Tag Archives: Topliners

May Day: Intersections between BAME Children’s Lit and Workers’ Parties

Today is International Workers’ Day in many countries across the world. It’s a holiday based on an American incident (the Haymarket Riot in 1886), although American celebrate their workers in September, and it’s always been promoted most by the political left: communists, socialists, and even anarchists have frequently staged marches (particularly across Europe) to promote workers’ rights. In the UK, May Day has been given a bank holiday (“early May Bank Holiday” on the first Monday of the month) since 1978. The timing was not accidental; whereas traditionally, May Day had been a festival of spring in the UK, the link with workers’ movements increased after WWII, and became particularly pronounced in Britain with the rise in strikes—especially miners’ strikes—in the early 1970s.


In Leila Berg’s Fish and Chips for supper, the working class Dad has to worry about putting dinner on the table–but he doesn’t go on strike. Pictures by Richard Rose.

Mainstream children’s literature in the 1970s was still fairly middle class, although the occasional critic—Bob Dixon, Robert Leeson, Aidan Chambers for example—pointed out the missing working-class child in children’s literature. Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series for Macmillan and Aidan Chambers Topliners (also for Macmillan) are two of the series connected with mainstream publishers that tried to address this lack. But although the kids in Berg’s Nippers might have had Fish and Chips for Supper and some of the parents in Chambers’ Topliners were on the dole, these books generally did not depict a radical working class. More often, and in most cases deliberately, the working class families in these books saw Britain’s inequalities as the way things were. Racism (in both Nippers and Topliners) was confronted, but poverty, not so much.


Brief mentions of Claudia Jones can be found in works for children, such as on Tayo Fatunla’s poster, Our Roots: Celebrating Black History, but full-length discussions of her feminism, anti-racism and community organization are rare.

It was left to independent publishers to not only talk about economic inequality, but highlight the links between race and class. By this I do not mean “if you are Black, then you are automatically poor,” but “people should fight all inequalities in society, because any inequality hurts us all.” This focus on multiple inequalities was something that BAME community leaders had always embraced. Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones, for example, edited the West Indian Gazette, a Black British newspaper, in Brixton; she once said that the Gazette’s “editorial stand is for a united, independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, and for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples” (interestingly, she wrote about this for Freedomways, an African-American journal, in 1964). Jones would later go on to found the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of West Indian culture in Britain. Despite Jones’s history of activism and community organization, her life is rarely celebrated in children’s history or biography texts.


The photograph on the cover of Chris Searle’s All Our Words underscores the notion that ALL British kids matter.

But independent publishers did produce literature that celebrated a tradition of organizing for both workers’ and BAME people’s rights. Most notably, Young World Books (the children’s book division of the communist Liberation Press) highlighted the ways that workers and BAME people could—and did—work together in Britain and elsewhere. Chris Searle’s All Our Words (1986) begins with the line, “It is the ordinary people of this country that make our language” (1). Searle goes on to write essays about ordinary people, including miners, skinheads, Bengalis, Afro-Caribbeans, and East End Jews, using the writing of London schoolchildren who embrace “all our words” and all of London/England. The book includes poetry, short stories and plays written by British schoolchildren from many different backgrounds, as shown through the front cover. Searle emphasizes the ways that communities in Britain can unite and help each other; during the miners’ strike in 1984, “the harassed black communities in Britain reach[ed] out to the striking miners” (104) with money and support. British people should not allow those in power to divide and rule, but should band together in common cause.


In Maggie Chetty’s Ring Around the Carnival, white and Pakistani Scottish people work together to fight racism

This message of communities helping each other was further reinforced by another Young World publication the following year, Ring Around the Carnival (1987) by Maggie Chetty and with illustrations by David Lockett. Ring Around the Carnival is the story of a Scottish mining community of both white and Pakistani British people who work together to foil a plot by the British White Power movement. The story is more than occasionally didactic; accepting a white miner’s lamp as a reward for her hard work at the end of the book, the main character comments, “I’m very pleased that we stopped the fascists . . . Raj has told me many times that we can do great things if we unite and work together” (72). But the message is not much different than that found in other children’s books—cooperation is a good thing—even if it has a decidedly political point of view.

