Tag Archives: Verna Wilkins

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.

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A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories

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The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.

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Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”

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Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”

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Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”

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S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”

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Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.

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We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.

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!

Many Happy Returns in a Book: Who gets to have a birthday in children’s lit?

Illustrations from Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, Illustrated by Elaine Mills.

Today is my birthday. I mention this because it is so completely normal (I have one every year!). And yet this normal ordinary thing is something that for a long time, at least in books, excluded many children. I think about my childhood reading—I (still!) know when Jo March’s, Anne Shirley’s, and Betsy Ray’s birthdays are. I read about numerous animals having birthdays, including Curious George, Little Bear, and Frances the Badger. Amelia Bedelia and Mister Muster had birthdays. But I never read about an African, an African-American, an American Indian, an Asian American or a Latinx child having a birthday when I was growing up. In fact, everything about birthdays, from cake toppers to birthday cards underscored the normality of being white.

Betsy Ray’s birthday in pictures by Lois Lenski, stories by Maud Hart Lovelace.

This privileging of whiteness that permeates the culture can seem innocuous because it is so apparently normal. But birthdays especially are connected with valuing individuals, celebrating and recognizing a person’s uniqueness and worth through gift-giving and the setting aside of time to honor that person. We take it for granted, but think about what it means to be sung to (really: how often does someone sing to YOU, sing ABOUT you?), fed your favorite foods made by someone just for you, given tributes through words and presents specially selected. Take a moment and think about all of that. Then think what it means to be perennially placed on the sidelines of such a celebration, to never feel like such an honor belongs to you?

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Not everyone gets to be A Little Princess on her birthday.

Historically, British children’s literature did not really recognize other-than-white people as having birthdays. Sarah Crewe had a giant birthday party at Miss Minchin’s, and even Becky, the child-maid who was one step away from starving in the streets gave her a birthday present. But would anyone find out when Ram Dass’s birthday was? Not in the book, anyway. Often, characters meant to represent Black people (such as the Golliwog—a much more common figure in British children’s literature throughout the first half of the 20th century than actual Black people) were not only NOT being celebrated, they were the entertainment. This “Golly” character from a paperboard shape book (and if anyone can date this for me, I’d be grateful; there are some things that the British Library just does not count as “books”) is the juggler, tightrope walker AND the magician at the Panda’s party—but he still brings a gift as well.

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Everyone else is a guest at the party, but Golly must earn his place by performing.

The lack of birthday representation for Black British children was one of the specific absences that Verna Wilkins set out to redress when she created her first books for Tamarind Press in the late 1980s. Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book was designed as an early reader for schools, which originally came with a triangular number puzzle and a set of story sequence cards. But though early literacy and numeracy was important to Wilkins, equally important was presenting Black British children enjoying the same privileges and celebrations as their white British counterparts. In Wilkins’ book, “normal” includes being the birthday princess, but also receiving birthday cards with Black people on them.

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Wilkins’ Finished Being Four, illustrated by Claire Pound, also has the traditional British birthday feast.

A similar ethos guides her later book, Finished Being Four (1992), a trade picture book about four children in a class who share birthdays in the same week and so also share a party. The birthday feast is full of traditional British party food, including cocktail sausages, quiche, jelly, jam tarts and swiss roll—as well as a birthday cake, of course. Some criticized Wilkins for erasing cultural references (in Finished Being Four one of the mothers wears a sari but there are no Indian sweets on the birthday table, and no indication that any culture celebrates birthdays any differently than the British) but for Wilkins, at least when she began, having Black characters experience the same birthday celebrations as white characters was part of the point.

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Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus has lost his dreadlocks in Marcellus’ Birthday Cake. Illustrations by Petra Rohr-Rouendaal.

Other British children’s books published during the early nineties similarly used a birthday celebration to emphasize the normality of Black British existence. Interestingly, Lorraine Simeon’s sequel to Marcellus, a book about a boy with dreadlocks who is afraid he’ll be made fun of at school, is Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, where the title character attempts to make his own birthday cake. While Marcellus depicts a potential outsider gaining acceptance despite his difference in appearance, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake does not even hint at Marcellus being an outsider—he has even lost his locks. It is hard to tell if this is what Simeon intended (she did not illustrate either book, and both of my editions were published in America, so perhaps the British editions are different). Nonetheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that Simeon’s birthday book has an almost-studied “normality” about it.

