Tag Archives: Tanya Landman

“Slight” of Hand: Reading With, and not For, “Race” in Children’s Books

Apologies to those of you who regularly follow my blog; it has been a busy time for me, and indeed, this will be my last blog for a while as I concentrate on other concerns and projects.  But I wanted to conclude this phase of my blog by looking at something I rarely consider in these pages: the “non-issue” book in British children’s literature about people of colour.  In the 2017 Reflecting Realities report, the executive summary highlights the fact that many children’s books with characters of colour are not only about Blackness (or Asianness, or being a minority ethnic member of society in general), they are about the problem of being an ethnic minority in society (national society or global society):

“The fiction titles were categorised according to a set of agreed sub-categories intended to define subject matter. ‘Contemporary Realism’ was a category defined as books set in modern day landscapes/ contexts; these amounted to 91 titles, which accounted for 56% of the fiction submissions. This category therefore featured the highest percentage of BAME character presence. Only 1 of the children’s fiction titles submitted could be classified as comedy, conversely 10% of submitted books featured Social Justice themes. Almost a third of submissions classified as containing social justice issues focused on themes of war and conflict. This very much corresponds with the societal context of recent years and is important to acknowledge, explore and mirror in literature. That said this does however raise some important questions. Do those from minority backgrounds only have a platform when their suffering is being explored? And how does such disproportionate variation of representation skew perspectives of minority groups?” Reflecting Realities 2017 Report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children).

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The 2013 Vintage Classic edition of Arthur Ransome’s 1936 Carnegie Medal-winning Pigeon Post. One of the reasons that the medal matters is that Carnegie winners tend to stay in print for decades.

This is also an issue that has come up with regard to the CILIP Carnegie medal; if a book is not about a Serious Issue, then recently it has rarely been considered for nomination, let alone the award.  Alison Brumwell, chair of this year’s judging panel, commented about the books on the longlist, “The forty books selected by judges offer intimate insights into family life, superb world-building and thoughtful, incisive explorations of complex themes and issues” (https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2019_longlists_announced.html). This award preference for complexity of themes and issues can be found across children’s books—authors such as Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series (the first of which appeared in 2014), rarely appear in nominations, despite wide success with readers, diversity in characters, and a “literary” style (by which I mean, endpaper maps and literary allusions and a twist in the traditional tale-type) that the Carnegie judges have tended to favour.  It was not always thus; in fact, the first winner, Pigeon Post (1936), was one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; Lucy Pearson describes it as “deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history” (https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/pigeon-post/) but certainly not an “issue” book in the same way that Sarah Crossan’s One (the 2016 Carnegie winner) or Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (the 2015 Carnegie winner) are.  The emphasis on issue-based literature, mostly for older readers, and the preference for it from both publishers and award committees encourage authors of colour to write about “issues” in the hope of gaining literary success.

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Tanya Landman’s Carnegie-medal winner announces its Serious Issue on the front cover. Notably, the book is by a white author and set in America rather than Britain; to date no British author of colour has ever won the Carnegie.

Therefore, I want to focus the rest of this blog on two authors who have recently published books which might be considered “slight” by, not just award judges, but reviewers, teachers and librarians as well.  Malorie Blackman and Patrice Lawrence have both written “issue” books for older readers that the Carnegie medal process ignored anyway; Blackman’s 2001 Noughts and Crosses, often considered her most significant book; and Patrice Lawrence’s 2016 Orangeboy, which won the Waterstone’s prize, were not shortlisted.  Both of these books considered questions of racial identity and power structures, among other things.  But their recent books for the publisher Barrington Stoke are very different.  Blackman’s Ellie and the Cat (2019, illustrated by Matt Robertson, originally published in 1994 as Elaine, You’re a Brat by Orchard Books) concerns, according to the back cover list of themes, “Cats, Magic, Friendship”.  Lawrence’s Toad Attack! (2019, illustrated by Becka Moor) lists “Friendship, Toads, Tricks” as its themes.  These themes, combined with book covers that depict smiling children and animals drawn in cartoon-like fashion, indicate right away that these books are not going to deal with “serious” issues or be Carnegie-contenders.

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The plots of these books bear out the promise of the covers.  Ellie and the Cat is set in contemporary times, but it is a fairytale-like story with a wise woman (Ellie’s grandmother) who teaches “the rudest, most disagreeable child I have ever met” (12)—her granddaughter, Ellie—to behave through the use of a transformation, a quest, and the help of magical, talking animals.  Lawrence’s toads, on the other hand, do not talk, but they cause havoc for protagonists Leo and Rosa, who must discover both how to stop the hundreds of giant toads from destroying local gardens, and how to stop the destruction of the toads themselves by angry mobs.  Typical for Barrington Stoke books, these two are short (both resolve in under 75 pages), with relatively simple vocabulary and high readability.  The stories follow in the tradition of humorous, magical or hyperbolic books with mildly-delivered messages about good behavior or living in society, such as Gillian Cross’s Jason Banks and the Pumpkin of Doom (also Barrington Stoke, 2018) or even older stories by authors like Dorothy Edwards or Dick King-Smith.

