Tag Archives: Trish Cooke

The Unexamined Life: What the Reflecting Realities Project from CLPE Tells Us

Plato, in a collection of Socrates speeches, wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living.  Of course, he (or they, I suppose) meant that not examining your OWN life gives you an empty, meaningless existence.  But what happens when you fail to examine the world around you, fail in fact to see the other people who make up your world?

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Does David White’s book help kids wonder about the unexamined lives in children’s book publishing?

There has long been a suggestion (to put it mildly) that British children’s publishing produces, in the main, books for and about white, mostly middle-class children, leaving those from other racial and socioeconomic groups largely unexamined—but because publishers in Britain have never put out industry statistics that would allow them and the public to examine their record, no one could ever say so with authority.  And to be fair to the publishing industry, even had an individual publisher wanted to produce these statistics (and some publishers, like Chicken House, Alanna Books, Firetree Books, Knights of, and Frances Lincoln have been very proud of their record on publishing for diverse child audiences), it still would not have given an industry-wide picture.  When I wrote my book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015, I struggled to find statistics to back up what I innately felt—that BAME readers were not represented very well or sometimes at all by the many children’s publishers in Britain, particularly the mainstream publishers.

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Are BAME children like the one on my book’s front cover doomed to only see white children as book characters?

Last year, however, I was asked to help create a framework for determining the number and quality of BAME representation in children’s books by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).  CLPE then took the framework suggested by me and several other experts and asked publishers to submit all the books that they felt qualified as including BAME representation.  I was not involved with the evaluation of the books by CLPE, but once they had completed the evaluation and statistical analysis, they invited us back to hear the overall results.

You can (and should!) read the full report at the CLPE website (https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research) but in the short space of this blog, I just want to highlight a couple of the results.  Keeping in mind that this was not a shaming exercise, but rather one to raise awareness; and also keeping in mind that I did not examine the books sent to CLPE myself, I am going to use some older books as examples of the kinds of things CLPE found.  This works because, at the end of the day, one of the results of this survey is not much has changed in children’s publishing since Britain’s population started changing.  The anecdotal evidence I found for Children’s Publishing and Black Britain played out in the statistics produced by CLPE for last year as well.

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Leila Berg tried to Represent Reality in her reading scheme, Nippers. At first, this meant only background characters with no speaking parts.  Illustration for Julie’s Story by Richard Rose.

One striking result from the survey is that 25% of the books submitted featured BAME characters only in the background.  This statistic can be read cynically—i.e. that “diversity” is a tick-box exercise for book producers and as long as you color some of the faces brown, you’re done—or it can be seen as an honest attempt to include more of the world in a book that would otherwise center on white people only.  Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series from the late 1960s initially had only this kind of representation; she had illustrators and photographers go down to Brixton Market (where many Afro-Caribbean people lived) to make sure that the crowd scenes in her stories about a white, working-class family were accurate.

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But Berg went on to find BAME authors to write for her series. Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

However, Berg did not stop with background representation; as she continued to produce Nippers, she sought out BAME British writers, like Beryl Gilroy and Petronella Breinburg, to write stories that accurately reflected and represented the lives of BAME children.  This suggests to me that an honest desire to change will produce results—if publishers are sufficiently aware of the need and thoughtful about how to address it—even if that change takes time.  The results of the Reflecting Realities survey by CLPE will, we hope, raise some of that awareness for publishers.

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Breinburg also created successful picture books (this is the American version, as you can tell by the spelling of Sean) with illustrator Errol Lloyd, but middle grade books were harder to place with publishers.

