Tag Archives: Seven Stories

Letters for Lettie and Words for Shona: John Agard’s chapter books

It’s April, which means poetry month; but this year I thought I’d do something a little different with the blog, which is to look at poets who write in prose and vice versa.  I’ll start with someone known almost exclusively for his poetry.  When I think of John Agard, I picture him introducing the world to John Blanke, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the many unknown Black British people who have come face-to-face with white British curiosity, hostility or confusion.  His early poem, “Listen Mister Oxford Don” (1967) focuses on the English language in its many variations—from the “Oxford” version to patois.  Agard has, with Grace Nichols, produced collections of nursery rhymes that twist the “standard” English version with a Caribbean spin as well.  His attention to language makes Agard a great poet, even better when you can hear him speak it in his Guyanese lilt.

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Errol Lloyd’s illustrations for John Agard’s Letters for Lettie capture middle-class Georgetown, Guyana in the 1970s.

But Agard started out publishing in Britain with something quite different.  His first children’s book, published by Bodley Head in 1979, was a middle grade chapter book about an eight-year-old girl in Georgetown, Guyana, who loves writing letters and delivering the post.  Letters for Lettie takes the reader all around Georgetown, from Lettie’s home to school to a Christmas-time carnival.  “If a day passed without Lettie writing a letter, then something was wrong” (7), Agard writes.  The book is important because it gave readers—both those who had a home connection to Guyana and those who didn’t even know it existed—a sense of the modern Caribbean.  The illustrations by Errol Lloyd present a picture of middle-class Georgetown, with single-family homes and children riding bikes.  This may seem unimportant, except that the British Caribbean community in 1979 was often seen as connected with urban tower blocks and poverty, unable to succeed in the British education system, and Lloyd’s illustrations and Agard’s text remind readers that many Caribbean people came from educated backgrounds.  This is underscored in Letters for Lettie because the main character does not just write letters to people.  She has a poet’s mind, and writes letters to inanimate objects and even abstract concepts. Lettie writes a letter to blue and then one to green, calling the latter “the most beesybody colour I’ve ever seen” (56).  Agard’s book in many ways acts as a companion to Agard’s partner (and fellow poet) Grace Nichols’ early novel, Leslyn in London, which describes a young girl’s bewilderment upon arriving in cold, gray London after living her childhood in warm and colourful Georgetown.  Both Lettie and Leslyn are in love with words—Lettie writes letters and Leslyn compares language in Georgetown and London.  The manuscripts (in several versions!) of both these novels have just been added to the archived collections at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and I’m looking forward to examining their collections more closely.

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Writing, listening, capturing words and ideas are all part of being Shona, Word Detective in John Agard’s most recent chapter book (pictures by Michael Broad).

Almost thirty years after he published Letters for Lettie, Agard produced another book about a young girl in love with words, Shona, Word Detective (Barrington Stoke 2018).  Although Shona is of a similar age as Lettie, the book itself is aimed at a different kind of reader.  Agard’s Letters for Lettie has about 100 pages of dense (though not generally complicated) text, with carefully spaced, realistic illustrations; Shona, Word Detective is considerably shorter, about half as long, and with frequent, cartoon-like illustrations (by Michael Broad).  Shona, like all Barrington Stoke titles, is designed to be dyslexic-friendly, and to provide high interest reading for the young person who might otherwise be reluctant to pick up a book.  Despite this, however, Agard does not suggest that reluctance to read might equate to disinterest in literature.  The book centers on a girl who is in love with words—spoken and written.  In many ways, Shona has much in common with “Listen Mister Oxford Don,” as both poem and book examine words and language as flexible, changing, and not the purview of experts but of ordinary people.  Shona sees a news programme about dying languages and begins to think about what it means to keep language alive.  With the help of her teacher, Shona realizes that she can play a role in maintaining and growing a language.  She and her classmates, who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, bring items into school; the names of these things (and their pictures) are added to a Language Tree, a symbol of the living nature of language.  Many of the items that students bring in have names that bring to mind other meanings or other cultures.  For example, one student brings in a Maang Tikka and notes that most of the children might be thinking they were going to get something to eat because of the connection to Chicken Tikka Masala—but this Tikka is a jeweled headdress suitable for a wedding (38).  Another student brings in “the figure of a spiderman” (40), Anansi, the spider trickster.  Although the student who brought in the Anansi has Ghanaian relatives, Anansi is a trickster throughout the parts of the world affected by the transatlantic slave trade, and his name and character changes as he moves from place to place.  The flexibility of language is a key lesson of the book; without flexibility, the language dies just as readily as if the people who speak it die out.

