Imaginary Worlds Where Everyone Is the Same Colour

Kate Agnew, The Guardian (Manchester), October 7, 2008

In the early-90s I was working as a children’s bookseller in Cambridge when a teacher asked me to suggest a book for her to read to her first year juniors class. I can’t remember which book I pulled from the shelves, but her reaction sticks in my mind—a blunt refusal to consider the book I’d recommended. It had a black child on the cover and there were no black children in her class. Newly arrived from bustling, multicultural London, I didn’t know which was more shocking—her attitude, or the lack of diversity in her class. She was not, I was relieved to find, typical of Cambridge teachers, but her reaction was a salutary reminder of the insidiously narrow-minded parochialism of too much of the children’s books market.

In the 1980s, Grenada-born Verna Wilkins was even more horrified when her son brought home from school a “This Is Me” project in which his face had been painted pink; the teacher had given everyone the same “flesh-colour” paints. His explanation—it had to be that colour to be in a book—lingered in his mother’s mind as she founded Tamarind Books, a company devoted to publishing multicultural children’s books.

Wilkins was very aware of the potential “dangers of omission”, conscious of what can happen to children who “don’t develop a sense of self”. For black kids, “things begin to deteriorate by the age of 10”. Pondering the factors behind the high exclusion rate among black teenagers, she comments that “learning has no value if it is not grounded in your own experience. Children need to see their own world reflected in what they read”. Black children being excluded from the learning materials in their primary schools is, she believes, the first step on a slippery slope to rising school exclusions.

Under-represented

A report by the Diversity in Publishing network found that people from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds were significantly under-represented in the publishing industry. Even ethnically diverse London boroughs only have a small number of BME literacy coordinators. The situation troubles Joy Donaldson, primary teaching and learning consultant for the London borough of Camden. “There’s not enough material available from mainstream sources,” she says. Developing community cohesion is a key governmental objective and inclusion is central to its delivery. “What better way than through books?”

Donaldson deplores how few books feature Asian children in a central role, and notes that too many books featuring BME families tend to be written from an African-American or African-Caribbean perspective. Black British children are not, she says, seeing their experience reflected in books. One honorable exception is Kofi Wanted To Be A Bad Bwoy by Mushirah Wilson, a book that she finds particularly successful with disaffected boys. She also applauds the fact that more good quality non-fiction is being published, citing Wilkins’ biography of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.

When I ask what else Donaldson recommends, she laughingly rattles through a list of what she calls “the usuals”: Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne, So Much! by Trish Cooke and Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace. These are books that most primary schools are aware of, though Donaldson speaks deprecatingly of those schools where BME-focused books come out for October’s Black History Month, only to get “tidied away” come November.

She likes to introduce schools to Fruits: A Caribbean Counting Poem by Valerie Bloom, The Best Mum by Sarah Nash, and I Love My Hair! by Natasha Tarpley. Conscious that there are still not enough dual heritage books, she’s fond of My Two Grannies by Floella Benjamin in which two very different childhoods are interwoven with gently comic domestic contretemps.

For Deborah Alexander, a year 2 teacher at Bounds Green infants, a London school where most pupils come from a minority ethnic group, what really matters is having “high quality books that portray ordinary children and everyday events”.

Dual heritage

The Bounds Green children particularly enjoy the Charlie and Lola series, in which Lola’s best friend Lotta is black. Choosing books both for her class and for her dual heritage children at home, she looks for a strong text and well-executed illustrations. Like Donaldson, she is an enthusiastic advocate of Fly, Eagle, Fly!, an African tale retold by Christopher Gregorowski. Popular with her class is Wake Up, World!, a book that explores the early morning experiences of children around the world.

As I trawl US publishing lists looking for books to supplement the meagre British offerings for Black History Month, it’s hard not to be despondent about what still seems to me a lack of relevant titles from British publishers. Wilkins, though, is upbeat. This month Tamarind Books is celebrating its move to Random House, and she is expanding its list. Even better is the effect of Wilkins’ presence at the high profile Random House on other publishers. “They’ve had to up their image,” she says proudly, “There’s so much to do still. But the change is happening.”

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