Further evidence of attempts to unite different groups of people in protest can be found in the fact that Chris Searle dedicated his book to Blair Peach, the white British teacher and anti-racist protestor who was killed during a rally, probably by police (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/apr/27/blair-peach-killed-police-met-report). Peach was part of the many multi-racial anti-fascist organizations that proliferated in the 1970s in response to the National Front and police oppression. Organizations such as Rock Against Racism brought together white skinheads and punks with dreadlocked Black British Rastafarians. Today these kind of alliances are once again visible throughout the world, as people of all communities react to a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, a lack of concern for BAME people’s rights, and fears about restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and a disregard for truth and science. These concerns need to be represented in today’s children’s literature—and child readers today need to read about the history of community organization. I would love to see Cathhistorical novelist par extraordinaire, write about a character who—as she herself did—participated in Rock Against Racism. Or see Verna Wilkins write a biography of Claudia Jones that includes her feminism as well as her anti-racism and community organization. Injustice to some people is an injustice to all, and on May Day we should think about how to teach our children this.


Educating Britain: Race and the Comprehensive School in Children’s Literature and Media


Will the kids like what you’re serving up, George?


How do you thank someone who has taken you from comprehensives to the streets? It isn’t easy, but I’ll try . . .

This week, George Osborne announced that by 2020, all British schools would have to become academies. In his speech, he framed this decision as one that would primarily benefit disadvantaged students: “Providing schooling is the single most important thing we can do to help children from a disadvantaged background to succeed” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35815023). Moving schools from local control to academy status, he said, would “set them free” from bureaucracy (including, perhaps, the government’s own “bureaucracy” of the National Curriculum, which academies are not compelled to follow). Although most of the media focus has been on the ability of academies to deliver for all children what they have delivered for a few (and indeed, on whether they HAVE delivered for those few), I want to take a look at the claim that this new plan would help the disadvantaged youth, and compare it to a similar battle nearly fifty years ago over the comprehensive school.

Comprehensive schools were first introduced after World War II in the UK as a way to provide a general liberal arts education to students who were not necessarily going to continue on to university. The original design of the system was that students would take an exam at the age of 11 (the “eleven plus” exam) and based on the results of the exam would be sent either to a grammar school (basically a preparation for university), a technical/vocational school, or a comprehensive. In reality, the technical/vocational schools never really developed, and most students attended either a grammar or a comprehensive, based on their exam results. The system was purposely inequitable, but the government argued that it was fair and provided students with the education that they needed for the life that they would live. But by 1962, the Newsom Report argued that the 11+ was biased, particularly against “disadvantaged” students (who included New Commonwealth immigrants and white working-class students)—and the bias extended to school buildings as well as to the content of the education. The much-larger comprehensives were housed in crumbling, sometimes bomb-damaged buildings, with few resources. But the general sense was that the comprehensive, not the grammar school, was the model for the future and the Labour government, which took over in 1964, ran on a promise to “get rid of the segregation of children into separate schools caused by 11-plus selection: secondary education will be reorganised on comprehensive lines” (http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter06.html). Circular 10/65 proposed that all secondary schools should become comprehensives. Although the change was never mandated, most secondary schools in England are, in fact, comprehensives.

But the change did not bring about the hoped-for equality between students, especially for non-white students, and the late 1960s and early 1970s produced not only a flowering of comprehensives, but also an increase in children’s literature that pointed out the problems of the comprehensive school for the Black, white working-class or Asian student. This sort of book was often modeled after E. R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, or at least after the 1967 film made out of the book. In the film, Black teacher Sidney Poitier is faced with the unruly students in an East End comprehensive. But the film (and book) are largely from the teacher’s perspective. Books that appeared in the years following Circular 10/65 focused on the student’s perspective.