Another of the statistics that mirrored what I found in my work was that both picture books and nonfiction had a better level of BAME representation than chapter books.  (Note that the CLPE survey only encompassed books for readers under the age of 11, and not YA literature.) This suggests two things to me: first, that book producers (in which I am including authors, illustrators, publishers and editors—and maybe marketing teams and booksellers as well) feel more comfortable with pictures than with descriptions of BAME people; and second, that they value BAME representation in educational texts and settings more than they do in mainstream middle grade fiction.  I might here highlight the work of Petronella Breinburg, who although she had great success with her picture book series about a little boy named Sean, and wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers reading scheme to be used in schools, she struggled to get her middle grade fiction published and marketed.  There are many conclusions to draw from these results, but the one that I would focus on is the loss of the BAME reader.  If a BAME reader ready for longer, more complex texts only sees her- or himself in books connected with school and not with pleasure reading, they are not going to read for pleasure.  And once readers are lost, it is hard to convince them to come back to reading for pleasure—particularly when many of the YA books they will encounter see racial issues or even racial identity as “problems” to be solved.  I once read a memo from a publisher in the 1980s (I won’t name the publisher) who said that the bottom line was that publishing was a money-making business and “certain groups” didn’t read, so they needn’t be catered for.  I do believe that is the very-small-minority opinion (then and now), but even if true, perhaps the Reflecting Realities statistics will help publishers think about ways they might increase their market share and readership by producing quality chapter books for and about BAME British children.

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Rats, yes. BAME figures, not so much. Terry Deary’s and Martin Brown’s amusing version of British history does not include the West Indian troops who participated, nor the Black Britons like Walter Tull.

One place publishers might start producing middle grade literature is with funny books, which many children of all ages, classes, genders and ethnic groups enjoy.  The Reflecting Realities report demonstrated that BAME characters almost never appeared in books classed as comedies.  Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series rarely includes BAME people in the long stretch of British history, though they laugh with and at just about every group of white Britons (and pre-Britons for that matter).  I think it’s safe to say that most kids are goofier than most adults, and the goofier the kid, the more they want to read about other goofy kids.

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Is Mary Seacole a great Briton, or a great Black Briton? Biographies of Seacole always mention her white contemporary, Florence Nightingale, but biographies of Nightingale rarely mention Seacole.

And that highlights another idea that all of us on the Reflecting Realities team believe: books about BAME characters are for all readers.  I recently had someone—meaning to compliment me—tell me that my work on BAME children’s books was “niche” (he was saying we needed more interesting “niche” projects like mine).  The more that children’s books reflect the reality of the British population, the less “niche” books with BAME characters will appear—and the more readers will feel that other people think their lives are worth reading about too.

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.

How to Solve a Migrant Crisis with Children’s Books

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The diary series was a popular format; Cooke used it to interrogate racism in Britain. Illustrated by Brian Duggan.

Last week, Alex O’Connell made the recently republished memoir for children by Floella Benjamin, Coming to England (Macmillan), the Times children’s book of the week. The tagline (in the paper edition but not on the website) calls Benjamin’s book, “a timely tale of migration” and O’Connell writes, “There aren’t many successful memoirs pitched to this age group, but Floella Benjamin’s story . . . is gripping”  (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coming-to-england-by-floella-benjamin-b2cbc0grg). I’d like to unpack some of the language here, particularly the notion of the timeliness of the story, the apparent absence of memoirs for young people, and the idea of what makes a memoir for children successful.

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The 1997 Puffin edition of Floella Benjamin’s memoir. Cover illustration by Michael Frith.

