Tag Archives: Seven Stories

It Takes Allsorts, Maybe: Literary Annuals and Who Belongs

I’ve been back at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book, over the past few weeks doing some work with digital archiving and preparing for a symposium on diversity for November.  It’s impossible to be at Seven Stories without being distracted by the Aladdin’s Cave of material there, and while looking for something else I found myself in the collection of annuals donated by the children’s author and children’s literature critic, Victor Watson.  I love old annuals; the time capsule of binding up the “best” of a magazine’s year and the often-unlikely hodge-podge of comics, stories, puzzles and pictures fascinates both the historian and the philologist in me.  When faced with the hundreds of annuals donated by Watson, I knew I had to get out of the stacks quickly, before I disappeared for days in their pages and possibly got squished by the movable shelving when the Seven Stories staff forgot I was there (a fitting, but bitter end for a children’s literature academic).

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The first volume of Thwaite’s Allsorts, an annual supposedly filled with “real” writing. Cover by Jenny Williams.

So, seeing a small run of annuals at the very beginning of the very first shelf, I decided I would just look at those, and I took the seven volumes of Allsorts back to my desk. Allsorts, it turns out, was not your ordinary annual.  The editor was no Fleet Street hack but Ann Thwaite, the biographer of children’s authors A. A. Milne and Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Thwaite got the idea for the annuals when she was living in Libya and, according to the book jacket for the second volume, “found it difficult to obtain books for her children other than the annuals which she (and her children) found lacking in nourishment. ‘Why shouldn’t there be an annual containing some real writing?’ she argued” (back book jacket flap).

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Thwaite’s Annuals appeared about the same time as the Puffin Annuals, which also aimed at a middle-class white audience.

I have to confess I almost put them back right then.  Having spent a year researching publishers and editors, many of whom had somewhat rose-coloured ideas about children and the middle class lifestyle in which all those children apparently lived, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what Thwaite saw as “real” writing.  (I also wanted to interview her kids to see if they would REALLY agree with their jacket flap’s parenthetical reference to them.) It is interesting to compare these to the Puffin annuals, which came out about the same time; both have a decidedly middle-class audience in mind, and both are very clearly aimed at a white British audience.

As annuals, Allsorts are very wordy; there are a couple of comics in the first one (by David Hornsby—who is not listed as one of the “writers” in the back) but these have gone by Allsorts 3.  They include writers like Catherine Storr, Penelope Farmer and Joan Aiken.  They are pitched at 8-year-olds; I say this because there is a regular feature, “The Year I was Eight,” where authors write about their own experiences of being eight.  This is one of the few times that racial diversity is present in the annuals; in Allsorts 1, the very first of these is by Edward Lucie-Smith, the Jamaican-born poet who brought poets Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, and Roger McGough to prominence in The Liverpool Scene.  Lucie-Smith is white, but he describes Black Jamaicans: “The back yard and the back of the house were also the domain of the servants.  We weren’t very rich, but coloured servants were cheap and we had three living in: my nurse, a fat cook, and a thin parlour-maid” (19).  These servants are never given names, and are described right after the animals who live in Lucie-Smith’s house.  Similarly, after being sent to boarding school, Lucie-Smith writes that “On Sundays the roads around [the school] were full of country people going to church –black faces, and stiffly starched white or pink dresses amid the greenery” (23).  The Black Jamaicans become part of Lucie-Smith’s scenery, no different from the flora and fauna.  His story is followed by two more “The Year I was Eight” stories, one by Zulfikar Ghose, from Bombay, and one by Peter Porter, from Australia.  The rest of these stories in the other volumes are all by white and mostly English authors (including Penelope Farmer and Ann Thwaite herself).

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Sleeping with the enemy: Plucky British schoolgirls take being hijacked in their stride. Glenys Ambrus illustrated “Hijacked.”

