Tag Archives: UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child

Able to Participate: Disability and Race in British Children’s Books

This fall, when I participated in a daylong symposium at Amnesty International UK on children’s books and human rights, the author Alex Wheatle spoke about how he pitched a book to a children’s publisher about a Black British boy growing up in a care home; the publisher worried that there were too many issues to the book.  In other words, a kid can’t be in a care home AND Black AND in a children’s book.  Being Black, for many children’s publishers (even now) is “problem” enough.  The idea that not being white is a problem in British society is also likely to be one of the reasons that the CLPE Reflecting Realities report found that only one of the books with BAME representation could be classified as a “comedy”; if you are a problem, you, and your life, can’t be funny.  For years, it was seen as a generous, liberal white attitude to suggest—as one character does in Josephine Kamm’s 1962 Out of Step—that “there’s nothing wrong in being a West Indian or an African or an Indian.  They’re every bit as good as we are; they look different, that’s all there is to it” (20).  To argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with being yourself suggests that someone else thinks that there is.

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And yet—as the Amnesty symposium emphasized—children have the right to be represented in all aspects of society, including children’s books.  And that means all children, including those who are experiencing either a temporary or permanent disability.  The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has, as its fifth point, “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf). Special education and care should not mean isolating the child and making them feel “othered”, but helping them find ways to participate in society.  British children’s literature has made great strides in the last few years in depicting disabilities in a broad spectrum of books, including the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner, One, by Sarah Crossan about conjoined twins.  But it is unusual to find a main character of colour in a British children’s book who is also disabled—too many “problems” for one book!

The issue is not just academic, or a fictional scenario.  Amelia Hill, writing for the Guardian, highlights the case of two disabled children that the Home Office is trying to deport to Pakistan despite the children being born in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/12/home-office-disabled-children-leave-country). Disabled children often suffer discrimination; disabled children of colour can experience a double discrimination due to racist attitudes that a person’s “race” is a problem.  And being a person of colour doesn’t necessarily mean you are more sensitive to the “problem” of disability–most people need to learn to look for ability and strength in disabled people rather than othering them.

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Brahmachari’s main character, Laila, thinks she understands her best friend Kez–but sometimes all she see is her disability and the way it interrupts their friendship.

It is therefore encouraging to see more books being published that include disabled (temporarily or permanently) characters in books with or by people of colour.  The disabled characters are not just window dressing, but play major roles in the books.  Sita Brahmachari’s character Kez, in Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) is Laila Levenson’s best friend, but that friendship is tested because of Kez’s disability.  She is in a wheelchair, and although she and Laila have been friends since primary school, Kez decides she won’t come over to Laila’s house any more when they start secondary school after Laila’s father carries her down the stairs.  “I never want to be carried” (58), Kez tells Laila.  Laila thinks of herself as being the only one who understands Kez, but has to learn to see her in new and capable ways, and also learn how to make accommodations for her friend without patronizing her, before they can be close again.  Kez is white British, but makes up part of Brahmachari’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-able cast of characters, because as she herself puts it, “These ‘different’ characters populate my books because I know that they’re all ‘here!’ and more than anything I love to give each of them their “rites of passage” moment when they find a voice” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names).

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Depression is a disability that affects all kinds of people–but it’s not always a result of racism for people of colour.

Bali Rai’s Stay a Little Longer (Barrington Stoke 2018) deals with a different kind of disability, the emotional and mental disability of depression.  Rai distinguishes between forms and levels of severity of depression in his novel. Aman, the main character, is thirteen and grieving the death of her father. Although she considers herself “messed up” (69) for still grieving after a year, her friend Lola points out that “It’s not a competition to see who recovers the fastest” (69).  Aman’s grief affects her every day, but it is clear that she will return to her old self, more or less, eventually.  However, an older man that Aman meets, Gurnam, has a more serious form of depression that leads him to attempt suicide.  Aman, who has friends and family supporting her through her grief, wants to be supportive to Gurnam as well, but she has to learn to go about it in the right way.  She learns that love helps, but love alone is not enough; disabilities, even when they are not physical, require medical treatment.  Race plays an interesting role in Rai’s book; Gurnam is harassed by some local boys, but Aman cannot understand why because “The lads are Asian, just like Gurnam” (90).  She assumes that racism is the only reason a man would be harassed in Britain.  However, it turns out that racism has nothing to do with it.  Gurnam is gay, and the boys think that homosexuality is “Against nature” (58).  Rai’s book highlights the way that being “othered” can lead to disabling depression, but in doing so he also reminds readers that race is only one piece of a person’s identity—and not always the “problem.”