The difference is that Blackman’s and Lawrence’s books have protagonists of colour.  Ellie and Leo are (at least partly—Leo has a white mother and grandfather) Black British heritage, and Rosa is British Asian.  But in many ways, that is the ONLY difference.  These books are not about “being” Black or Asian, and they certainly are not about the problem of being an ethnic minority.  It is not a new phenomenon to include British children of colour in stories such as these (Gillian Cross had a school series first published in the early 1980s that included Clipper, a Black British girl), but they have typically featured as parts of a gang, or sidekicks.  What Lawrence and Blackman do in these books is foreground the protagonists of colour, and the illustrators follow suit by keeping them prominent and central in the illustrations throughout.  Readers are not reading about the problem of being Black or Asian British, but they are reading about being Black or Asian British.  Lawrence and Blackman give readers the opportunity to see characters of colour in leading roles, part of humorous situations and allowed to problem-solve in a way that does not focus on identity.  These books may appear slight, but they perform an important role: they make being Black and Asian part of being British, in contrast with a publishing and awards industry that want to make them only Black British or only British Asian.  And this is a change, a sleight-of-hand if you will, which, over the long term, could have more impact than any individual medal-winning book.

To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part Two

This week’s blog continues the history of Black and BAME British YA literature.  1981, the year that starts the second half of the timeline, is significant for YA literature.  The end of what scholar Anthony DiGesare calls “the long 1970s”, a period when race was the focus for both Black and white Britons from Enoch Powell to future Guardian prize-winner Alex Wheatle, 1981 saw the Brixton Riots bring institutional racism into the spotlight for the first—but by no means the last—time.

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YA novelist Alex Wheatle was among the people who experienced the Brixton Riot of 1981.

1981: The Brixton riots erupt as a response to the perceived racist attitudes of police against the Black British community.  West Indian Children in our Schools, a government report authored by Anthony Rampton, calls for mainstream literature to better represent the increasingly diverse cultures of Britain.  The Rampton report was written in response to increasing tension between the Black and Asian British communities and law enforcement.

1982: The first of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books is held in Islington Town Hall, London, partly due to lack of outlets for BAME books for children.  New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture are major sponsors.

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The cover of one of the IRR’s histories of racism. The fourth book, The Fight Against Racism, shows pictures of the Brixton Riots.

1982: The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a series of informational books for older readers on racism, starting with The Roots of Racism.  The four books touch on issues of colonialism, slavery, white privilege, police brutality, protests and riots.

1983: Valerie Bloom’s first UK collection of poems, Touch Mi! Tell Mi! is published by Bogle L’Ouverture, aimed at a young adult audience.  Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea (Heinemann), about an Indian village, wins the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

1984: Geraldine Kaye’s Comfort Herself, about a young Black Briton who goes to live with her father in Ghana, wins the Other Award.  Grace Hallworth’s collection of ghost stories from the Caribbean, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out (Methuen) is published.

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Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah was recommended by the Youth Library Group for older readers in the year of the Handsworth riots.

1985: Brixton and Handsworth (in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city) again face clashes between police and Black British youth.  The Youth Libraries Group, in their newly revised list of Multiracial Books for the Classroom, recommend Pen Rhythm, “a lively collection by this well known poet” (100), Benjamin Zephaniah.

1986: 13-year-old Bangladeshi Briton Ahmed Iqbal Ullah is murdered by a classmate on the school playground in Manchester.  Ullah’s murder was racially motivated.

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Nichols’ poetry collection includes British Asian as well as Black British poets.

1988: Britain introduces a National Curriculum; many complain it does not address the needs of diverse Britain, but instead urges assimilation.  Blackie publishes Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’ collection from Black and Asian poets around the world, Black Poetry (the title was changed to Poetry Jump-Up in the paperback edition).

1993: 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence is killed by a gang of white British youths while he is waiting for a bus.  Lawrence did not know his attackers.  The murder was racially motivated. The official inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson Report (1999), would call for many changes, including revisions to the National Curriculum to include anti-racist and diverse teaching and reading materials.  Meiling Jin, a London-based writer of Guyanese Chinese descent, publishes Thieving Summer (Hamish Hamilton)

1997: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah publishes his collection for older readers, School’s Out: Poems Not for School (AK).

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Bali Rai has produced several titles for Barrington Stoke on high interest topics such as football for reluctant readers.

