easier for you to confront your privilege because God knows even antiracism has to be done to make the majority comfortable” (219).

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Although Michael and Mina eventually work through their personal differences, The Lines We Cross never resolves the larger societal issues, and one of the later images in the book returns to a nautical image to describe Mina’s family’s position in Australia: “It’s like we never left the boat. Ten years on and we’re still on deck, being rocked and swayed, coming closer to the rocks and then pulling back, smashing against the waves” (345). Racism continues to pervade society, but we would do well to remember that, as with Fellini’s film, we are all in the same boat—and if we let racism sink it, it will sink us all.

 

Taking a Red Pencil to the Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees

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Not wanted–Pinkney’s novel depicts a girl fleeing from conflict who only wants an education.

“Sec. 5.  Realignment of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Fiscal Year 2017.  (a)  The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.  During the 120-day period, the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.”

“Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States.  The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.”

“The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.  In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

–from the Executive Order on Immigration issued 27 January 2017 (full text of the order can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/31/512439121/trumps-executive-order-on-immigration-annotated).

There have been numerous lists published this week on blogs and on various social media sites about children’s literature dealing with migration and refugees. It is an issue of our times, as countries of the global south experience many of the after-effects of colonialism, racism, and global economic inequity and people leave their homeland both to escape war and violence and to seek a more economically-stable life. This past week that issue came into even sharper focus when the US president issued an executive order on immigration. The order has been referred to as a “Muslim ban” because the seven countries where visas have been halted are all predominantly Muslim countries, and the only exceptions made in the order are for “persecuted religious minorities” in these countries. There are many aspects of this that can be discussed, and I can’t discuss them all, so I just want to focus on one of the seven countries, and a children’s novel that offers red pencil correctives to some of the implications in that order.

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Devils on horsebacks: the Janjaweed who burn Amira’s village to the ground.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s and Shane Evans’s The Red Pencil (Hachette, 2014) is set in one of the seven countries whose nationals can neither immigrate nor even visit the US, Sudan. Sudan is not only primarily Muslim, it has been wracked by civil war, and more than 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. The executive order says that, in places like Sudan, people become more desperate to get to the US, and will use “any means necessary” to do so. But Pinkney’s novel paints a very different picture. Amira, the twelve-year-old main character, is only vaguely cognizant that a place like the US exists (she sees “pink people” with “teethy mouths/ speaking English” on a “flicker box” in the camp [Red Pencil 162]). She never mentions wanting to go there, even after she arrives in the armed-guarded displaced persons camp. She longs only for her lost home, destroyed by “torches/Flames hurled to the roofs./ Our livestock pen alight with fire” (112) when the Janjaweed militia raided and burned her village to the ground. Knowing she cannot return there, however, does not mean she thinks of getting to America by any means necessary. The only other place she thinks about going is school.

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Amira uses her pencil to tell the truth about becoming a refugee.

School for Amira has been a dream because girls are not encouraged to get an education in Sudan. She is not taught how to read or write until she has lost everything else and is in the refugee camp. When she is given a red pencil by a Sudan Relief worker, she does not know how to use it. She feels trapped by lined paper in the same way she feels trapped by the barbed wire fences surrounding the camp, but she learns how to ignore those lines and create something beautiful or something truthful. “the pencil’s music./ It plays on paper,/ shows me highs,/ lows,/ in-betweens” (210). Amira draws angry pictures of the “wicked helicopter . . . spitting big bullets” (208) and of the Janjaweed, “devils on horseback” (59), but she never speaks of revenge. For Amira, the Janjaweed are like the dust storms that ruin the crops, and how can you revenge yourself against nature? Amira’s only possible response is a creative one, and the red pencil she is given by an American organization allows her “soul’s bird [to] wake” (208) and, eventually, to fly.

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Will refugees be able to fly free in more than their imagination? “What else is possible? I am.”

But even if her soul’s bird yearned to fly to freedom in America, she could not do so. She is not someone who might “engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation”. She is a child, not a potential terrorist, who has never held a weapon and only wants to learn, and create. She is the victim of war, not the perpetrator. A month ago, a real girl like Amira still would not have been allowed to come to the US as a refugee, because she is still in Sudan and to be designated as a refugee by the UN you need to be relocated to an intermediate country. Less than one percent of the world’s refugees are ever resettled, because the process of resettlement has been made extremely arduous by countries wanting to protect their borders and put their nationals first.  Now, however, the executive order will prevent Sudanese from even that much hope, until and unless someone else’s red pencil strikes through the refugee ban. Fiction such as Pinkney and Evans’s The Red Pencil allows us to humanize an experience not one of us would choose.