Tag Archives: World Book Day

Into the Wild, Into the World: David Almond’s Island

British author David Almond has spent his career writing books for children and young adults that explore the idea of wildness.  Sometimes it is the wildness outside the main character, such as in the much-lauded 1998 novel Skellig.  Sometimes it is the wilderness and the ancient myths called forth by landscape, as in the 2014 A Song for Ella Grey which retells Orpheus and Eurydice along the Bamburgh dunes.  Sometimes it is the wildness within a character, as in the 2008 graphic novel, created with illustrator Dave McKean, The Savage.  The idea of the wild and untamed is, Almond’s novels suggest, a part of all of us as well as all that surrounds us; understanding it can give us insight into our pain and accepting it can often help us heal what is broken.

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Almond’s books connect young people with an ancient wildness, inside and outside of themselves.

Knowing about Almond’s focus on the wild is important for understanding his recent novella, Island (Hodder, 2017).  Island was a £1 World Book Day selection in the UK, meaning that the book is sold for a single pound, until it is out of print, and school children in the UK can use their National Book Token to get it for free.  World Book Day is connected with UNESCO; however, the British celebration is not a government initiative but a charity, and therefore reliant on the generous support of authors and publishers who are willing to participate (you can read more about it here: http://www.worldbookday.com/about/).  The books this year, like the shortlisted books for the Carnegie Medal, were all written by white authors, something I (and others—see http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/childrens-literature/world-book-day-2017-selections-criticism/13835 for a summary) complained about (in this particular moment, when there are so many great writers of colour in the UK, it seemed absurd that not one was asked to write for this celebration).  I doubt it had anything to do with me, but I do want to point out that since the announcement of the selections and resulting criticism, the World Book Day website has highlighted several books with diverse authors and characters.

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Almond’s Island was a 2017 World Book Day selection.

However, the lack of diversity in authors made me even keener to read Almond’s selection.  In addition to admiring Almond’s dreamlike prose, and having had my own personal pilgrimage to the book’s setting of Lindisfarne (Northumbria’s Holy Island), I was curious to see how Almond would develop the character of Hassan, a boy from Syria.  His initial appearance in the novella comes as white British Louise, through whom the novel is focalized, is traveling with her father to Lindisfarne, an island only reachable by a causeway in low tide.  Louise and her father travel to the Holy Island every year to remember Louise’s mother, now dead, and the happy times they had as a family there.  The island, therefore, is both wild and familiar to Louise, and—as with the wild in Almond’s other books—represents a place where she can connect with her past and heal her pain in the beauty of nature.  “We’ve been coming here every year, ever since Mum died.  It’s a holiday that’s also a pilgrimage, a journey into the beautiful past” (6), Louise says.

The boy they pass on the causeway seems to be an intrusion into this beautiful past; Louise’s father instantly labels the boy an outsider (“doesn’t look like he comes from here, does he?” he says on page eight) and refuses to offer him a ride or any other assistance.  Strangers, for Louise’s father, are dangerous.  He tells her, “The world’s going through some very dark days.  You’ve got to be careful” (10).  Louise has a more sympathetic view of the boy, but she nonetheless also describes him in terms of otherness; she writes in her journal that “He comes from nothing, from nowhere” and “He seems to be walking from a dream . . . I think he might be very beautiful” (16).  Beauty is not entirely redeeming for Louise, because she concludes her journal entry by saying, “I think he might be terrifying” (17).  It is no coincidence that both Louise and her father connect the boy with terror, since it turns out that the boy—Hassan—is from Syria.  Almond constantly exposes the orientalist ideas that white British people have about Syrians; Hassan even exploits these ideas by performing magic tricks for tourists’ money.  Hassan tells them that in Syria, “I perform, with the snake charmers and the acrobats and the singers and the storytellers” (73); Almond says that the tourists are “entranced by him . . . they want to be entranced by him” (73).  This is the acceptable version of the mysterious East, but more troublesome versions of the stereotype—the terrorist and the refugee—are also lurking.  Hassan asks Louise if she thinks of him as a refugee and the question “embarrasses” her because she “doesn’t know” the answer (59).  Hassan questions Louise’s father’s new girlfriend directly as well: “Do you think I am one of those people? Because of Syria and my skin.  That I was in London with my knife? That I am a terrorist come to Lindisfarne with dreams of slaughter?” (85-86).  Almond’s island is a microcosm of white British (and American—Louise’s father’s girlfriend is from Missouri) attitudes toward Syrians and Middle Easterners

But Almond also shows us—literally—a different picture.  Two different pictures, in fact.  One is Louise’s childhood drawing, still preserved, in the upside-down boat which has been turned into a shed that comes with the cottage they return to every year.  Louise looks for the drawing upon her arrival, “the pencil drawing I made when I was four, the three of us in an upside-down boat surrounded by moons and stars . . . Dad calls it my cave painting, created in a distant past, at the very birth of the world” (18).  This “cave painting,” connecting Louise with wildness, contrasts with Hassan’s very modern picture—a photograph that he shows her, evidence that Syrians too are connected with Lindisfarne.  The photographer, Hassan’s father, took the picture of Louise and her parents years ago.  Hassan’s pilgrimage is to a place that he, like Louise, belongs to, its wild and civilized parts, its modern and its ancient.  In typical poetic fashion, Almond breaks down stereotypes and connects humanity through the timelessness of nature.  At the end of the book Louise kisses Hassan, at the same time imagining, not just herself in the upside-down boat, but “all of us . . . all the living and the dead, all carried upside down through the astounding stars” (119).  Island is a hopeful small book that takes readers into the wild—and into the diverse and astounding world.

