Tag Archives: stereotypes

Into the Wild, Into the World: David Almond’s Island

British author David Almond has spent his career writing books for children and young adults that explore the idea of wildness.  Sometimes it is the wildness outside the main character, such as in the much-lauded 1998 novel Skellig.  Sometimes it is the wilderness and the ancient myths called forth by landscape, as in the 2014 A Song for Ella Grey which retells Orpheus and Eurydice along the Bamburgh dunes.  Sometimes it is the wildness within a character, as in the 2008 graphic novel, created with illustrator Dave McKean, The Savage.  The idea of the wild and untamed is, Almond’s novels suggest, a part of all of us as well as all that surrounds us; understanding it can give us insight into our pain and accepting it can often help us heal what is broken.

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Almond’s books connect young people with an ancient wildness, inside and outside of themselves.

Knowing about Almond’s focus on the wild is important for understanding his recent novella, Island (Hodder, 2017).  Island was a £1 World Book Day selection in the UK, meaning that the book is sold for a single pound, until it is out of print, and school children in the UK can use their National Book Token to get it for free.  World Book Day is connected with UNESCO; however, the British celebration is not a government initiative but a charity, and therefore reliant on the generous support of authors and publishers who are willing to participate (you can read more about it here: http://www.worldbookday.com/about/).  The books this year, like the shortlisted books for the Carnegie Medal, were all written by white authors, something I (and others—see http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/childrens-literature/world-book-day-2017-selections-criticism/13835 for a summary) complained about (in this particular moment, when there are so many great writers of colour in the UK, it seemed absurd that not one was asked to write for this celebration).  I doubt it had anything to do with me, but I do want to point out that since the announcement of the selections and resulting criticism, the World Book Day website has highlighted several books with diverse authors and characters.

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Almond’s Island was a 2017 World Book Day selection.

However, the lack of diversity in authors made me even keener to read Almond’s selection.  In addition to admiring Almond’s dreamlike prose, and having had my own personal pilgrimage to the book’s setting of Lindisfarne (Northumbria’s Holy Island), I was curious to see how Almond would develop the character of Hassan, a boy from Syria.  His initial appearance in the novella comes as white British Louise, through whom the novel is focalized, is traveling with her father to Lindisfarne, an island only reachable by a causeway in low tide.  Louise and her father travel to the Holy Island every year to remember Louise’s mother, now dead, and the happy times they had as a family there.  The island, therefore, is both wild and familiar to Louise, and—as with the wild in Almond’s other books—represents a place where she can connect with her past and heal her pain in the beauty of nature.  “We’ve been coming here every year, ever since Mum died.  It’s a holiday that’s also a pilgrimage, a journey into the beautiful past” (6), Louise says.

The boy they pass on the causeway seems to be an intrusion into this beautiful past; Louise’s father instantly labels the boy an outsider (“doesn’t look like he comes from here, does he?” he says on page eight) and refuses to offer him a ride or any other assistance.  Strangers, for Louise’s father, are dangerous.  He tells her, “The world’s going through some very dark days.  You’ve got to be careful” (10).  Louise has a more sympathetic view of the boy, but she nonetheless also describes him in terms of otherness; she writes in her journal that “He comes from nothing, from nowhere” and “He seems to be walking from a dream . . . I think he might be very beautiful” (16).  Beauty is not entirely redeeming for Louise, because she concludes her journal entry by saying, “I think he might be terrifying” (17).  It is no coincidence that both Louise and her father connect the boy with terror, since it turns out that the boy—Hassan—is from Syria.  Almond constantly exposes the orientalist ideas that white British people have about Syrians; Hassan even exploits these ideas by performing magic tricks for tourists’ money.  Hassan tells them that in Syria, “I perform, with the snake charmers and the acrobats and the singers and the storytellers” (73); Almond says that the tourists are “entranced by him . . . they want to be entranced by him” (73).  This is the acceptable version of the mysterious East, but more troublesome versions of the stereotype—the terrorist and the refugee—are also lurking.  Hassan asks Louise if she thinks of him as a refugee and the question “embarrasses” her because she “doesn’t know” the answer (59).  Hassan questions Louise’s father’s new girlfriend directly as well: “Do you think I am one of those people? Because of Syria and my skin.  That I was in London with my knife? That I am a terrorist come to Lindisfarne with dreams of slaughter?” (85-86).  Almond’s island is a microcosm of white British (and American—Louise’s father’s girlfriend is from Missouri) attitudes toward Syrians and Middle Easterners

But Almond also shows us—literally—a different picture.  Two different pictures, in fact.  One is Louise’s childhood drawing, still preserved, in the upside-down boat which has been turned into a shed that comes with the cottage they return to every year.  Louise looks for the drawing upon her arrival, “the pencil drawing I made when I was four, the three of us in an upside-down boat surrounded by moons and stars . . . Dad calls it my cave painting, created in a distant past, at the very birth of the world” (18).  This “cave painting,” connecting Louise with wildness, contrasts with Hassan’s very modern picture—a photograph that he shows her, evidence that Syrians too are connected with Lindisfarne.  The photographer, Hassan’s father, took the picture of Louise and her parents years ago.  Hassan’s pilgrimage is to a place that he, like Louise, belongs to, its wild and civilized parts, its modern and its ancient.  In typical poetic fashion, Almond breaks down stereotypes and connects humanity through the timelessness of nature.  At the end of the book Louise kisses Hassan, at the same time imagining, not just herself in the upside-down boat, but “all of us . . . all the living and the dead, all carried upside down through the astounding stars” (119).  Island is a hopeful small book that takes readers into the wild—and into the diverse and astounding world.