Some of these books were even written by students themselves. Leslie Mildiner and Bill House, for example, wrote The Gates in an after-school writing program; it was published by Centreprise in 1975, who described it as “a funny, bitter, deeply perceptive look at how . . . the education system almost completely fails to respond to the needs and abilities of the inner city children it is supposed to cater for” (back cover blurb). The book is about kids who “can’t keep up” with grammar school study, and who are thus dumped in “massive Comprehensive School[s] with one thousand, nine hundred” students (18). At one point, there is a disturbance during morning registration; a “coloured girl” starts screaming, and has to be held down by a teacher; the main character is told by one of the teachers that it is just “one of Sheila’s moods” (75). There’s never any further explanation, but the chaotic nature of the schools at this time makes Geoff play truant more often than not.

Prudence Andrew’s Goodbye to the Rat (1974) is part of Heinemann’s Pyramid imprint, a series designed for reluctant teen readers. Several of the books (advertised on the back cover of Andrews’ book) are about the failure of schools; Glyn Frewer’s Crossroad “deals with a misunderstood secondary modern schoolboy”; This Could be the Start of Something by Audrey Coppard is about a boy “who has failed his ‘O’ levels”. Goodbye to the Rat is about three boys who can’t wait to leave school because “They were hopeless at school work. They never passed exams. They had been written off. And they knew it” (21). This failure at school is worse for Louie Kam, who is black: “Many employers wouldn’t employ black people” (61) and he had to take what work he could find if he left school, where his white friend Tony gets a position as a veterinary assistant.


Even though he’s a main character, Louie is behind the two white characters on the cover–and in life.

Perhaps the best-known writers of the genre were found in Aidan Chambers’ Topliners series, Farrukh Dhondy (who himself has taught at one of the new comprehensives and who used the experiences in his book Come to Mecca (1978), particularly the story “Two Kinda Truth” where the main character, Bonny, is a well-known Black poet in the community but his teacher thinks he doesn’t understand poetry at all. And in Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys of Westcroft, the boys team up together because they are the school’s academic failures—but Walter, who is Black, must decide whether his allegiance lies with the rest of the boys, who are white, or with a Black teacher. The school as a whole, the system, has already failed all of these boys.



Petronella Breinburg’s complicated vision of the Comprehensive still is least successful for the Black student.

So, George Osborne, take note: one-size-fits-all schools have been tried before, and have not succeeded in reaching the “disadvantaged”. Perhaps Osborne has a better plan than the one that put the comprehensives into place. Or perhaps we can look forward to a new wave of school stories detailing the failure of the academies to reach those that need help most.

Ad-Libbing: Expanding Diversity through Teen Imprints, 1970-1990


In 1966, Stokely Carmichael and a group of African-American civil rights marchers and activists demanded Black Power. Through the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s, Black Power and Black Panthers became part of a worldwide movement to further civil rights for people of African descent—by any means necessary, as Malcolm X would suggest. The movement was largely youth-generated and youth-led, as teens who had been long-denied the rights, access, and material wealth of middle-class white society tired of waiting and began demanding equality.

In Britain, Black Power had two distinct phases. The first, which occurred at roughly the same time as the American Black Power movement, focused on the global African community. Most Blacks in Britain during the late 1960s had come to the country as part of a post-World War II migration from the Caribbean, and these “New Commonwealth immigrants” were keen to remember (and teach their children about) a past that began in Africa and continued through slavery and emancipation in the Caribbean. Independent Black British publishers, such as New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture, were prominent during this time.



?Horace Ove’s 1975 film “Pressure” showed the way that Black communities in Britain were divided by generations.

In the 1970s, however, the sense of community that the earlier migrants had tried so hard to engender began to fall apart. Many young people, born in Britain of immigrant parents, felt they belonged to neither the country of their parents’ origin nor their own. Failed by the education system, many dropped out of mainstream society and turned to Rastafarianism or other youth associations. For white British people, this raised suspicion that, as Paul Gilroy points out in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, “Black Power and Black Alliance movements . . . were thought to be recruiting among the young unemployed,” Gilroy writes (112). Conflicts between Black youth and white police became more common, and were widely covered in the press.