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Shona’s class creates a “Language Tree” to show words that have roots in cultures belonging to the class–and to remind each other that language is a living thing.

Agard’s book also examines the science of language, though in a reasonably simple fashion.  A female scientist—the one that Shona saw on the news report that got her thinking about languages in the first place—has made it her mission to save dying languages, and one of the ways that she does this is through teaching parrots to learn the pronunciations of words.  Professor Crystal-Bloomer has made it her mission to locate and save dying languages.  She will do this scientifically when she can—but she also uses activism of varying kinds, staging protests and having a friend play a narrow-minded “expert” on television arguing that everyone should speak the same language (English) to highlight how dreary the world would be without language variation.  Agard subtly teaches children that not only are there multiple ways to describe a thing, there are multiple ways to stand up for something you believe in.  Agard’s Shona teaches children to care about words because words are powerful.

Although Agard is best known for his poetry, his novels for children embrace a similar sensibility to his poetic work: words matter.  And even if you are only armed “wit human breath” (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=listen+mr+oxford+don&view=detail&mid=16D8BC8D927AEBA9925116D8BC8D927AEBA99251&FORM=VIRE), as Agard says in “Listen Mr Oxford Don,” you can change the world with the words you choose and the stories you tell.

Love’s Bright Syllable: Speaking of Justice in BAME Literature

You who set free love’s bright syllable

from behind history’s iron door

that those who choose to take heed

may stride toward the sky

from “Voice” by John Agard

 

In the last post before Christmas, a package arrived for me from Newcastle.  It was a book of poems, The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King edited by Carolyn Forché and Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe 2017) that came along with a thank-you for my work on the “Diverse Voices? Curating a National History of Children’s Books” symposium in November.  Both the symposium and the poetry collection I received were part of Newcastle’s “Freedom City” project, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s visit to the city to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University just months before he was assassinated.

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The idea of commemorating such an event is a good one, especially with events and publications that speak not only about the past, but about the present and future.  The Mighty Stream includes poems that discuss King’s life, but also the life and death of Trayvon Martin.  Lauren Alleyne’s “Martin Luther King Jr Mourns Trayvon Martin” includes the lines, “For you, gone one, I dreamed/ justice—her scales tipped/ away from your extinction” (187).  Our “Diverse Voices?” symposium looked at the past, through archival work, but also pointed out the work that needed to continue—in publishing, in archiving, in prize-giving.  Both book and symposium also discussed the need for everyone—everyone—to use their own voice to call out injustice.  John Agard’s poem “Voice,” quoted at the beginning of this blog (and on page 47 of The Mighty Stream), is the optimistic and hopeful counterpart to Ifeoma Onyefulu’s comment at the symposium, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”  Calling out injustice is one piece of the puzzle, but unless (as Gandhi put it), “your words become your actions, your actions become your habits” then words are not enough.

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Brahmachari continues the Levenson family saga with a twelve-year-old girl finding her voice–and sharing it with the world.