Whose World? World Book Day and the £1 selections for 2017

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Blackman’s Eye for an Eye was a World Book Day selection in 2003, but there are no BAME authors on the 2017 list.

Last week, the World Book Day selection committee in the UK announced their titles for 2017—and they have spent this week defending them.

The event, for those who don’t know, is held yearly in the UK, and originally started as a parallel event to UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day, held annually on Shakespeare’s birthday (23rd April). The UK event has since been moved to March, but it continues to promote reading through offering several choices of £1 books (for which most school children are given a book token anyway, making the books free for many). The choices are at various reading levels (so, this year there are pre-school choices and choices for KS1, KS2 and KS3 level readers) but otherwise are quite random; one of the joys of World Book Day is that one might get a £1 book from any author, and it may be the only time that particular story (the books are usually fairly short) is printed

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Enid Blyton’s stories are among the World Book Day choices for 2017.

So I was disappointed this year, along with many other people, to find that the World Book Day selections contained very little in the way of diversity. Peppa Pig, Where’s Wally?, and Horrid Henry, and the Famous Five provide familiar characters—all of them white (well, except for the pigs) and decidedly middle class, and none of them books that will in any way challenge the status quo. Of course there’s nothing wrong with books about middle-class white British people (or pigs), and I’m sure many children will enjoy the selections. But for a young BAME reader who is looking for something that reflects their own experience, they will not find it in this selection.

David Almond’s book is the only one on the list that clearly indicates the inclusion of a major character who is not white British, and I’m looking forward to reading it (especially because its setting, Lindisfarne Island, is one of my favorite places in the world). But Hassan is not the book’s protagonist; rather he is someone who “fascinates” the central character Louise because of the mystery and danger surrounding him, according to the World Book Day information pages (http://www.worldbookday.com/book/island/).

I am not arguing that David Almond, or any of the other authors for that matter, should have included more or more central BAME characters. I would certainly rather see well-written books about middle-class white children than books that try to be “inclusive” without any kind of thought or effort or understanding of what they are trying to include. This only leads to tokenism—the sidekick friend who brings chapattis for lunch, or the outsider immigrant who is “saved” from isolation by the kindness of the white protagonist or adult. I have my own personal concerns about some of the attitudes that these books embrace, but I do not particularly want to single out individual selections for criticism.

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Children in the UK are often asked to dress up as their favorite book character for World Book Day, but some critics have pointed out that BAME children do not have favorites who look like them.

Because the point is not about the individual selections, but about the group selection. White faces on the covers, white main characters, white authors. Nikesh Shukla, the editor of the new and important The Good Immigrant, told Charlotte Eyre of The Bookseller that voracious readers are made “by design not accident” (http://www.thebookseller.com/news/wbd-defends-selection-after-lack-diversity-claims-393726). That design, for any child, includes books that are comfortable and books that are challenging; books that reflect their own existence and books that teach them about the existence of others. For me growing up in the US, that meant Corduroy and Bedtime for Frances, Little Women and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. We didn’t have World Book Day, but we had Scholastic Book Club, which offered (and still offers) cheap paperback editions of books for schoolchildren, and all of these books were part of their repertoire at one time or another. Groups that are trying to get books at low- or no-cost into children’s hands have a responsibility to think about the wide audience that they are trying to serve.

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Don Freeman’s Corduroy offered readers like me a window into someone else’s world at the same time that it provided African-American readers with characters that looked familiar.

 

WBD director, Kirsten Grant, argued that the lack of diversity in the 2017 book selection was not the fault of the selection committee. “Each year, publishers are invited to nominate their authors to write a £1 World Book Day book,” she told the Bookseller. If publishers don’t offer it, they can’t include it. Perhaps that is true—but is it not then the WDB selection committee’s responsibility to encourage the publishers to offer a broader selection? There are clearly guidelines for the books they do consider in terms of length and (to some extent) content (“age appropriate” in some way). There are books at each level with boy and girl protagonists, so clearly that is a consideration. I don’t know how they approach the publishers, but I’m guessing that if they simply added in a line to their invitation to submit a book saying, we are looking for books that represent the broad range of experiences and cultures found in the UK (or something similar), the number of books with BAME characters (and maybe even authors) they had to choose from would increase. It would be nice, of course, if they didn’t have to do this—it would be nice if publishers sought out these authors and books more often on their own, not just for World Book Day but for their own lists. But merely saying, oh, publishers didn’t send us anything good is not enough. Because everyone involved in the children’s book industry is responsible for encouraging and embracing books for all children.

 

I happened to be in the UK for World Book Day in 2003, and was so excited that one of the selections was Malorie Blackman’s An Eye for an Eye. To me, the selection summed up the best of British literature: it was high-quality fantasy that both challenged and absorbed readers, accessible to its reading level without being dumbed down. It also happened to deal with issues of race and racism. Not every book that WBD offers will do all (or even most) of what Blackman can do. But more of them can—and should.