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Disability doesn’t mean un-ability; Laird’s character Musa has strengths his brother Omar wishes he had.

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere might reasonably be expected to deal with a similar emotional disability, as the novel concerns a Syrian family who become refugees in Jordan before eventually being given asylum in Britain.  Refugees and migrants have formed an ever-increasing part of children’s literature over the past decade, but generally the stories have concerned able-bodied characters; again, the idea that being a refugee is enough of a “problem” for a single book applies.  But Laird includes two disabled characters who play pivotal roles in the story: the main character Omar’s older brother, Musa, who has cerebral palsy, and their younger sister Nadia, who has a heart condition.  Musa’s cerebral palsy affects the plot—his movement is restricted, and at times Omar has to carry him.  But he is also a “total brainbox” (15) who gets involved in the rebellion and has to be saved from being shot by Omar.  Musa uses his disability to his advantage when soldiers approach them, “making babbling noises” (57) and flailing his arms “wildly” (57) to make the soldiers think he is harmless.  His condition and Nadia’s heart problems put them on top of the list for asylum in Britain.  It is only at the end of the novel that race/ethnicity come into play, however.  Musa does not want to leave for Britain, arguing, “You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims?  They think we’re all crazy terrorists” (315).  Laird concludes her story with questions that acknowledge that attitudes toward “others” are still a “problem” : “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen next . . . How will they get on in their new life in Britain?  Will people welcome them? . . . Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams?  The answer to those questions lies with you” (334).  At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to ensure that every person is able to participate in society, and stop closing doors because of what we perceive as their “otherness”.

African Spiritual: Religion and Children’s Books

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child does not specifically say that a child has the right to choose his or her religion.  However, it mentions both religion and morality several times.  In Principle 1, it says that “Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights without distinction or discrimination on account of . . . religion”.  Principle 2 argues that “The child shall enjoy special protection . . . to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially”.  Principle 6 says that the child should grow up “in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security”.  Principle 7 says that children’s education should develop a “sense of moral and social responsibility”.  And Principle 10 argues that “The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination.”  But today I am taking as my starting point for a discussion on religion and the UN declaration Principle 9, which states that children “shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form.”

At first glance, this principle does not seem to have anything to do with religion.  But in fact, the historical period when African children were most likely to be trafficked, that is, the period of European enslavement of African people, was the period when Africans were most likely to lose their traditional forms of religion.  During enslavement, some African people were prevented from practicing their religion in a community.  Some were too young to remember or have learned the traditional religious practices of their community.  Some were given incentives to convert (or at least appear to convert) to Christianity.  All of these had an effect on the way that people of African descent in the Americas, the Caribbean and in Europe practiced religion—and these effects can be seen in children’s books right up to today.

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Morna Stuart’s story of two boys enslaved in Haiti and in France during the revolution includes reference to Yoruba religious tradition.

Many of the enslaved African people came or were descended from West African tribal groups, including the Yoruba people.  The main religion of the Yoruba was based on multiple deities and spirit guides, or orisha.  When Yoruba people were enslaved and brought to the Americas and the Caribbean, their religion changed.  In West Africa at the time, one of the gods, Ogun, was the deity associated primarily with iron—used for weapons but also agricultural implements and hunting tools, and thus a destroyer and creator god.  John Parker points out that in Haiti, “It was the aggressive, warlike attributes . . . which came to the fore on the Caribbean island, where hunting and smithing were less important than in West Africa” (Journal of Religion in Africa 28.4: 495).  Many of the French-speaking islands had enslaved people who practiced a modified version of the Yoruba religion, one which often mixed in elements of Catholic religious practices and saints; the modified religion is referred to as Vaudou, Voudou, or Voodoo.  This change can be seen in Morna Stuart’s Marassa and Midnight (New Windmills 1969) when one of the main characters calls on “Ogoun . . . the African God of fire and war” (4).  Stuart is unusual in portraying African-based religion as ordinary and acceptable; most writers whether Black or white (Stuart was white Scottish) depict alternative religions as at best anomalies practiced only by outsiders and at worst superstition.