One of the authors at the symposium in November, Sita Brahmachari, recently published a book that puts Gandhi’s ideas into practice.  Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) forms the latest book of her fictional Levenson family’s history, but it is also a story of justice born out of (often painful) experience.  Brahmachari’s earlier books, Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Jasmine Skies (Macmillan 2012) focused on the eldest Levenson girl, Mira, as she finds out who she is through art and travel.  Both these journeys of discovery involve Mira’s family in important ways; art is a gift of Mira’s Nana Josie, and Mira travels to India to stay with her mother’s side of the family and learn about her heritage.  Family also plays an important role in Tender Earth, about the youngest Levenson sister Laila, but Brahmachari’s novel expands the definition of family to include a wider group of people.  Indeed, the book begins with two trees—a traditional family tree, and Laila’s “Friend Tree”.  Her friend tree comes first, indicating its central role in the novel.

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Laila’s friend and family trees give her a place on this tender earth that is both local and global.

Friends are perhaps central to Laila because her family is breaking up, not in a negative way but in the normal course of things.  Her sister Mira is going to Glasgow to study art at university; her brother Krish has also departed, to the Lake District to live with Nana Kath.  Laila feels uncertain about her place in the family, as indicated by her new choice of “bedroom”—a couch on the liminal space of a stair landing, “a seat . . . like it’s a waiting room” (253) as one person comments.  At first, it seems old friendships are also breaking up.  Laila’s best friend Kez won’t come over anymore because she is in a wheelchair and Laila’s house is difficult for her to access—but Kez has also arranged to be placed in a different tutor group than Laila, a move that Laila sees as a betrayal. But being thrown onto her own resources necessitates Laila’s growth.  She makes a new friend, Pari, whose parents are Iraqi refugees, and meets her Nana Josie’s old friends Hope and Simon.  Simon gives Laila her deceased Nana’s “Protest Book” which lists a lifetime of social justice marches and activities.  These new friendships, a visit from Laila’s Indian cousin Janu, who is going around the world barefoot to raise money for his charity, and a sympathetic teacher’s gift of the biography of Malala Yousafzai, all work together to point out a direction for Laila.  She sees that what she’s been “waiting for” in her liminal space was a purpose, an identity.

Laila brings her new and old selves together by organizing her first protest.  When Laila’s friend Kez’s grandmother goes to visit the grave of her Kindertransport husband, it has been spray-painted with a swastika along with several other graves in the Jewish cemetery.  Laila witnesses the way the desecration of the graves devastates Kez’s family, and decides to mount a candlelight protest.  Her thought process is recorded by Brahmachari:

“Everything kaleidoscopes through my mind.  Those men’s faces on the tube, mocking Janu with their chanting, the hateful words in Pari’s lift, what her parents had to go through, Bubbe and Stan arriving as children, Grandad Kit marching on Cable Street against the fascism growing in the city, Bubbe’s tears at the refugee children on the news, at Stan’s grave . . . what if . . . what if no one can tell when they’re actually living in a time that’s losing its heart?  What if that’s why evil things happen?  No one says and does anything until it’s too late” (380).

Laila’s protest brings together all the people she has met because they all can say and do something to help make things better.  One of the things Brahmachari does so well as a writer is to draw characters as whole people; Pari’s mother may be a refugee living in poverty whose English is imperfect, but she too has a voice and can take action.  She not only comes to Laila’s protest, she knits Laila a warm hat.  Everyone, Brahmachari argues, has something tangible that they can give to a community—no matter how liminal they may seem.

So in the spirit of the coming new year, and in the hope posited by events such as the Women’s March last January (an event mentioned in Tender Earth) and the “Diverse Voices?” symposium, I am going to think about ways to use my voice in 2018—and put my words into actions until they become habits.  Maybe you can do the same, and love’s bright syllable will help us all stride skyward.

The Mirror Stage: Gift-Giving Ideas for All Babies

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Every baby deserves to be loved so much–Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury’s lively picture book.

“What better way to welcome a little one to the world than with a brilliant selection of books?” This sentiment, which began the Toppsta blog “Top 10 Books for a Baby’s Bookshelf” (https://toppsta.com/blog/view/top-10-books-for-baby-bookshelf 5th December 2017) is one with which I can heartily agree.  And the suggestions, which included books by Beatrix Potter, Eric Carle, Raymond Briggs and the Ahlbergs, are all books that found a place in my own and/or my child’s nursery.  But while these classic texts are enjoyable, there are other babies’ books that deserve to be on every shelf, and my daughter’s bookshelf also included books with people who looked like her.  Recently, when we welcomed a new baby cousin into the family, I decided to send only books with BAME main characters in them—knowing that someone else would buy A Very Hungry Caterpillar for the little one.