It was at this time that mainstream publishers, through various teen imprints, began publishing stories for and about Black British youth. There were two varieties of these stories; one that dealt with Black Britons in contemporary times, and one that connected them with their historical past. The first tended to be controversial, as well as time-bound. For example, Aidan Chambers’ series Topliners published Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys of Westcroft (1975), which focuses on identity and power in a British comprehensive school; as Lucy Pearson comments, “rather than condemning racism as the preserve of the ignorant and the malevolent, it presents it as embedded in the social structures of society” (The Making of Modern Children’s Literature 141).


Dhondy’s Siege of Babylon was based on this 1975 event, widely covered (and condemned) by the media.

Farrukh Dhondy’s most challenging book for young people, The Siege of Babylon, was also a Topliner, published in 1978. Dhondy’s story echoed, according to Maggie Hewitt, the Spaghetti House Siege of 1975. The 1975 event involved, as did Dhondy’s fictional version, three Black men taking several white people hostage, but Dhondy made his protagonists somewhat younger than the mid- to late-20s hostage-takers of the Spaghetti House Siege. Similar to them, however, Dhondy had them demand a plane and safe passage to Jamaica; unlike the real event, not all of the hostage-takers in The Siege of Babylon survived. (The events of the Siege were also later filmed by an Italian director in 1982.) Dhondy always felt that Siege was unfairly ignored, but its depiction of violence (and sexism), as well as its connection to real-life recent events, made it uncomfortable reading for many of the (white) teachers and librarians who bought the books.



Puffin Plus published Darke’s novel about a Black youth arrested for following his conscience.

Dhondy’s and Breinburg’s stories appeared in Topliners before the Brixton Riots of 1981; after this, mainstream publishers were both more cautious and more eager to include Black Britons in books for teens. (There is a lovely sort of innocence in book publishers of this period, wherein they believed that it was possible to stop riots by giving kids books to read instead.) The books produced and/or published after the Brixton riots tended to look further back in history; this on the one hand had the effect of removing some of the “relevance” found in books about teen gangs, but on the other hand also positioned Blacks as part of British history much further back than Windrush immigration. It was at this time, for example, that Marjorie Darke’s A Long Way to Go (1982) was published in Puffin Plus, the imprint that had replaced the short-lived Peacock series for teens from Penguin. A Long Way to Go, originally published by Kestrel in 1978, was part of a series about Blacks in Britain going back to the early 19th century, but the Puffin Plus edition does not list other books in the series—perhaps because earlier books concerned slavery. A Long Way to Go is about a World War I conscientious objector. Although the cover clearly shows the young man as Black, the cover blurb never mentions this, instead saying “Your Country Needs You”, placing the protagonist firmly in the British frame. (It does, however, suggest that the book is an “unusual story” and this may be Puffin’s way of alerting the reader to the racial dimension of the tale.) The book deals with the young Black Briton’s arrest and conviction, not for gang-related violence, but for his convictions, providing a different vision of the criminality of Black Britons than the one portrayed in the media of the time.


By the late 1980s, publishers were more comfortable with stories about Britain’s slave past as written for teens. André Deutsch’s teen imprint, Adlib, published Geraldine Kaye’s A Breath of Fresh Air in 1987 and its sequel A Piece of Cake in 1991. These stories concerned Bristol teen Amy Smith, who in a series of “blackouts” is dragged back in time to Bristol’s slave trade. Amy uses the things she “dream-sees” in various history and drama productions for school; there is also a romantic angle in these stories where Amy’s boyfriend Bonny exists in both times as well. Black British history as romance for teens was a far cry from the gritty urban dramas of the mid-1970s, but all these books are connected by the idea that teens need books wherein they can see themselves. Many publishers, however, weren’t sure of the best way to provide this—they were, and are still, just ad-libbing.