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.