New in Karen Sands-O’Connor and Darren Chetty’s series examining the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic voices in British children’s literature.
For many years, the idea of talking about racism in children’s books was controversial. It was one thing to discuss whether a children’s book was racist, although that in itself was controversial and certainly only something to be done by adults. It was quite another thing for children’s books to directly address racism in society. Those authors that did, such as Farrukh Dhondy in The Siege of Babylon (1979) faced criticism from anti-racist publications such as The Children’s Book Bulletin for bringing ‘into the open the unpleasant face of a multi-racial society. He takes us across a minefield where everyone ends up bloodied’ (Maggie Hewitt, “Review: The Siege of Babylon”; Children’s Book Bulletin 2, Autumn 1979: 25). The reviewer suggested that a teacher read the book before allowing young people to do so. Even a group such as the Afro-Caribbean Education Resource Project (ACER), led by Black Cultural Archives founder Len Garrison, approached anti-racist reading materials indirectly. Ruth Grindrod, the Schools Liaison Officer for ACER, described their approach in Dragon’s Teeth: The Anti-Racist Children’s Book Magazine as aiming ‘to develop and increase a child’s concept of self—self-awareness, race awareness, self-esteem and self-confidence’ (Grindrod, ‘Anti-racist Initiatives in Early Childhood Education’, Dragon’s Teeth 25, 1986, 11-12). Despite research into racism such as David Milner’s Children and Race, appearing in 1975, which suggested that children formed attitudes about race and racial groups before reaching primary school, many adults felt that talking about racism would, in essence, put ideas into their heads.
Many Black authors knew, however, that the ideas were already there. Grace Nichols in Leslyn in London (1984), Floella Benjamin in Coming to England (1995), and Errol Lloyd in Many Rivers to Cross (1995) wrote for different age groups, but all chronicled racist name-calling and the threat of violence that often accompanied it. Nichols’ novel, about eight-year-old Guyanese-born Leslyn, describes her surprise at being called a ‘nig-nog’ by ‘a biggish looking boy as he ran past her, nearly knocking her over’ (23). No adult notices this or the other racist taunts that Leslyn experiences, and she does not tell anyone; the issue is resolved as the white children in her school get to know her. Benjamin, whose Coming to England is a memoir and not a novel, recalls using the threat of violence herself in response to racist taunts. And Lloyd’s Sandra tries to tell a white teacher, but he tells her to ‘ignore them’ (96) and they will give up—something Sandra knows not to be true. These books all confront racism in England directly, but they focus on individual acts of racism rather than societal racism.
Educational texts for children were more likely than nonfiction from mainstream publishers to directly address racism in the 1980s and 1990s. An early example, Nigel File’s and Chris Power’s Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958 (Heinemann Educational 1981), is not exclusively about racism. However, it does include stories of individuals, such as Learie Constantine, who experienced racism in Britain and took action against it. In Constantine’s case, the authors note that ‘Learie was able to demonstrate to the country that racial discrimination was taking place. He was able to use the courts in his fight for civil rights’ (82). The language here is critical; racism is not a private or individual matter, but something that Britain as a country should care about, and it sometimes requires national institutions to stop it.
File’s and Power’s text was followed in the 1990s by educational nonfiction specifically about racism. Books such as Angela Grunsell’s Let’s Talk About Racism (Franklin Watts 1995) or Jagdish Gundara and Roger Hewitt’s Life Files: Racism (Evans 1999) were part of nonfiction series that dealt with a variety of social issues, including gangs, homelessness, disability and bullying. These books appeared after several racist murders of young people of colour in the 1990s; Gundara and Hewitt’s, for example, mentions the MacDonald Inquiry into racism, noting ‘It followed the murder of 13-year-old Ahmed Iqbal Ullah who was knifed in his school playground by a white pupil’ (25). One feature of this type of books, which continue to be published today, is that they tend to end with advice for readers about how they can address the issues. But while in the 1990s, this advice tended to be limited to a paragraph or two, the sections in books published after 2000 are longer. Anne Rooney’s Race Hate (Evans 2006) has two pages on ‘Is there a way forward?’ (42-43) and a separate page of resources, including websites. Claire Heuchan’s and Nikesh Shukla’s What is Race? Who are Racists? Why Does Skin Colour Matter? And Other Big Questions (Wayland 2018) has two pages on ‘How can you challenge racism?’ (42-43) and two more on ‘Unlearning racism’ (44-45), in addition to the resource list. Further, Heuchan and Shukla’s text asks white readers to think about their own racism, including ‘being willing to give up the perks that come with white skin’ because ‘it’s an important step towards building a fairer world for everyone to live in’ (45).