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The birthday feast in Jennifer Northway’s Lucy’s Quarrel is the same as ever, but the birthday cake is unique.

Jennifer Northway’s Lucy books are really Lucy and Alice books, because they tell about the often quarrelsome, often loving relationship between Lucy and her cousin Alice. But the books are titled after Lucy, who has a Black British mother and a white British father, rather than white British Alice. Nonetheless, Lucy’s life as depicted in Lucy’s Quarrel is remarkably similar to her cousin’s; both live in middle-class houses, go to ballet class, attend the same school, and go to the fun fair. Lucy’s birthday cake is the sole distinguishing feature about her party that reminds the reader of her Black British heritage. Unlike the plain cakes depicted in all the other Black British books, Lucy has a ballerina cake (I had one of these when I was four too), and the ballerina is brown.

There is a tension in picture books depicting Black British child birthdays; on the one hand, authors are deliberately representing and making central the characters who were formerly either invisible or on the sidelines at birthday parties. On the other hand, other than their brown skin, these characters often have little to mark them out from white British characters. We all should be allowed to have a happy birthday—and see people like us in books doing the same—but do we really all have to have the same kind of birthday to be seen as “normal”?

Black Gold: What a Black Bookstore Can Be and Do

Last week I was in the UK on various projects, and on my last day before returning to Buffalo, I went to New Beacon bookstore in Finsbury Park. Originally when I had planned my visit, I thought it would be my last time, as the bookstore was set to close after its 50th anniversary. However, thanks to a populist campaign, the bookstore has raised enough money to revamp itself (see Natasha Onwuemezi’s article in the Bookseller: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/swell-support-new-beacon-books-helps-raise-10k-513551); it plans a new storefront, a different layout, and most importantly, more room and plans for community space and activities. I’m looking forward to going back with some of my postgraduate students in July to see how it is all coming along.

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Educational essays by writers such as Gus John are not usually available at your local bookstore–unless that bookstore is one like New Beacon.

But of course this reprieve did not stop me from a few (ahem) purchases, especially since, in order to make room for new stock, they were selling off some of their old stock at deep discounts. New Beacon is not primarily a children’s bookstore, but they have throughout my relationship with them furnished my shelves with many gems. This is partly because of founder John La Rose’s connection with the supplementary school movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black British children (especially boys) were being placed into ESN (educationally sub-normal) classrooms or excluded from school altogether at an alarming rate. John La Rose, like other activists, tried to counter the effects of this travesty. He did this partly through supporting and publishing educational experts in the Black community, including Bernard Coard and Gus John (and I found a couple of Gus John’s essays at the bookstore this time).

But La Rose was also one of a number of Black British and West Indian activists who began supplementary after- or Saturday school programs, where kids could learn basic skills as well as Black history that the mainstream schools ignored. I have purchased many basic reading texts here over the years that feature Black characters, some from traditional publishers such as Macmillan Caribbean or the Evans English Readers, who had branches in Africa or the Caribbean. These readers were imported specifically by many supplementary and mainstream schools who wanted to be sure that their children found mirrors that reflected them in the books they read.  The one I found this time (above) is from Sierra Leone; the illustrator is Tom Simpasa.

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Independently published stories range in quality, from pamphlets stapled together to hardcover books; but all need independent outlets like New Beacon to provide a market.

Other reading texts came from independent and community publishers, such as Centreprise, the Peckham Publishing Project, or the one I found this time from a group called Brockwell Books. Often these books were “home-made” in quality, created by teachers or even by the students themselves. These are not the kinds of books that are found in mainstream bookstores, or even in places like the British Library—their fragile nature means that few exist anymore, making New Beacon a critical resource. I also found a book of poetry, written by a 14-year-old British Bangladeshi girl, Faryal Mirza, and published in 1987 to an unusually high standard for a self-published book. It still has its original dust jacket, with the photograph of Mirza looking seriously out of glasses she probably would prefer to forget now.

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This book, published by New Beacon Press, “is intended for use in schools and colleges or for individual and collective study.”

