The recent Twitter discussion relating to Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me has had ramifications for writers, publishers, and readers of children’s literature. As more and more people saw the examples of language used in the book to describe racially minoritised students, working class students and students with additional educational needs many people voiced concerns and criticisms of Clanchy’s use of such language and how it reinforced racist, classist and ableist stereotypes.
Some Kids was afforded value in the publishing world. Not only was it published by prestigious publisher Picador, but the book was awarded The Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2020. How does a book in which a writer frequently employs controversial and denigratory language come to be championed as a work of political acumen? What does this suggest about how writing is valued? Why did it take numerous criticisms voiced on Twitter for the author and the publisher to consider revising the language in the book?
Some Kids has a ringing endorsement from Philip Pullman on the cover. And Pullman was one of the most strident defenders of Clanchy on Twitter, at one point appearing to compare the women of colour who had tweeted criticisms of the book to ISIS and the Taliban. After Professor Sunny Singh, (organizer the Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize for books by British/British resident BAME writers) shared a series of questions that writers might ask themselves about their writing, Pullman expressed a concern for ‘policing the imagination’.
The notion of ‘policing the imagination’ is one worth exploring. This column regularly seeks to examine how the ‘secret garden of children’s literature’ has so often been a space of exclusion as well as a space of nurture and adventure. Humphrey Carpenter begins Secret Gardens – The Golden Age of Children’s Literature with the claim that ‘Adult fiction sets out to portray and explain the world as it really is; books for children present it as it should be.’ Whilst we may take issue with such a bold generalisation, many would see this as a useful distinction. Yet it does raise questions about how rare it has been for writers of children’s literature in Britain to imagine a world where people of colour exist in their own right. Why are so many of these ideal worlds devoid of people of colour? What does this suggest about the imagination of their creators? How does it limit the imagination of readers? Might they, like the child in Darren’s essay in The Good Immigrant, conclude that ‘stories have to be about white people?’ Is this a form of ‘policing the imagination’?
The depiction of racially minoritised people in British children’s literature could be said to fall roughly into three historical stages. In the first, racially minoritised people are presented as sub-humans and primitives, counter-points to white protagonists. In the second, they appear as marginal characters or in allegorical form, or are written out of the narrative completely. In the third stage, racially minoritised people are presented as fully human characters with agency.
Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) featured Oompa Loompas who are described and illustrated as African Pygmies. Later editions removed this reference to the Oompa Loompas being African. They were illustrated as white. In effect Dahl’s re-write moved the book from an example of stage 1 to an example of stage 2 – references to ‘tribe’ and ‘jungle’ remained as racial connotations, but the characters were no longer overtly racialised as Black. Significantly, it came as a response to critiques and protests from the NAACP in the United States. Hugh Lofting, creator of the Doctor Dolittle books, faced similar criticism about racist stereotypes from the (again, American) Council on Interracial Books for Children; eventually, Lofting’s son produced a revised version that attempted to remove stereotypes.
In 2017, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals launched a Diversity Review, chaired by Dr Margaret Casely-Hayford. CILIP stated that the review followed ‘criticism of the 2017 Carnegie Medal Longlist as it included no Black, Asian, Minority Ethnics (BAME) authors.’ Dr Casely-Hayford made ten clear recommendations in the final report. Both of us were invited to join an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion panel chaired by Jake Hope, along with poet Nyandovah Foday, writer Peter Kalu and academic Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold. The report of the review was published in 2018. Amongst other things CILIP considered how the judging panel, the award criteria, and children’s publishing itself could be improved by further developing the knowledge and understanding required to make the best possible judgements about children’s literature in all its diversity.
Since then, two of the three winners of the Carnegie Medal – Elizabeth Acevedo (for The Poet X) and Jason Reynolds (for Look Both Ways) – have been writers of colour. This is in contrast to the previous eighty-three years of the award where no writer of colour was ever awarded the prize. One way to make sense of this change would be to view the review and subsequent work as expanding the knowledge and understanding of how we make sense of, and attribute value to, literature – and in doing so, expanding the imagination.
Criticisms from the reading public have influenced other changes in children’s publishing – the results may not always have been huge improvements. After years of criticism of Enid Blyton’s use of golliwog characters, Hodder Children’s Books published an updated version of Noddy Goes To School in 2016. The golliwog on the cover was no longer shown, suggesting that the publisher now understood the long history of golliwogs as racist caricatures of Black people. However, the decision to replace it with a monkey did raise questions as to whether anyone in a decision-making position at Hodder Children’s Books was aware of the long history of invoking monkeys as racist abuse of Black people. Either they did not know this widespread racist trope, or they did not see it as relevant to what they were doing.
Pullman appears anxious that advocating for a more thoughtful engagement with our storytelling practices – including asking ourselves if we have the requisite knowledge – amounts to ‘policing the imagination’. We think this anxiety is misplaced. Context matters. This debate comes at a time when two of the highest profile writers for children – David Baddiel and David Walliams – are former television celebrities who saw no problem with blacking up for laughs, or in the case of Walliams in leaning heavily on racist and ableist tropes in his writing for children.
Our imaginations will not be limited by an increase in knowledge. Indeed, knowledge is the very thing the imagination requires in order to grow creatively and ethically. The latest Reflecting Realities report (2020) argues that both lived experience and careful research on behalf of writers, editors and publishers matter, because ‘attention to detail also provides the reader with beautiful representations of everyday, genuine, intimate moments’ (13) and ‘well researched, carefully considered and creative [writing] provides a valuable counter-narrative to either reductive, problematic, fetishised portrayals or outright erasure of ethnic minorities’ (14).
A.M. Dassu’s Boy Everywhere, winner of the 2021 Little Rebels Award, is a recent example of a story that takes the reader on an imaginative journey that was made possible by Dassu’s meticulous research as well as her carefully crafted prose. In his essay Magic Carpets included in Daemon Voices, Pullman argues persuasively that it is a writer’s responsibility to be attentive to the language they use. He suggests we should ‘take pride in getting things right’ (p10). It would be an ethically curious position to consider this important when considering the difference between ‘may’ and ‘might’ but not when considering whether our language choices are drawn from long-established racist discourses.
In Reading into Racism, written in 1985, Gillian Klein argues that charges of racism continue to raise defensiveness in white people because, ‘change is uncomfortable and may appear threatening to their dominant position. The media offer reassurance that the campaign for greater social equality is marshalled by a few ‘extremists’ or is the province of one small political group’ (142). The media may have since expanded to include Twitter, but little else has changed in this regard. Indeed, social critique continues to be characterised in much of the traditional media as a ‘mob’ of people of colour (again, the denial of individual agency) being antagonistic towards writers and publishers. Few pause to consider why this dynamic seems to repeat itself. Why do so many of the main protagonists in publishing lack the knowledge and imagination required for a literature where people of colour are held in dignity?
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.
Carptenter, H (1985) Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Houghton Mifflin.
CILIP Diversity Review, Final Report
Chetty, D (2016) ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People’ in Shukla, N (ed) The Good Immigrant. Unbound
CLPE Reflecting Realities Reports
Dassu, A.M. (2020) Boy Everywhere. Old Barn Books.
Klein, G (1985) Reading Into Racism: Bias In Children’s Literature and Learning Materials. Routledge.
Pullman, P (2017) Daemon Voices: Essays On Storytelling. David Fickling Books