In their latest Beyond the Secret Garden feature examining the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic voices in children’s literature, Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor look at the Kate Greenaway Medal and recent children’s books.
In 1936, following the lead of the American Library Association, the British Library Association created its first prize for children’s books, the Carnegie Medal. It was nearly twenty years before they added a medal specifically for illustration, named after one of the great Victorian illustrators, Kate Greenaway. The award was announced in 1955 and was offered for ‘distinguished illustration in a book for children’ (CILIP Carnegie Greenaway website); however, no book that year was considered suitable and thus the first Kate Greenaway winner, Edward Ardizzone, came in 1956. Like its counterpart the Carnegie Medal, the Kate Greenaway Medal ‘has yet to be awarded to a book by a Black British author/illustrator, and only once (in 1967) went to a book with a contemporary Black British main character’ (Sands-O’Connor, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 159); the 1967 winner was Charles Keeping for Charley, Charlotte, and the Golden Canary. In 1973, the judges gave ‘honourable mention’ to Black British illustrator Errol Lloyd for his collaboration with Petronella Breinburg on My Brother Sean, but the winner that year was Raymond Briggs for Father Christmas.
Taking the Kate Greenaway Medal winners as a group, they have continued to be almost exclusively white authors (not all of them British) writing about white (or animal) characters.
However, as with the Carnegie Medal, the Kate Greenaway Medal judging criteria have undergone a revision in order to include consideration of ‘diversity’ (broadly defined to include protected characteristics in the Equality Act of 2010). The new criteria encourage judges to consider ‘silencing’ and the possibility that picture books might contribute to or reinforce existing societal inequality or discrimination. They inform judges that, ‘[w]hile there is no single correct way to achieve representation, there are ways that can be outmoded, problematic or tokenistic.’ With that in mind, we thought we would highlight some of the books that have been nominated for the 2021 Kate Greenaway Medal that depict racially minoritised characters.
Several of the books on the nominations list this year are influenced by Middle Eastern or South Asian art styles. Because these books are produced by illustrators from or with family connections to those cultures, they certainly are ‘appropriate, well-researched, respectful visual representation’ (Kate Greenaway Medal Criteria), but they also do something more. Poonam Mistry, who has been nominated for the last two years for her collaborations with Chitra Soundar (You’re Safe with Me, 2019, and You’re Snug with Me, 2020) and whose art is influenced by Madhubani paintings and Kalamkari textiles from India, has written and illustrated this year’s nomination, How the Stars Came to Be (Tate Publishing). Using her trademark stylised depictions of animals and nature, this book includes an Indian girl and her father as characters, and tells a folktale that is both familiar in characteristics (as folktales should be) but also different enough ‘so that the story feels fresh or reimagined’ (Medal Criteria).
Iranian-born Ehsan Abdollahi’s illustrations for Jackie Morris’s retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Secret of the Tattered Shoes (Tiny Owl), include multiracial princesses who are portrayed in shades of grey during night-time scenes. The colour palette works ‘to establish mood and convey emotion’ (Medal Criteria) by depicting the time of day, but also the darkness of the princesses who are unconcerned about the deaths that result from their secret. Reza Dalvand’s illustrations for Sufiya Ahmed’s Under the Great Plum Tree (Tiny Owl), a story from the Panchatantra, use similarly stylized and graphic elements ‘inspired by Indo-Persian traditions’ (Under the Great Plum Tree)—but his colour palette is brighter and he makes more use of white space than Mistry. Sharon King-Chai, who began her career as a designer, uses silver foil in her nominated book, Starbird (Two Hoots Books), to ‘contribute to the subject or theme of the book’ (Medal Criteria), which is about the need for all creatures to be free. All these illustrators have elements of visual representation that includes consideration of diversity, but they also critically use artistic and graphic techniques to create a unique reading experience.
