The National Book League has recently published a new booklist – a selection of books for children and young people in multi-cultural Britain.
Ruth Ballin, Jean Bleach and Josie Levine explain the background against which they chose books for
A Wider Heritage
We are at a point of change. Awareness among the majority of the multicultural nature of British society is increasing; contrasting feelings about the future of minorities within this society are being expressed more openly than ever before by minority and majority alike; research reveals problems of racism not only at large but also in schools; but happily, the voices of the minority communities are being heard with increasing force – and, in some areas at least, being taken seriously.
How is all this reflected in the world of books? Beginning to be taken seriously by publishers and colleagues in the `educating’ professions are the voices of a forceful minority of teachers, librarians, parents and community groups who, for a decade or so, have been questioning the attitudes that underlie our society, and hence, among other things, curricula in schools and publishing for schools and young people. Their view, in the matter of books and curriculum, is that schools and publishers, by the sin of omission, contribute to and maintain a form of institutionalised racism, and in so doing collude to demean and consequently damage young people in our community, whether they are members of minority groups or of the so-called majority.
Indeed, here we are entering the 1980s, and we find ourselves still asking questions like: why cannot all groups find themselves reflected and playing strong roles in books? And: why isn’t it normal to expect the values of all societies and backgrounds to be represented in books so that it is possible to deepen understanding both of one’s own group and of others? Where these books do exist, why isn’t it easy to get hold of them? Some writers get taken up only by minority publishers and other books go out of print before they have had time to gain a hold. These are serious matters and create great obstacles to giving children access to a wider heritage.
What of the books that are available? Those for younger children are in some cases little more than an acknowledgement that children from cultures other than white, Anglo-Saxon, middle class can be represented in books. They offer an environment out of which more positive assertions can come. Mostly, they do not take up issues. Mostly, they are written from the `outside’. Perhaps for this to change we have to wait till some of the children grow into writers themselves. Where they have (some are in print with minority publishers) there is a sense of urgency and authenticity which refuses to be ignored.
Older children will be at many different points in the process of entering into an understanding of the effects of racism on individuals and societies. These stages correspond, to some extent, with the many ways of thinking that exist about oppressed and minority groups. Some books available though `liberal’ and `generous’ for their time, can be considered now to present outdated views. This does not disqualify them. They remain, under some conditions, ways into understanding, just as they were when first written – so long as they are not the only books that children read.
Books should make it possible for children to enter imaginatively the lives of people other than themselves (maybe other groups than their own; maybe their own group but where the experience is different from their own through differences in time and place); and for them, through this reading, to create for themselves a `virtual world’ that enables them both to understand their own present position better and also to empathise with that of other people. But books must also be `good to read’ in their own right, not simply fulfil an educational, emotional or moral purpose.
This is the background against which we compiled A Wider Heritage. At present the publication of books for multi-cultural understanding in Britain burgeons; a real sign of the increase in awareness we mentioned earlier. Our list is not the end of the matter. There are journals which regularly review new publications. There are and will be other bibliographies.
If all present criteria were fulfilled in the matter of producing anti-racist and non-racist books, there still remains the challenge of what is and is not `acceptable’. For example, myth and legend, and, say, Caribbean literature are no longer the contentious issues they once were (although the myth and legend of some cultures is still more `acceptable’ than that of others even when they deal with the same underlying themes!). But, the question remains. How far – and, therefore, how seriously – are we prepared to extend hospitality in our homes and classrooms to the perspectives offered by a different culture and political ideology? How should we respond to books from Red China published by Foreign Language Press, Peking, for instance? We own to a feeling that the direct messages of joint endeavour and mutual help in these books demonstrate a certainty of values – and useful values at that – which it would be good to see in some children’s books published here.
Ruth Ballin is Assistant Warden at the ILEA Centre for Language in Primary Education. Jean Bleach is Head of English at Langdon Park School, London and Josie Levine lectures in the English Department of the London University Institute of Education.
They have worked together in compiling A Wider Heritage drawing on their experience with children, young people and teachers, and the ways in which they respond to and use books. `The consumers have had their say, albeit indirectly, as much as we have.’ They recognise that at the current stage of publishing, `any list must inevitably have gaps’ and `some of the books one does choose are barely adequate to do the range of jobs we need done in the classroom.’ Yet they believe it is important to publish. The list is a reflection of the situation in 1980 – a contribution to the achievement of a society which is genuinely multi-cultural.