1998: Barrington Stoke, a publisher focused on reluctant and dyslexic children and YA readers, is founded.  They publish books for YA readers by many high-impact BAME authors, including Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, and Sita Brahmachari.

1999: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (http://www.racearchive.org.uk/) is set up in Manchester to honor the 13-year-old killed by his classmate; the trust would publish stories of young refugees and immigrants to Manchester, as well as illustrated biographies of BAME Britons created by young people.  Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel, Face (Bloomsbury), “a story of facial discrimination,” as he calls it, is published.

2000: Black British publisher Tamarind Press publishes the first in its Black Profiles (later renamed Black Stars) series by Verna Wilkins, biographies of living Black Britons of achievement, including author Malorie Blackman.  The Carnegie Medal goes to South African-born white British author Beverley Naidoo for her book about Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses led to a series of successful novels–and to her becoming the first Black British Children’s Laureate.

2001: Black British author Malorie Blackman’s novel, Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday), detailing an imagined England where Black Britons have all the power positions, is published.  The book would go on to win a number of book awards.

2003: Black British poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah refuses an OBE because of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery.

2004: Guyanese-born poet John Agard publishes Half-Caste (Hodder), a book of poems which encourages readers to “check out” their Black British history.

2009: Publisher Frances Lincoln teams up with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, to offer the Diverse Voices Award.  Poet John Agard’s revision of Dante, The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln), with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, appears and is nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie Medal.

2013: Malorie Blackman is appointed the first Black British Children’s Laureate. Pakistani-born Tariq Mehmood becomes the only non-white author to win the Diverse Voices Award, for his novel You’re Not Proper (Hope Road).  White British author Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury), about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

2014: Seven Stories and Frances Lincoln publish a list of “Diverse Voices: 50 of the Best” books for children and young adults (https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/diverse-voice-top-50).  The BBC and BookTrust collaborate to offer the first BBC Young Writers Award, for short stories by 14-18 year olds.

2015: The Carnegie Medal is awarded to white British author Tanya Landman for her book about post-Civil War African Americans, Buffalo Soldier.  Catherine Johnson’s novel of a poor, Black British woman masquerading as a princess in the early 19th century in order to survive, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, appears from Corgi; it would be shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in 2016.  A graphic novel version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by John Aggs, appears.

2016: White American author Robin Talley wins the first Amnesty CILIP Honour medal for her book about Civil Rights-era America, The Lies We Tell Ourselves.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom) becomes the first story about Black Britons written by a Black British author to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) is shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award; it would win the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the YA Bookseller’s prize in 2017.

2017: The UK’s Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories in Newcastle, hosts “Diverse Voices?” (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/diversevoices/),  a symposium designed to think about ways to better represent BAME voices in children’s books, archives, museums, prizes and publishing on November 24th.  If you are reading this at first publication, you’ll know that this event has not yet happened, but it’s something I’ve been involved with planning over the last year.  YA authors Alex Wheatle, Catherine Johnson, and Patrice Lawrence are among the invited guests (several other authors, including picture book and middle grade authors, are also participating), and author and publisher Verna Wilkins will also be discussing publishing for a BAME audience.  I’ll be getting ready for the symposium next week, but hope to have a blog or two following the event discussing some of the salient points.  Watch this space!

When It’s Safer to be Someone Else: BAME characters and “dressing-up”

The “revelations” this past week over Harvey Weinstein’s repeated assaults on women brought up some very troubling conversations about women.  Many of the news reports showed Weinstein with various actresses who have accused him of sexual assault; the actresses were often smiling and near enough to Weinstein for him to have his arm around them.  But as anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted by someone more powerful than them knows, smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy.  It means you are being someone else, trying to survive.  An article in the Independent this week (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/harvey-weinstein-sexual-harassment-mental-health-women-suffering-anxiety-a7996511.html) suggests that most women, once they hit puberty, have to learn psychological coping skills to deal with the gaze of powerful men—and even then may be labelled as anxious or depressed.  The reaction to the hashtag #MeToo (tweeted over half a million times as of Monday, according to CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/15/entertainment/me-too-twitter-alyssa-milano/index.html) shows that sexual assault—for men as well as for women—is all too prevalent in our society, and yet those assaulted feel so alone and so threatened that it is hard to speak up about it.  For many of us (yes, #MeToo), it is safer to smile if we want to survive.  It is safer to be someone else.

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In Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival, Nini gains power through the act of dressing up as an African queen.

