Tag Archives: Stella Mead

Lost by the System: The Orphanmakers of Children’s Literature

This week marked Independence Day in the US, but I want to focus this blog on the idea of unwanted independence.  Children’s literature—particularly children’s literature for white, middle-class Americans and Brits—has often been predicated on the (at least temporary) disappearance of parents in order that child protagonists might have an exciting adventure.  But for many real children, separation from parents is both economically and (more importantly) emotionally devastating—not the start of an exciting adventure, but the first step in a long and frightening road.  I highlight Principle 6 of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child:

“Principle 6  The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.”

This principle may seem obvious (or, given what is currently happening at the US-Mexico border, maybe not): young children should live with their parents when their parents are alive.  But children’s literature is littered with examples of how international institutional systems have separated children from their parents.  Many of these examples depict the separation as being for the child’s own good, but in fact it is usually the institution (or the state that sponsors it) that benefits.


Missionaries often deemed it best to separate children from the influence of their “heathen” parents.

Take for example the 19th century missionary school.  White writers depicted the missionary school as a place where colonized subjects could escape the tyrrany of their parents’ superstitions and be given the light of knowledge.  This knowledge generally, of course, led them to embrace the white-dominated society and reject their home society, as in this example from The Juvenile Missionary Magazine of 1854.  In a story entitled, “Woman in India,” the text argues that missionaries don’t even have to recruit children to their schools, as they are eager to leave their heathen parents behind:

“In April, 1847, five girls in the Mission-school of the Free Church at Madras determined to embrace the Gospel, and knowing that they would not be allowed to do this at home, they put themselves under the protection of the Missionaries.  One of them, called Muniatthal, was only twelve years old, but she was a very intelligent child.  On hearing her intention, her relations met together, and, taking with them a crowd of heathen, armed with stones, and clubs and bars of iron, they attacked the Mission-house until they were driven away by the police.” (8)

Note how the police are on the side of the state; the parents try to get their child back by using the courts, but the judge tells the parents that “Children have certain rights of their own; and throughout the length and breadth of this land, they will be protected in those rights which God and nature have given them” (9).  The British institutions of church and state collude to remove the child from her parents.


Eulalie’s drawing of happy lepers; Peter and Tess, the white children, appear friendly, but they keep their hands in their pockets.

While such blatant imperialism might be frowned upon in later years, the idea that the state could better care for children than their parents and that the child should be happy in such situations remains common in children’s literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth by Stella Mead, with illustrations by Eulalie, the white British children visit a leper colony where children are sent away from their families; while there the children are taught “English” (as opposed, I suppose, to patois) and they are all delighted to be there; an illustration shows Peter, Tess and a white doctor looking at five dark-skinned children who appear to be in a pen of some sort, but who are all smiling.  The text depicts the place as “restful and happy” (n.p.) but it is not clear if or when the children will be reunited with their families.  In Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft, the state is depicted as benevolently stepping in when Donovan’s parents give up on parenting Donovan; white people are obliged to take “trouble” over Donovan’s upbringing because (like the Indian heathens) his Jamaican parents are unwilling or incapable.


Children torn from their parents to learn the ways of the whites in When We Were Alone; they were only happy when they could escape to nature.

Authors of color depict the separation of children from their parents by the state quite differently.  David Alexander Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree nation, showed how devastating being taken from your parents to be schooled by the colonizer can be in When We Were Alone (Highwater, 2016).  In this book, illustrated by Julie Flett, a grandmother describes to her grandchild how she was taken away because white people “wanted us to be like everyone else” (n.p.).


Julia Gukova’s illustrations for Richardo Keens-Douglas’s Freedom Child of the Sea; slavery separated children from mothers even at the moment of birth, as this illustration shows. Other enslaved people can only look on helplessly.

Richardo Keens-Douglas reminds readers of the horrors of slavery in Freedom Child of the Sea (Annick 1996): “mothers were separated from their sons, fathers from daughters, brothers from sisters.  The wind that first day blew with a roar that had never been heard before in the beautiful land.  It carried the sounds of fear, pain, tears and broken hearts out to sea” (n.p.).


This is what separation of mothers and children looks like in Alex Godard’s Mama Across the Sea.

And Alex Godard’s beautiful illustrations for Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt 1998) is a reminder of the economic separation that many children face from their parents who have to leave their homes to make enough money to survive—often seeking jobs in the country that formerly colonized them.  All of these books indicate the ways that colonization and imperialism have affected people of color around the world.  Institutions tear children away from their parents, causing them lasting emotional pain and not necessarily improving their physical or economic well-being in the process.


Families belong together.  Children should not be lost in institutional systems—nor lost by them.  The UN knew this nearly sixty years ago, and it would do us good to remember it now.


Empire, Dreams, Dashed: Iran, the UK, and children’s books

Two news stories caught my eye this week: first, the YouGov poll that proclaimed love and nostalgia for the British Empire is alive and well; and second, the news that the publisher Tiny Owl (tinyowl.co.uk) had their Iranian illustrator, Ehsan Abdollahi, rejected for a visa to come to the Edinburgh Festival.  On the face of it, these stories seem totally unrelated.  After all, Iran was never a part of the vast British Empire, although many of its neighbors, including Iraq, were.

