Tag Archives: Sarah Garland

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.

Mixed, Not Mixed Up: Mixed Race Families in British children’s and YA lit

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I did what a lot of pregnant literature professors do—look for enough books to fill a library for their future genius.  In my case, along with my own childhood favorites (Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances books, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Dr. Seuss, my favorite fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), I wanted to get books where the characters would look like my child.  But this was not so simple.  In addition to the fact that many picture books have animals rather than people as characters, most of the people characters are white. Those that aren’t are from a single, identifiable racial group.  My child would be mixed race.

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Tony Bradman and Eileen Browne’s books about Jo show a confident, happy, mixed race child–but on book covers, she is all alone.

I went searching anyway, and found a few—not many.  I commented on these in an article I wrote, “Why are People Different? Multiracial Families in Picture Books and the Dialogue of Difference” (Lion and the Unicorn 25.3, September 2001: 412-426), You can read the article yourself (it isn’t too tedious) but the Ladybird version of the article is that I was disappointed in most of the books I did find.  The picture books I looked at then emphasized “difference and a physical space between the racially different parents” (423).  During that same year, Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe wrote, in her essay “Re-Membering ‘Race’: On Gender, ‘Mixed Race’ and Family in the English-African Diaspora,” that it was important that young people had representations they could look to because “neither the exclusionary discourse of White Englishness nor the inclusive discourse of the Black English-African diaspora completely represents their everyday lived realities” (50).  Of course, no one book can carry the burden of completely accurately representing the lived realities of any actual human, and not all the books were all bad.  I was especially fond of Tony Bradman’s and Eileen Browne’s picture books about a little girl named Jo (Through My Window, In a Minute, Wait and See).  And none of us in my family are badgers, but we still enjoyed singing the little songs Russell Hoban’s Frances made up—so books that are not about “race” can still raise a sense of recognition in a reader.

But I did wonder (and worry) what my daughter would have to read as she got older, and books stopped having visual representation of mixed race families—especially as in many of the picture books, the visual representation is all the representation that existed, the text itself could have been about—well, about badgers.  Would my daughter see people who looked like her when books left the character’s description to the imagination?  Or would she see the “normal” (that is, white) hero or heroine as most readers, no matter what their racial background, do?  And would there be any mixed race families for her to read about?

It turns out that the generation who grew up at the same time as my daughter expected to find multiracial families in books, and to some extent have got them.  I think that a recent rise in the number of YA and tween books with multiracial families/biracial characters has been advanced by the brilliant crop of BAME British writers who have begun scooping up prizes right and left.  While white Britons (and Americans) may or may not know someone who is of mixed racial heritage, most BAME people know at least someone—if they aren’t part of a multiracial family themselves.  Things have changed in the decade and a half since I wrote my article.

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Both Brahmachari’s Artichoke Hearts and Lawrence’s Indigo Donut show the multiracial couples physically linked.

First, one of the things I discussed in my article was the fact that racially different people were often physically separated in illustrations, even when they had a textually-stated reason to be close (such as being married!).  Book covers are different from picture books, of course—YA authors do not (usually) have any say at all about who does their covers.  Nonetheless, I see the covers of books like Sita Brahmachari’s Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017) to be quite positive advances over the books available to my daughter as a child.  Mira, the Indian- and English-heritage protagonist of Artichoke Hearts, and Bailey, the Afro-Caribbean- and English-heritage main character of Indigo Donut, are not alone on their respective covers—as, for example, Jo is on the cover of all the Bradman and Browne books.  As befits books for the 11+ age group, both Mira and Bailey are depicted with their romantic interests.  But unlike the pictures of married couples in the picture books I reviewed in 2001, the young lovers on these covers are linked physically (as they are in the books).  If you think that this is unremarkable, consider that Sarah Garland’s lovely Billy and Belle (Reinhardt 1992) faced difficulties getting published because the parents, one Black and one white, were shown in bed together.  Garland was told that many countries would censor the book unless she removed the scene. (She didn’t, and it wasn’t published at the time in South Africa, among other places.)

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Garland’s Billy and Belle was controversial because the parents actually slept in the same bed–shock horror!

Second, and perhaps more important, the books being published now no longer emphasize the idea of difference in a negative way.  As with any real child of a biracial marriage, the fact of being “mixed” only comes up occasionally.  Mira’s brother has different colored eyes than her, and her writing teacher describes her as having a “dual history name” (7), but it isn’t something that comes up every day.  Even when Mira goes to India in the sequel, Jasmine Skies, the emphasis is on her learning about her Indian heritage, not about her being “mixed”.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom 2016) announces part of the main character’s mixed heritage in the opening sentence: “My mum told me I was named after her Scottish granddad, Danny McKay” (1); McKay and his brother are also named after famous people of African heritage, Medgar Evers and Robert Nesta Marley.  But both McKay and Mira are part of their neighborhoods and families, not individuals set apart and “different”.  It is true that Lawrence’s Bailey faces teasing over his ginger afro, but he has learned to deal with it.  Rather than keep it short, he grows his hair as big as it will grow, telling Indigo that to cut it would be “telling people like Saskia they’re right” (78) to tease him.  Difference is not a problem to be solved, but one of many aspects to be celebrated.  The young characters in recent books for children may be mixed—but they are far from being mixed up.

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Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights announces the multiracial heritage of McKay from the opening sentence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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