This coping mechanism of being someone else has various translations in literature; in children’s books, it is often through the trope of dressing up.  Dressing up can simply allow a character to try out a different persona and see if it fits; but it is interesting to look at how BAME characters in books “dress up,” especially female characters.  Prior to puberty, dressing up is about becoming powerful.  Two very different notions of power can be seen in comparing Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978) with Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (Frances Lincoln, 1991).  In Lloyd’s book, the titular character is part of a carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume.  Her “fairy godmother” (really her friend dressed up in a fairy costume) comes along and gives her a piece of cloth in a pattern that could be intended as a Kente cloth (the royal cloth of the Akan people in Africa), wrapping it around her like an African ceremonial dress  and saying that Nini is now “pretty enough to be Queen of the Carnival” (n.p.) which Nini, in fact, then becomes.  In Hoffman’s story, on the other hand, Grace likes to dress up as story characters; “she always gave herself the most exciting part” (n.p.) according to Hoffman—which in most cases, happens to be the male part.  Lloyd invests power for his Black female character in the historical traditions of African civilizations; Hoffman invests it in male characters, and often those male characters as written by white male “classic” authors such as Kipling, Longfellow, and of course J. M. Barrie.  Guess which one of these two books has never been out of print since publication?  No wonder World Book Day costumes are fraught for BAME Britons.

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Grace in Mary Hoffman’s book feels powerful when she acts out stories of white and/or male heroes. Illustrations by Caroline Binch.

In YA books, dressing up changes from a focus on power to a focus on survival, particularly for BAME young women.  Two different approaches to dressing up can be seen in Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke, 2017) and Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Corgi, 2015).  In both books, the main female protagonist must escape those who have the power to destroy her happiness and security by becoming someone else.  Rosa, in Landman’s book, is light enough to “pass for white” because she is the daughter of her slave master.  Her master wants to keep Rosa enslaved, and destroy her family life and chances for happiness.  And as Rosa and Benjamin, another slave with whom she falls in love, knows, “White folks can do whatever the hell they pleased . . . And then they’d say it was your own damned fault” (3).  So Rosa dresses up in the most powerful costume she can think of: that of a rich, elderly, white man, with Benjamin as her slave, in order to escape to freedom.  A colleague who teaches slave narratives said that students often argue that passing for white is being a “traitor to your race”—but such attitudes are similar to those who say that women who accept contracts in Hollywood after being assaulted were “trading on sex”.  Survival in the face of overwhelmingly powerful enemies sometimes depends on pretending to be like the powerful.

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For BAME characters in YA novels, “dressing up” was not just fun and games.

Johnson’s book addresses sexual assault head-on, also in a historical novel, by opening her book with the main character’s rape. Mary Wilcox, alone and friendless, is raped by two farm boys even though she is dirty, weak, and “looked like a savage” (2).  Mary knew that rape happened to women “acting the coquette and suffering the consequences” (1) but when she is raped that night, she understands that it is not about women “asking for it” but about men exerting power.  And while she rejects that kind of power, she still knows that to survive, she would have to be somebody else: “an Amazon warrior woman who could turn on her attackers.  Better still, a fighting princess, a beautiful girl with a dagger at her waist and a quiver of magical arrows.  They would not dare touch her then” (4).  Mary does not become a warrior, but she does become a princess from an exotic land, the Lady Caraboo, who speaks no English but reflects back “only what your people wanted me to be” (193)—the beautiful, the strange—to a white family who takes her in.  In becoming someone else, she survives; but her disguise also allows her “to be something other than who I was; something fresh, something good, something capable of love and being loved” (194).  This heartbreaking statement—that Mary thinks she has to be someone else to be loved—rings true for many women who think that their broken self will never be good enough to be worthy of love.

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Becoming “what they want you to be” is another way to survive, as in Catherine Johnson’s novel. Cover photo by Bella Kotak.

Historical fiction is perhaps the easiest genre in which YA literature can represent the concept of becoming someone else for survival, but I want to end with one last example from fantastic fiction.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday, 2001) concerns a world where the power positions between Black people and White people are reversed from contemporary society.  But Blackman’s novel is less about race and more about power; both Crosses (Black people who hold most of the society’s power positions) and Noughts (White people who generally have to serve the Crosses) suffer from unequal power relations, but Noughts suffer far more.  Callum, the Nought protagonist, has a sister named Lynette, who was “beaten and left for dead because she was dating a Cross” (124).  Her way of coping with her powerlessness is through disguise: she tries to convince those around her that she is a Cross.  As a blonde, White girl, her disguise is only self-deception.  When forced to confront her despised whiteness, Lynette commits suicide, knowing she will never be able to cope with “a return to reality” (170).

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From Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s graphic novel version of Noughts and Crosses–Lynette’s “madness” is her only chance at survival.

Everyone, at every age, practices “dressing up” to be a little bit different from our ordinary selves sometimes.  But we need to be aware that dressing up can also be a way of hiding—or of surviving.  Literature for children can remind us that sometimes it is safer to be someone else in societies where powerful people get away with crimes against the powerless.