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Abdollahi’s response to his visa’s rejection (tinyowl.co.uk).

But Iran’s escape from domination by the British Empire was not for want of trying on the part of the British, who saw control over Iran as a way “to defend her imperialist interests in India and the Persian Gulf” according to Younes Parsa Benab (http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/origin_development_imperialist_contention_iran1.php)particularly against the threat of the other regional superpower, Russia.  By the late Victorian period, the British had established control over the construction of infrastructure (including the railroads), mining, and banking; and by 1901, Britain had been granted the right throughout most of Iran to search for stocks of petroleum.  In many ways, then, the British did in Iran what they did in countries officially within the empire; the description of Iraq from The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth (Amex, 1944), written by Stella Mead and illustrated by Eulalie, could just as easily have been written about Iran, with a few of the dates and place-names changed.  Peter and Tess’s father note that, “the British were in charge until 1932 . . . A friend of mine was here, helping to build the famous Rowanduz Road that pierces the mountain barrier of Kurdistan, a simply marvellous bit of engineering” (n.p.).  When Tess asks what the country produces “besides all the dates” they have been eating, her father tells her, “I see you’ve marked Mosul up there in the North.  That’s the oilfields district” (n.p.).


Stella Mead’s text from Peter and Tess contrast British efficiency and modernization of the Middle East favorably with Eulalie’s illustration of traditional society.

Iran, like Iraq, received “marvellous engineering” in return for control over industry, banking, and precious resources.  I had an Indian friend once who told me that the British were great because “they built the railways” throughout India and, indeed, the world; he seemed untroubled by the cultural, economic and political chaos that the British left in their wake when retreating from their colonial responsibilities.  In a very similar fashion, the YouGov poll that appeared this week argued that although “Economically, the British Empire invested in infrastructure, established trading routes and installed institutions . . . it also extracted resources, oversaw famines and in some cases left behind instability. Though many (36%) are unsure, British people do tend to think that, overall, former British colonies are now better off for having been part of the empire, by 49-15%” (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire/)

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Move to the back . . . this British war poster cements the idea of preferred nations.

The YouGov poll is also significant for what it says about British ideas of the empire.  “The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this year are the latest reminder of the British Empire, and of a determination to present its legacy as constructive. YouGov also asked which countries British people would especially like to do well at the events, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada being most favoured” (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire/).  Even Kipling, in his School History of England written with CRL Fletcher in 1911, agreed that it was best to stick with these whiter colonies.  “In Canada, we had really little difficulty in making good friends with our new French subjects . . . In Australia we had nothing but a few miserable blacks, who could hardly use even bows and arrows in fight.  In New Zealand we had a more warlike race, the Maoris . . . to deal with” (238-239) but once these minor problems were accomplished, Canada, Australia and New Zealand became England’s most “important” colonies.

Which brings me back to Tiny Owl and Iran.  In 2008, the UK government abolished the Artist, Writer and Composer visa in favor of an Australian-style points system in which writers—whose income is typically irregular—have to prove they have a regular income and strong ties to their home nation.  This year is the third year that Tiny Owl author/illustrators have been denied visas; in addition to Abdollahi, Marjan Vafaian (in 2016) and Ali Seidabadi (in 2015).  Other publishers and organizers of book festivals have had similar problems when their authors or illustrators come from places such as the Middle East or Africa, according to Heloise Wood’s article in the Bookseller, “Outrage after children’s author denied visa” (19 July 2017).  Individual Home Office decisions may be perfectly legitimate, but the pattern of denials does suggest that certain areas of the world are deemed less desirable.


This book, illustrated by banned illustrator Abdollahi, posits that “colouring in the world” can make it a kinder place.

And this is a real shame, because the Iranian illustrators from Tiny Owl offer British children art that is totally different from artistic styles found in British picture books.  The swoopy arms and big dresses (yes, these ARE the technical terms used by artists) of the characters connect them with children’s own drawings, but are at the same time highly stylized and graphically distinct in their patterned backgrounds and color pallet.


Illustrator Ali Seidabadi was denied a visa in 2015.

Iranian illustrators, if they were able to talk about their work in the UK, could have useful dialogue with British illustrators, people such as the current Children’s Laureate Lauren Child (whose drawings also have a childlike quality), and the cross-cultural interaction could only improve the overall picture of British illustration.

Illustrator Marjan Vafaian was denied a visa in 2016.

I think back to how Eastern European influence after World War I, through artists like Miska Petersham and Willy Pogany, influenced picture book trends in America.  Had American officials been suspicious of artists coming from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, picture books in the period might not have enjoyed the golden age that they did.  Pogany and Petersham settled in the US, while the Iranian illustrators are only asking for a chance to visit and discuss their works.  For Britain to only allow authors and illustrators from certain countries access to visas, they impoverish their own authors and illustrators—not to mention the children who need to read beyond their own borders, and see the world through others’ eyes.