The remaining volumes carry on in fairly similar fashion.  Number 2 (1969) has a story called “The Sounds of Cricket” by Zulfikar Ghose about cricket in Pakistan, and that’s about it.  Allsorts 4 has the most curious story, “Hijacked” written by 2 of the 31 children who were hijacked and held as hostages in Jordan by the PLO in 1970.  The illustrations, by Glenys (wife of Victor) Ambrus, are very scary—people in Arabic dress with guns standing over white children in school uniforms.  If this story had been published a hundred years earlier in Girls Own Paper, it likely would have involved the words “plucky British schoolgirls”—but then, Girls Own may or may not have been classified as “real writing.”

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C is for Cannibal with a bone through his hair in Allsorts 5.

Edward Lucie-Smith tells an Anansi story in play form in Allsorts 5, which although not written in patois (as the Black Jamaican poet Louise Bennett was already doing by this time) at least was not written in a white person’s IDEA of patois.  It seems like a progressive step, but this volume also has a puzzle picture, illustrated by Linda Birch, that includes a cannibal with a bone through his hair.

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There are slight changes to Allsorts by the time it gets to volume 7–including one Black British girl playing basketball, way in the back of the cover.

The cover to Allsorts 6 (1973) is the first to have any non-white children on it, and includes a story (with recipe!) called “Chitra Makes a Curry” written by Ursula Sharma and illustrated by Felicity Bartlett, and also “The Year I Was Seven: Stepmothers in Hong Kong” is by Man Wah Leung and illustrated by Sally Kindberg.  Allsorts 7 (1974), which also has a multiracial cover (the covers are all by Jenny Williams) has a story called “Tell Me Truth” by Janet Hitchman and illustrated by Alexy Pendle, which I think is about the expulsion of Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, but there’s no clear information, so, like the child-authored “Hijacked” in volume 4, the story comes across as some kind of vague refugee adventure in which the white British (of course) are the heroes: at one point, the main character’s father says, “it was no wonder the English had conquered the world: such suffering [of having a cold] made them all heroes without even trying!” (150).  This line, clearly meant to be taken ironically by the (white?) readers, nonetheless reinforces the ideas that A) England DID conquer the world and B) the people of the (formerly) colonized world see this as quite reasonable.   Allsorts may have been more “literary” than, say, the Enid Blyton annuals coming out at the time, but at the end of the day, these annuals continued to reproduce white privilege.  All sorts are allowed to be a part of children’s literature—as long as they are “our” sort of all sorts.

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The Wild Kind: Non-White People in Magazines for the Very Young

This week’s blog comes once again out of my work in the Seven Stories Archive in Newcastle. Their book collection includes a wide-ranging and invariably random (as it relies on donations) collection of children’s magazines, from the traditional Boys’ Own Annual and some missionary magazines from the 19th century, to Dandy and The Beano from the 20th century. Although I’ll undoubtedly go back to these magazines at a later point, I spent my research time paging through magazines for younger readers. This is a genre that, even in the mostly-ignored area of children’s magazine studies, is generally left unconsidered. I am guessing this is from a combination of two factors—one, generally magazines for young readers are considered to be too simple and/or bland to be of much research use; and two, unlike their counterparts for older readers, magazines for younger readers are generally colored, cut up for scraps, or torn out of use to the researcher. However, Seven Stories has managed to preserve some of these magazines (not all of them, mind you, without some coloring or missing pictures here and there) and I’m going to look at two British magazines, about forty years apart, designed for the 5-9 age range, Fairyland Tales from the 1920s and Pippin from the 1960s.

Fairyland Tales goes non-stop into the future--with Golly in the most precarious of positions . . .

Fairyland Tales goes non-stop into the future–with Golly in the most precarious of positions . . .

Fairyland Tales, despite its name, did not rely on fairy stories for its content; instead, it was a fairly standard (for the 1920s) mix of short stories, puzzles, poetry and regularly-featured comic strips. Most of the stories were domestic (magazines since the 19th century Chatterbox used stories based in the home, and less often school, for younger readers), but one of the stories, in the 21st February 1925 edition, takes children to colonial Africa. “Jungle Chums” has twins visiting their photographer father who “took pictures of the wild people of the jungle and sent them home” (the pictures, presumably, not the wild people) and the twins are very excited to see, as Bobby the boy twin puts it, “real negroes—the wild kind, I mean; not like the ones we saw at Mombasa dressed in white people’s clothes, and they’ve got great big spears.”