At New Beacon I’ve also found Black history, both older works published by New Beacon, such as Roxy Harris’s Being Black (complete with study questions and vocabulary), and more recent works of the kind that too quickly go out of print. This is one of the key features of an independent bookstore like New Beacon—books that either never reach the mainstream chains or are only available for a few months are much easier to obtain at an independent bookstore. Clive Gifford’s The Empire Windrush (Colllins Big Cat: 2014), Errol Lloyd’s Celebrating Black History (Oxford Reading Tree 2007) and Dan Lyndon’s Resistance and Abolition (Franklin Watts 2014) are all still available, but have you ever seen them in a bookshop? I found all three on Saturday.

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Black History texts such as these go out of print quickly–and often are not replaced by anything else.

New Beacon also had books that preserve and teach history in other ways. For example, I bought one of photographer Joan Solomon’s beautiful multicultural books from her The Way We Live series, first published in the 1980s. Sweet-Tooth Sunil is a story of a British family celebrating Diwali; other books in the series include Sikh, Jewish, Caribbean, Chinese, and Japanese families.

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Solomon did a series of photo picture books in Britain’s multicultural communities.

And finally, I bought books that I’ve been meaning to pick up for some time, before they disappear completely (and other than used book sites, New Beacon is the only place I’ve ever seen them). The independent publisher Verna Wilkins produced a series at Tamarind around the turn of this century called “Black Profiles” that showcased Black Britons who had achieved success in their fields despite any setbacks they may have encountered. These books were meant to inspire young Black Britons to do the same, and the books covered a wide range of people. When Tamarind became a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, the Black Profiles series was revamped, changed from a hardcover series with watercolor illustrations designed for the library market to a trade paperback series for the general market, with cover photographs instead of illustrations. The PRH version was perhaps more appealing to the young reader, but one of the editorial decisions made about the revamped series was to change the name, from Black Profiles to Black Stars. This new name made a subtle allusion to Black History, but it also meant that successful figures like the surgeon Samantha Tross disappeared from the series. New Beacon had both for sale.

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Verna Wilkins of Tamarind published the Black Profiles series before the company was bought out by Penguin Random House.

I’m delighted that New Beacon will remain open, even if the changes they make may mean I won’t find quite so many older treasures. It will nonetheless remain one of the few places in Britain where you can find children’s books for and about BAME people in every imaginable category and by every kind of writer. And that is something that everyone in Britain (and outside it) should celebrate.

Questioning Normal: Children’s Literature that reminds you what is, and should be, ordinary

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Blackman has long played with the idea of “normal” for Black British children’s books, partly through embracing the genre of science fiction.

Have you ever read a book and had to remind yourself about some aspect of a character because they seemed so “normal”? Oftentimes, though not always, this idea of the normal simply means “this character seemed so much like me that I forgot about *insert attribute that is not like you*”. If the attribute that you insert is about the color of the color of the character’s skin or their ethnicity, the idea of “normal” becomes more than just a curiosity. Often in books (at least those published in the UK and the US), characters are presumed to be white until proven otherwise. Child readers, and many adult readers as well, do not always question the consequences of presuming that characters in books will be white. But assuming whiteness as normal has an effect on individual readers, as well as what gets published, particularly for children.

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How do readers define normal? Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, pictures by Elaine Mills, offers one definition.

My own interest in Black British children’s literature came from a discussion with a Black British friend (now my husband) who said he didn’t read any kids’ books growing up because he wasn’t in them. This is a story that I have come across in my research more than once, not only in terms of what kids read, but what kids write. Both the philosopher Darren Chetty (in multiple articles, which you can find listed here: https://www.tes.com/news/author/darren-chetty) and the publisher Verna Wilkins, have discussed how children’s literature is perceived by child readers to be a “whites only” world. In an article in the Guardian, Wilkins links this realization to her decision to become a publisher: she “explained that she was moved to launch the publisher when her son came home from school with a booklet, on which he had coloured a picture of himself in pink. She offered him a brown crayon to fix it. “It has to be that colour. It’s for a book!” he told her.”I had no choice. I had to become a publisher,” said Wilkins” (article by Alison Flood, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/20/diversity-children-books-colour-young-people). Wilkins wanted to normalize the Black British experience in her books for all readers.