In The Garden Of Inside – Outside (Book Island) French artist Régis Lejonc illustrates Chiara Mezzalama’s autobiographical tale based on her experience of living in Tehran in 1981 as the young daughter of Italy’s ambassador to Iran. This is the time of the Islamic Revolution, the hostage crisis and war with Iraq. The book has been a huge success in France, winning several prizes. The story, translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone, focuses on the notion of there being an inside and outside for Chiara and her family but shows both danger and friendship transgressing the boundary between these two positions so that a third space of ‘inside-outside’ emerges. The unusual size dimensions, the use of felt-tip pens and elements of Persian design, and the hybrid style which combines picture book and graphic novel elements, make this a visually striking book. Young Chiara is confined to the garden of the old palace and it is there that she encounters Masoud, an Iranian boy who scales the garden wall. Lejonc’s beautifully detailed images of the garden and the reference to ‘this secret garden’ lends the book the feel of a classic – and whilst this tale differs from Hodgson Burnett in that a non-European child does actually enter the secret garden, we learn very little about him and his life. This may be explained by the autobiographical nature of the tale, and it being written largely from the perspective of young Chiara. Contextual notes are helpfully offered at the front of the book. However, Masoud remains largely unknowable. Indeed, the game the two children play – he as ‘Persian prince,’ Chiara as ‘lion-taming princess and snake -charming enchantress’ – can be viewed as rather orientalist. The likelihood that this is an actual recollection of the author raises interesting questions about perspective and childhood autobiography written for children. Chiara is depicted on the cover with her brother. Masoud is not shown. This allows the reader to share some of the surprise when he enters the garden. Yet it may also serve to reduce his status in the story. This is noteworthy as it is the character of Masoud alone who physically transgresses the boundary around which the story is structured. And whilst his actions are depicted as transformative for Chiara, Masoud perhaps appears unable to transgress stereotypical notions of the ‘mysterious East’.
Clean Up! (Penguin), written by Nathan Bryon and illustrated by Dapo Adeola, is the second book, after Look Up!, to feature Rocket and her family. There are neat visual references to Look Up! amongst the items on Rocket’s bedroom. Rocket and her family take off for a holiday in the Caribbean where they visit her surfer Grammy and animal-loving Grampy. Rocket is an active seeker of knowledge, curious about the world. She learns about pollution from Grampy. But she is also depicted dancing, cleaning and eating candy-floss with him. Whilst she remains centre stage she is lifted up by the warmth of extended family and community.
Adeola’s characters, with their larger-than-life heads, bold colours and clean lines appear to be inspired by cartoons but are naturalistic enough for him to add texture and detail to the text through characterisation. With regards to the judging criteria, the illustrations mostly support and reinforce Bryon’s text; the illustrations might not be judged to ‘help to give the book layers of meaning for different readers and/or allow different meanings to be inferred across multiple readings’. But given the social context in which the book is produced, such unambiguously affirming imagery will hopefully be recognised as a significant strength of the book. That said, there is little question for us that the illustrations ‘individually and cumulatively make a lasting impression on the reader’ (Medal Criteria). Indeed, social media demonstrates that Adeola’s images have made Rocket a favourite for numerous young (and old) readers, with images being posted on Instagram of young Black girls dressing as Rocket for World Book Day. For many readers, the book provides ‘opportunities for the reader to encounter new or unfamiliar ideas, experiences or perspectives’ (Medal Criteria). Rocket breaks from the narrative in one of the ‘Did You Know’ segments to tell the reader about Imani Wilmot, who created the first female surf competition in Jamaica. In so doing, we are introduced to a real-life celebrity by a character who is herself on the way to celebrity status.
Karen Sands-O’Connor is the British Academy Global Professor for Children’s Literature at Newcastle University. Her books include Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and the author, with Jeffrey Boakye, of What Is Masculinity? Why Does It Matter? And Other Big Questions. He tweets at @rapclassroom.
You’re Safe with Me, illus Poonam Mistry, written by Chitra Soundar, Lantana Publishing, 978-1911373292, £11.99 hbk
You’re Snug with Me illus Poonam Mistry, written by Chitra Soundar, Lantana Publishing, 978-1911373476, £11.99 hbk
How the Stars Came to Be, Poonam Mistry, Tate Publishing, 978-1849766630, £12.99 hbk
The Secret of the Tattered Shoes, illus Ehsan Abdollahi, written by Jackie Morris, Tiny Owl, 978-1910328378, £12.99 hbk
Under the Great Plum Tree, illus Reza Dalvand, written by Sufiya Ahmed, Tiny Owl, 978-1910328460, £12.99 hbk
Starbird, Sharon King-Chai, Two Hoots, 978-1509899562, £12.99 hbk
The Garden Of Inside – Outside, illus Regis Léjonc, written by Chiara Mezzalama, trans by Sarah Ardizzone, Book Island, 978-1911496168, £12.99 hbk
Clean Up!, illus Dapo Adeola, written by Nathan Bryon, Puffin, 978-0241345894, £6.99 pbk
Look Up!, illus Dapo Adeola, written by Nathan Bryon, Puffin, 978-0241345849, £6.99 pbk