From the Street to the Garden: Nature and Black Britons in Children’s Literature

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In my book, Soon Come Home to This Island (Routledge, 2007) I suggested that it was unfortunate that Black British characters were nearly always shown in urban settings. A reader commented to me that the stereotype of the urban Black Briton was a stereotype because it was true; in other words, it was the reality for Black British children that they were growing up in urban settings, so why would authors depict them any differently? I was reminded of this statement recently when reading the text of a talk by a well-known (white) British author, written in the early 1980s, who said that Britain wasn’t a multi-racial society but a white society with a few pockets of multi-racial communities. This author’s argument (I won’t mention the author’s name because the talks were never published) was that most authors who grew up outside of London, Birmingham, or Liverpool would never have met a Black person, and so wouldn’t be able to write about them. (And shouldn’t have to write about them just to prove they weren’t racist.) The stereotype of a predominantly White Britain—especially outside the cities—was a stereotype because it was true.

But my argument in Soon Come Home was not about population statistics; most Black Britons do live in urban areas, even now. But so do most White Britons. And yet, authors and critics do not argue that children’s books about white kids in Britain should be set in the city; “white” is the norm in the city, the country, at the seaside, at the village fête, on platform 9 ¾, and so nowhere that they might be depicted seems odd or unusual. Even if you take the standpoint that the percentage of BME people living in rural Britain (or seaside Britain, or village fête Britain—and don’t even think about Black people on platform 9 ¾ if the “Black Hermione” backlash is anything to go by) is very low, children’s literature has never sold itself as an exact representation of life as we know it. Rather, it is, or can be, a literature of possibilities. And it is good for kids—Black, White, rural, urban, everything in-between—to see worlds that reflect their own, AND worlds that they might imagine themselves inhabiting.

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To that end, here are a few books that emphasize Black British interaction with the (specifically British) natural world. I’ve chosen these works because the Black British characters are not in the background, but central; and because the works represent a variety of natural settings in Britain. The first, and most recent, is also the least “natural” in one sense; but given the history of British children’s literature set in or featuring gardens (Secret Garden, Child’s Garden of Verses, Tom’s Midnight Garden), it seems fitting to begin in a book about gardening, Mandy Ross’s Dominic Grows Sweetcorn (Frances Lincoln, 2013), with pictures by Alison Bartlett. Although the endpapers of the book suggest the terraced houses that make up many British urban areas, the actual story could be nearly anywhere in Britain. Dominic grows sweetcorn with his grandfather in a garden that, at times, seems to go on forever—although it is made clear that they have neighbors when they are invited to join the feast. There are actually many books now that depict Black and BME kids gardening, but the reason this one is significant is that it is not a random non-white child in the garden. Dominic is there because of his family’s history; the reader discovers that Dominic’s family has grown food for generations, and he and his grandfather are proud of their garden.

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Carty’s book seems to promise a stereotypical Caribbean beach setting.

Black child characters—particularly Afro-Caribbeans—are often depicted on beaches in children’s books, and Lenox Carty’s Making Time to Chat a Rhyme (Bogle L’Ouverture, 2003) seems to promise, from its cover illustration by Maggie Nightingale, a stereotypical view. However, Carty’s poems are not about Caribbean subjects, but Black Britons, as is made clear by his references (to conkers, for example) and by the illustrations. The poem “Summer Days” shows a holiday at the beach—not a Caribbean beach, but a British seaside complete with amusement ride-covered pier. The book’s last poem, “Sun Set”, shows a boy watching fireflies under a tree that looks far more European than Caribbean. The characters in Making Time to Chat a Rhyme are all very comfortable in the natural world around them—the English natural world.

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But the beach in question is actually a typical British seaside. Illustration by Maggie Nightingale.

The last work I’ll mention is a short story in Dorothy Edwards’s Read-me-another-story Book (Methuen, 1976; later published in paperback form as Story Time One, also by Methen). Edwards, who is best-known (especially in my household) for her Naughty Little Sister stories, also worked as a short story editor on several collections. The collections are notable for being inclusive at a time when many short-story collections weren’t; not only do the covers show all kinds of kids listening to the stories, Edwards went out of her way to include a variety of authors and stories. She published several stories by the Surinamese-born, Guyanese and British author Petronella Breinburg throughout her collections. I’m just going to focus on one of these, called “The Thing with Spikes.” It begins in a way that is quite revolutionary for a story about Black Britons in 1976: “It was Sunday. David and Claudette were going through the woods with Dad” (78).

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Babes in the woods: Black children learn about nature from their father in Breinburg’s “The Thing With Spikes.” Illustration by Jenny Williams.

Not only do they go through the woods, they often go through the woods, and while there, they look and listen for animals and wildflowers and other natural items. The titular Thing with Spikes turns out to be a hedgehog, and though the text indicates that the children are initially frightened by it, they are curious too, and want to understand more about it. Their Dad is able to answer their questions, indicating that he—like the children—is comfortable in and knowledgeable about nature. The story is not the best one Breinburg ever wrote, but it is radical for its time. It gives non-white Britons space in nature that is normal and ordinary. It takes Black Britons from the street to the garden.