That desire to make the Black British experience normal occasionally brought Wilkins in for some criticism, however. In a review of Wilkins’ first book, Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book (1987), Ama Gueye worries about “the lack of “reference pointers . . . which make any strong statement about Kay’s Afro-Caribbean cultural background” (“Review: Tamarind” Dragon’s Teeth Summer 1987: 22). Wilkins, however, did not want to write/publish books that highlighted otherness; for her, writing Black British characters in situations that readers from many backgrounds (including the dominant one) would also identify with and understand was the best way to make Black British children’s literature “normal”.

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Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Chalk Doll tells the story of a Caribbean birthday–different, but still “normal”? Pictures by Frane Lessac.

Another, almost opposite, way to approach the same question is by introducing experiences of people from outside the dominant (racial/gender/ability/ethnic) group as normal too. Author Chitra Soundar, for example, blogged about the idea of the birthday in children’s picture books, and her search for books that would show birthday experiences that go beyond the British birthday party (http://picturebookden.blogspot.com/2017/01/celebrating-birthdays-from-many-cultures.html; if you know of any that she may have missed, I know she would love for you to comment on the site!). She makes the point in her blog that too many picture books show only one version of normal, and this can alienate children from their cultural background. The downside of this approach is not in the books themselves, but in the way that publishers and booksellers often “exoticize” these alternative normalities, marketing them as only interesting to particular groups or teachers wanting a culturally diverse book collection. The result, as Soundar’s blog points out, is that these books often go out of print quickly, because they are not seen as books for “all” or “normal” (both adjectives which generally are code words for “white”) readers.

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Nina is Not OK–but she’s not “ethnic” either.

For authors who are not white, the idea of “normal” can have an effect on how they think about their own work. Last week, I was very excited to see the longlist for the Jhalak Prize, a new prize exclusively for writers of color in the UK. It follows in the tradition of other prizes, particularly for children’s literature such as the Collins/Fontana Award for Multi-Ethnic Literature (awarded in the 1970s) and the Other Award (from the 1970s to the 1980s), which highlight the achievements of writers and books about characters from outside the dominant group. The Jhalak Prize is not exclusively for children’s books, but their judging panel includes two authors who have written for young people, and considers children’s literature as well as adult literature. Most of the authors longlisted, including YA authors Malorie Blackman (Chasing the Stars), Patrice Lawrence (Orangeboy) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Girl of Ink and Stars) expressed their pleasure at being nominated, but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina is Not OK, asked that her book be withdrawn from consideration. She explained on Twitter that she was flattered, but “my novel is nothing to do with ethnic identity” (for more, see Katherine Cowdrey’s article in The Bookseller, http://www.thebookseller.com/news/shappi-khorsandi-withdraws-book-jhalak-prize-long-list-463586 or listen to Khorsandi’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme from Saturday 7th January). So if a book is about non-ethnic—or normal?—topics, then it cannot, in Khorsandi’s mind, be considered for an award for authors of color. This suggests that the “ethnic” experience is definable, and different, than the experience of the dominant majority. And sometimes it is, as Chitra Soundar’s experience attests—but sometimes it isn’t, as Verna Wilkins tries to show in her books. When I made my list of “50 Books to Diversify your Classroom” for the Times Educational Supplement in October (https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499), I tried to consider multiple types of experiences. Because normal is not a single point on the continuum of children’s literature and experiences, but a range—and as readers, and selectors of books for children, we need to expand our own definition of what constitutes normal.

The Architecture of Home and Empire in Children’s Books

Last week, I did my blog on migrants, but this week I was prompted by a friend looking at “vernacular architecture” in children’s books about Africa and the Caribbean to do some thinking about the pictures of “home” that appear in children’s books, and why those pictures matter. For many beginning readers, children’s books are a first source of information about what the world looks like beyond their front doors, and so both the text and the pictures that these stories include matter; I would argue that the pictures matter more than text in creating a lasting impression in the mind of the child.

 

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I grew up with illustrations like these from Syd Hoff (from A Book About Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross) where naked natives lived in the woods.