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“Jungle Chums” aligns ideologically with two of the regularly-featured comics in Fairyland Tales that also took children beyond the borders of the home, and indeed beyond the borders of the nation. “Jenny and Jimmy’s Jolly Adventures” detail the travails of two pith-helmeted white English children who are connected with a circus that travels the world. Circus life in and of itself allows the children to encounter the “Other”; their “trainer” (presumably for the animals, rather than Jenny and Jimmy) is an African or Afro-Caribbean named Rastus.

Jenny and Jimmy look on while Rastus and some "Arabs" do the heavy lifting.

Jenny and Jimmy look on while Rastus and some “Arabs” do the heavy lifting.

However, in addition to their own internal Other, Jenny and Jimmy’s travels take them all over the world. They must run from most of these encounters; Chinese sailors try to mutiny Jenny and Jimmy’s ship, and an enraged Sultan imprisons the children when they show the wrong film (the film they showed made fun of the Sultan). Ultimately, the world outside England is full of slightly mad people, but they make life for Jenny and Jimmy jolly, rather than dangerous. The other regular comic feature in Fairyland Tales is the ironically named “Sammy Snowball’s Funny Tricks”—ironic because Sammy Snowball is a black caricature, and also because there are few tricks and they are rarely funny. Given how the white authors treat Sammy Snowball, it is no wonder he complains, in one episode, of being turned a “beastly white”.

No mimic man: Sammy Snowball doesn't like his "beastly white face".

No mimic man: Sammy Snowball doesn’t like his “beastly white face”.

It is surprising, given the imperialistic attitudes of Fairyland Tales, to see how much had changed in just 40 years. Pippin, the other magazine for young readers that I examined, existed in an entirely different world from Fairyland Tales. For one thing, it was a magazine subtitled “the Coloured Picture Weekly for the Very Young Viewer” and published by TV publications limited. Many of the features (I couldn’t tell whether ALL of them) were based around television shows such as Camberwick Green and Trumpton. Like its earlier predecessor, Pippin is largely domestic in its setting, but British life had changed dramatically since the 1920s. An influx of migrants from the Caribbean after World War II had literally changed the face of the UK, and this is reflected in one of the features in Pippin, the serial story of a little boy called “Joe”, the first episode of which I found in the 3rd June 1967 Pippin. Joe’s parents run a truck-stop café, and one of their employees (seemingly their only employee) is a Black British teenager named Abel. Abel is pleasant, enjoys playing with and helping Joe when he’s not acting as grill cook, and drives a motorbike.

Never too busy to help: Joe and Abel have a friendly relationship.

Never too busy to help: Joe and Abel have a friendly relationship.

“Joe” is a generally lovely comic, especially given the dearth of British depictions of Black Britain in white-authored literature for small children at the time. But it is not entirely free from stereotypes either. Abel prefaces nearly every speech he makes with the exclamation, “Man,” as in, “Man, it’s hot.” Nobody else in the comic has a similar verbal tic, suggesting that it is an attempt by the author (who, by the way, is never listed) to mark Abel out as different. It’s not necessarily a bad difference, but it is noticeable. Worse, though, is the “Topsy” episode, where Joe’s mother comes in from a windy day outside with crazy-looking hair, and Joe compares her hair to that of his golliwog doll named Topsy while Abel looks on in the background.

Gone with the Wind: Even progressive comics can slip back into stereotype.

Gone with the Wind: Even progressive comics can slip back into stereotype.

Joe’s mother is “offended” by Joe’s comment, and ties a scarf around her head until she can get to the hairdresser’s. I guess that, even in the more progressive 1960s, white Britons didn’t want to be too closely associated with the “wild kind” of the Other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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