This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on November 18, 2016
This blog appeared simultaneously on Karen Sands-O’Connor’s blog, https://theracetoread.wordpress.com/. Professor Sands-O’Connor teaches at SUNY Buffalo State and just completed a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book and Newcastle University. Her book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2017.
When my London philosopher friend, Darren Chetty, asked me to write an article for the Times Educational Supplement with him, I didn’t hesitate to do it. First, because I admire Darren’s work; he gets into the schools and talks to kids about issues of ‘race’ and racism, providing not only a venue for their discussions but a model for their teachers (you can find discussions of his work in “The Elephant in the Room: Picturebooks, Philosophy for Children and Racism” as well as in “‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be about White People,’” his chapter in Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant). Second, I wanted to do it because the TES is putting out really thoughtful pieces right now about education in an increasingly restrictive world (restricted by testing and assessment, worries over immigration, lack of funding, among other things). But mostly, I wanted to help because when people find out I research Black British literature for children, their first question is, “Oh, is there much of that out there?”
One of the elements that the TES wanted in the article was a “diverse” book list, and they were willing to let me do it my way. That meant, for me, a list of books with main characters who were British and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic—I’m not hugely fond of acronyms that “other” but it is the one that it is currently in greatest use in Britain), written and/or illustrated (at least one or the other, and preferably both) by BAME authors and artists. The reason for this is simple: if Britons know any book with a BAME main character, it is likely to have been written or drawn by a white author or illustrator. The most popular “diverse” books over the past half-century, and the ones that have stayed in print, have been written by people outside of the community that they are writing about. In some cases, such as Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft or Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace, the Black British main character is actually based on a real white child. Publishers want books that will appeal to white readers—because, as in the United States, white readers are in the majority. But making the white reader comfortable with a BAME character often means erasing much of what the white reader would find unfamiliar or strange. It often means leaving institutional racism and the status quo unchallenged, giving preference to assimilation, making happy endings that reassure white readers. It also sets up a problematic cycle, particularly in children’s literature, where most of the books are purchased by adults rather than the intended child readers. Book buyers purchase books that make them comfortable; child readers never see the books that might challenge the status quo or better represent BAME communities; these challenging books then go out of print because publishers say that they aren’t viable and/or that BAME children “don’t read” or don’t want BAME books. I’m guessing that most teachers and librarians will find Amazing Grace, if they haven’t already. But I wanted, with my list, to give them something they might not find.
But it wasn’t necessarily easy for me to find those books either. I’m fairly familiar with children’s authors who write about Afro-Caribbean characters; it’s my main field of research. The TES, however, wanted books that represented multiple BAME communities. I had to read a lot, look at multiple blogs and websites, find out about the authors and illustrators—and then find books of theirs that were still in print. Although I double-checked books against more than one bookstore/website, including the fantastic Letterbox Library and independent publishers’ websites such as Firetree Books and Hope Road Publishing, my friends at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book have already (less than two months after the appearance of the list) tried ordering the books and have found some unavailable. And so far, none of the publishers who let really good classic BAME texts go out of print have contacted me to say that they made a mistake in doing so and have set up a print run for any of the “Bring Back into Print” texts I recommended (okay, maybe this was just a fantasy of mine—but the TES was willing to endorse it!). I hope that this does not put off people—teachers, librarians, parents—who truly want to represent the world through books for their children. Because to be fair, my list is just one of many that have been written over the years. It is up to all of us to keep the pressure on the publishing and book industry to ensure that these books stay in print and that more books are published. That means buying them, promoting them, reading them ourselves. It is an effort, but we who care about books and children must make the effort. As Darren and I say in our article, “when kids start seeing themselves and their classmates in books, they learn that they all have a role to play—in the classroom, in books and in Britain’s literary heritage.”
You can read our article, “Why Diversity Should Start at Story Time,” in the TES from September 30, 2016. You can download a free poster with my list of 50 diverse titles from the TES at their website, https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.