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This cover of Benjamin’s Coming to England declares that “Belonging is the most important thing”–but white Christians did not make Benjamin and her family feel welcome in the church, even though the Benjamin family had always been Christian too.

Indeed, by the 20th century, many people of African descent in the Caribbean (and the Americas) were members of a Christian (usually Protestant) religion.  However, their method of worship was often very different from European (and European-descent) Christians, so even when they were practicing the colonizer’s religion, they weren’t always accepted.  Floella Benjamin, in Coming to England (Puffin 1997), discusses her visits to traditional Church of England services when she and her family first arrived in England from Trinidad.  “Inside, the light from the stained glass windows shone on the handful of people taking part in the mild, controlled, unemotional service—not at all like the ones I was used to” (113).  Trying to make herself feel at home, Floella sings the hymns in the manner to which she was accustomed—i.e., loudly and joyfully—only to overhear the white congregation criticize her on the church steps.  Her family eventually switches to a church started by other people from the West Indies, “always full to the brim with people rejoicing out loud” (114).

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The cover of Tony Medina’s I and I, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. The phrase “I and I” was not meant to signify rugged individualism, but rather a connection to God and to the community.

Other people of African descent created their own forms of worship.  Probably the most well-known (though not necessarily understood) of these on a global scale is Rastafari.  Rastafari began in the 1930s in Jamaica, and mixed Protestant religious ideas with Pan-African ideals and a mysticism attained through a simple diet and the use of cannabis.  Bob Marley, perhaps the most famous Rastafarian to date, is one of the few who are portrayed entirely positively.  Most Rastafarians are presented as loners, sometimes spiritual but always outsiders.  Tony Medina explains the title of his biography of Marley, I and I (Lee and Low 2009) by saying, “The ‘I and I’ of the title is, like Bob himself, multifaceted.  It is a way of referring to oneself, yet it means more than simply ‘I’.  ‘I and I’ can refer to the unity of God . . . and every human—meaning God is within all of us and we are all one people. . . . It discourages thinking of oneself solely as an individual but instead as part of a community” (n.p.).  But Rastafarians in Britain often faced not only isolation from their community, but trouble from the white police force.  Farrukh Dhondy, in “Go Play Butterfly” (Come to Mecca, Collins 1978) shows his character Jojo “wearing a red, green and gold tam” (119), a symbol of Rastafari, right before he is beaten by the police at carnival.

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Colin Williams’ illustration of Dhondy’s “Go Play Butterfly,” on the cover of a later edition, does not include the Rastafarian character being beaten up by the police.

It’s enough to make a person of African descent want to give up on any religion connected to European traditions in any way, and return to the religion of their ancestors.  This is, after a fashion, what Tomi Adeyemi does in her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan 2018).  The novel is a fantasy, but it uses Yoruba-based gods and goddesses (including Ogun) and their traditionally-allocated spheres of influence.  Adeyemi, who is Nigerian-American, uses Nigerian understandings of these spheres; thus, Ògún is the deity with influence over iron and earth; fire belongs to Sangó and war to humans.  The novel itself depicts what happens when a child is ripped away first from her mother and then from her religion (although it is called “magic” in the novel, it functions as a religion).  When Zélie realizes she has lost her magic, “The realization reopens a gaping hole inside of me” (456) and notes that “It’s like losing Mama all over again” (456).  Adeyemi’s novel serves as a powerful (and possibly unconscious) metaphor for what happened to Africans who were taken from their mother country and then had their religion taken from them as well, often by brutal force.  Children have a right not to be trafficked—in no small part because doing so can take away or alter their ability to believe in, or reject, the faith into which they were born.

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The cover illustration by Rich Deas for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which blends a fantasy world with traditional Nigerian religion.Mo

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.).

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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.).

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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.

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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.