Benjamin’s book was first published in 1995, after she had rose to prominence as a children’s television presenter on shows such as Play School but before she had become a baroness. Britain was at an uncertain moment with regard to race relations; only two years earlier, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence had been murdered and the two white youths charged had not been prosecuted, due to insufficient evidence (and, it would later be determined, investigative failures by the police). Thus Benjamin’s book was originally speaking to an audience with a heightened awareness of British racism against Black, and particularly Caribbean, people (whether they felt that racism was a justified response or not). Benjamin discusses her own experiences of racism, concluding after one incident, “That was the day I realized that in the eyes of some people in this world I was not a person but a colour” (82). Benjamin’s reaction to racism, however, was not to fight the power structure, but accept it. She learns to speak the “Queen’s English” after her teacher calls her a guttersnipe for using patois; Benjamin puts away her Trinidadian accent for “appropriate times” (101). She also accepts that in order to “make people see me as a person” (116), she would “have to work twice as hard as anyone else and be twice as good” (116). Benjamin’s story provides a model for dealing with racism that puts the onus on the victim, rather than the racist, to change their behaviors and attitudes; it is a model that has worked for Benjamin, allowing her to maintain a strong sense of self-esteem that she tries to convey to her readers. It also makes her a “good immigrant”—one willing to accept the ways of society without pushing back (and perhaps this is why it has been reprinted several times and is now being touted as a “timely” book for a society uncertain over new waves of migrants).

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Front cover of Nichols Leslyn in London, illustrated by Annabel Large

But Benjamin’s model is not the only one, and there are several book written for a similar age and audience that address issues of migration and the racism that results differently. Interestingly, some of the best are fictional memoirs written by authors who migrated later in life (such as Grace Nichols) or who are British-born (such as Trish Cooke). Poet Grace Nichols wrote one of her only novels for children, Leslyn in London (Hodder and Stoughton, 1984) more than ten years before Benjamin’s memoirs appeared; Britain was, if anything, even more gripped by racial tension than in 1995, as the book appeared during the time period of the Brixton and Handsworth riots and the New Cross Fire. The protagonist, Leslyn, is quite young in the story—a first year junior—but this does not safeguard her from racist experiences. She is called a “nig-nog” (23) and “gollywog” (43) but this does not make her want to try harder to please. Her teacher finds her restless in school, and Leslyn makes up imaginary friends for company. Success comes, not in overcoming racism, or in working twice as hard at school, but in finding a person—a new girl at school who feels similarly left out—with whom she can be herself, as she is, rather than how others want her to be.

Bradford-born Trish Cooke also wrote a fictional migration memoir, which was published in Franklin Watts “Diary” series (the series included titles such as Diary of a Young Nurse in World War II and Diary of a Young Roman Soldier). The Diary of a Young West Indian Immigrant (2003), unlike Leslyn in London, is about a somewhat older girl (the book spans the period from 1961 to 1966, when the protagonist, Gloria, is between the ages of 10 and 16), but the reading level is suitable for a younger reader. The many illustrations and short page count (96 pages total) also place the book in a younger reading category. Cooke’s book also deals with racism, of both a casual and more direct kind. On Gloria’s first day of school, the teacher pats her hair and lets the other students in the class do the same (37), so the next day Gloria straightens it in order to better fit in—but the teacher and students “all looked at me with pity” (38). It is apparently better, in her teacher’s eyes, that Gloria be petted like an animal than try to fit in. Later, when she is older, her school careers counsellor tells her she is “out of her depth” (68) when she says she wants to become a lawyer, and suggests factory work instead. As with the hair incident, Gloria at first tries to accept her fate and fit in, taking the factory placement work experience. But when they offer her a permanent place, Gloria decides not to take it, writing that her counsellor, “didn’t give me the right advice. I intend to find out how to go about becoming a lawyer, and if not a lawyer then something more fitting to me” (91). Cooke’s narrative reinforces the notion that sometimes even well-meaning white people do not have answers that work for migrants.

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Bloom’s novel, like fellow poet Nichols’ novel, is no longer in print.

 

I’m glad Benjamin’s memoir is back in print, but the books I discuss here, along with Valerie Bloom’s Surprising Joy (Macmillan 2003) and Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995) are not. Fictional accounts of migration can often address issues of racism more directly than a nonfiction memoir—and may give readers more options for thinking about their own experiences. Having more accounts of migration experiences, fictional or not, accepting British society or rejecting it, would be timely for all British readers to remind them that migration is not a new issue, and there are lots of ways to navigate its pitfalls and celebrate its joys.