Take this little quiz, for example: In what kind of houses did the indigenous people Christopher Columbus encountered live? When I asked myself this question, I came up with a blank—not poor houses or huts, but no houses at all. I have a collection of Columbus books for children, and started to look through them, and realized how this lack may have been created in my mind. Many children’s books about Columbus show the “natives” on the beach or in the jungle, but never show them where they lived, slept, or ate. Robinson Crusoe, as the Ladybird Read-it-Yourself version from 1978 depicts him, built a house in a matter of days. The man Crusoe rescues has no home and no name—Crusoe gives “Friday” both, and with them come the benefits of civilization.

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Crusoe rebuilds civilization in the Caribbean, complete with English flag, in this depiction from the Ladybird version with pictures by Robert Ayton.

This can lead to a leap of logic that the “natives” didn’t have homes, allowing for the racist narrative of indigenous people as being animal-like, living off the earth in trees or caves, to be easier to accept. In children’s picture books written and illustrated by white Europeans, this image of indigenous people living “nowhere” can extend to any black or brown people in the global south. Jimmy Buffett’s Jolly Mon (Harcourt Brace 1988) is one example of an author whose book depicts the “simplicity” (“Storyteller’s Note”) of the Caribbean and never shows its people near anything other than cabanas. Gillian Oxford’s Anansi the Spider-Man for Heinemann (1999) gives the main character a straw hut with no door or windows to live in.

 

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In this version of Anansi the Spider-Man, the lovely Miss Selina lives in a straw hut without any door. Pictures by Gilly Marklew.

But the modern Caribbean is not at all a collection of grass huts or beach cabanas. And authors/illustrators can get it right; the “My Home” series from the late 1950s depicts Trinidadians living in modern, if rural, settings with houses that have windows and doors. It is true that the architecture in the Caribbean is different than it is in Europe, reflecting not the poverty or lack of civilization of the people, but the climate. Caribbean homes have to be built to withstand flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, so they are often built of cement blocks and placed up on stilts. The verandas that surround many Caribbean houses give a place for people to gather and enjoy the cool breezes at the end of the day. Authors with Caribbean connections depict these “vernacular” architectural features as a matter of course, but non-Caribbean viewers may not see or understand them, just as someone not from Buffalo might misunderstand the need for the three entry doors to my house (every single one is for insulation against the freezing winters, not as some sort of Fort Knox protection).

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Isabel Crombie’s My Home in Trinidad has houses with windows and doors.  You can just see the cement blocks on which the house is resting.

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Houses in Verna Wilkins’ Hurricane (Tamarind 2004) show the verandas common to Caribbean houses.

An understanding of the purposes behind vernacular architecture features also needs to be applied to early Black British literature for children in order to understand it today. Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headmistress in the UK and mother to Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy, deliberately tried to counter some of the racist images of how Caribbean migrants lived when she wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers series in the early 1970s. In Knock at Mrs Herbs’ (1973), Gilroy depicts the communal homes shared by Caribbean migrants when they arrived in Britain; these homes, usually crumbling Victorian mansions, were bought communally and shared amongst several families when they found themselves turned away from white-owned lodging houses. The house where Roy lives shows the ways that community is valued in the notes that neighbors leave each other to tell their whereabouts; it also shows solidarity through the Black Power messages on the wall. In Bubu’s Street (1975), the outside of such homes are shown, and it is the Black residents who are living in fixed-up and newly-painted homes of bright colors. That they did the fixing up is implied by the boarded up and broken-windowed homes in dull brick right next door. Gilroy counters the narrative that Black migrants did not care about their homes and were happy to live in slums by the images she creates in her books.

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Gilroy’s Knock at Mrs Herbs’ creates a sense of community through text and pictures (illustrations by Shyam Varma).

 

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Gilroy’s Bubu’s Street counters stereotypes about Black migrants to Britain and their homes. Pictures by George Him.

Home is a basic concept in children’s books, particularly in picture books for the very young. The architecture of home has traditionally been connected, in books about Black people, with the racist assumptions of empire. We need to ensure that we are sharing books with children that depict “vernacular architecture” accurately, but also with understanding of why and how the architecture came about. Because how we think about ourselves and others, especially for children, is intimately tied up with ideas about home.