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Venus produced a series of board books for Firetree books with BAME children enjoying everyday activities.

My task proved to be harder than I had anticipated, especially with regard to that babyhood staple, board books.  Children need books that will comfort, and if you’ve ever had a teething baby, you know there’s no comfort like a book to chew on.  One of my favourite board books for this purpose, because it is both eatable and about eating at the same time, is Pamela Venus’s Let’s Feed the Ducks (Firetree 2016).  All of Venus’s board books for Firetree are lovely, but the cover illustration of this happy boy with his bag of duck food is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face—including your baby’s.

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My daughter had one that she loved to shreds: Carol Thompson’s Blankies celebrates babies’ comfort objects.

The illustrations in Venus’s books are realistic, and while I feel it is critical for small children to have accurate depictions of people who look like them, there is also a pleasure in more “cartoony” pictures—as evidenced by the success of authors like Allan and Janet Ahlberg.  There is something pleasing about the round shapes and simple features of the toddlers depicted in Carol Thompson’s Blankies (Child’s Play 2013), and the topic of comfort objects is one that appeals to most children.

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We love you, don’t eat the crayon–Grace Nichols offers admonition and admiration for a curious baby.

Unsurprisingly, babies like books about . . . babies.  Two of my favorites that combine lively, bouncy text with cheerful illustrations of families in love with their babies are Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury’s So Much (Walker 1994) and Grace Nichols and Eleanor Taylor’s No, Baby, No! (Bloomsbury 2011—my copy has a cd of Nichols reading the text as well).  Anna McQuinn’s Zeki Can Swim! (Alanna 2016) and Molly Bang’s Ten, Nine, Eight (HarperCollins 2003) speak to common experiences (swim class and bedtime) for babies and toddlers in simple text meant to be shared between parent and child.

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Counting to one, again and again, with this multiracial family.

Molly Bang’s book brings up another category every good baby library should include: early concept books, those that teach the alphabet, counting, colours and similar basic ideas.  Many of the good BAME alphabet books are designed for slightly older (4-6 years) readers—such as Valerie Bloom’s Fruits, a classic in its own right that introduces readers to ideas beyond “A is for Apple”, and Verna Wilkins’s ABC I Can Be, which discusses career options for all children.  For a similar age, I like Hena Khan and Mehrdokht Amini’s Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns (Chronicle 2015), which teaches colours and aspects of Muslim family life at the same time.  These are all good choices to stock a baby’s library, waiting for when they are ready for them; an early concept book suitable for babies and toddlers to enjoy is George Shannon and Blanca Gómez’s One Family (Farrar Strauss and Giroux 2015), a counting book that (without a huge fanfare) shows that everyone counts.

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Elizabeth Hammill compiled this nursery rhyme collection with the help of Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book.

Finally, I think that any good gift library for new families should include nursery rhymes, which introduce the youngest listeners to concepts of rhyme, rhythm, and sound.  Grace Hallworth and Caroline Binch’s Down by the River (Heinemann 1996) is a classic text including many rhymes familiar to all (parent) readers (such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away”) in an evocative Caribbean setting.  A less localized collection is Elizabeth Hammill’s collection of nursery rhymes, Over the Hills and Far Away (Frances Lincoln 2014) which has rhymes from around the world illustrated by a wide variety of illustrators.

These are just a few of the books available for the very youngest book audience showcasing children from BAME backgrounds.  I offer them not as replacements for Peter Rabbit or The Snowman, but as additions to ANY new baby’s library.  It is never to early to offer babies mirrors of themselves in books—nor to show them that other babies may look slightly different, but they all do baby things, make baby noises, and reach out for the love of their parents through the medium of books.