Following the publication of CLPE’s Reflecting Realities reports, the first of which appeared in 2018, many mainstream publishers began to change their publishing practices around race and racism. There is a marked difference among these books, in that while all address the concept of physical difference, not all discuss racism directly or in depth. Usborne, for example, has produced three separate books in the last two years. Jordan Akpojaro, a philosopher and author, worked on both of Usborne’s “lift-the-flap” books, What is Racism? (2021), written with Katie Daynes for younger readers, and Questions and Answers about Racism (2022) for slightly older readers. However, Usborne’s All About Diversity (2021) by Felicity Brooks and Mar Ferrero, depicts people of many racial and ethnic groups, but never mentions the word race or racism. Titles that focus on diversity tend to say less about racism; Asa Gillard and Tracey Turner produced a similar book to Usborne’s for Macmillan entitled We are all Different: A Celebration of Diversity (also 2021); however, although most of the book focuses on the “positive” aspects of diversity, it does give two pages (30-31) to racism.
While recent nonfiction, when it discusses racism at all, has become more direct, recent fiction has become less so. Racism is not, as it was in books like Leslyn in London, a single event; it is present on a daily basis at varying levels for young people of colour. In Patrice Lawrence’s Needle (Barrington Stoke, 2022), for example, the main character Charlene experiences racism and microaggressions regularly, from the security guards that follow her in the shop to white friends who pretend not to know her when she gets in trouble. These incidents hurt and frustrate Charlene, causing her to act out. Eventually she stabs her foster brother with a knitting needle, and what could have been a dispute handled at home becomes a police matter that exposes the widespread racism in the police and prison system, from arresting officers to duty lawyers to judges who compare her to her foster brother, a ‘Nice, neat white boy’ (78). Lawrence’s book suggests that racism is more complex than name-calling, and that systemic racism causes minor incidents to have major consequences for racially-minoritised children.
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.
The Siege of Babylon, Farrukh Dhondy, Nelson Thornes, 978-0333471791 £5.25
Leslyn in London, Grace Nichols, O/P
Coming to England: An Inspiring True Story Celebrating the Windrush Generation, Floella Benjamin, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1529045444, £6.99 pbk
Many Rivers to Cross, Errol Lloyd, O/P
Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958, Heinemann Library, 978-0431071060, O/P
Let’s Talk About Racism, Angela Grunsell, O/P
Life Files: Racism, Jagdish Gundara and Roger Hewitt, O/P
What is Race? Who are Racists? Why Does Skin Colour Matter? And Other Big Questions, Claire Heuchan and Nikesh Shukla, Wayland, 978-1526303998, £9.99 pbk
What is Racism? Katie Daynes, Jordan Akpojaro, illus Sandhya Prabbhat, Usborne, 978-1474995795, £9.99 board
Questions and Answers about Racism, Usborne, 978-1474995825, £9.99, Jordan Akpojaro illus Vici Leyhane
All About Diversity, Felicity Brooks, illus Mar Ferrero, Usborne, 978-1474986649, £9.99 hbk
We are all Different: A Celebration of Diversity, Tracey Turner, illus Åsa Gilland, Kingfisher, 978-0753477090, £14.99
Needle, Patrice Lawrence, Barrington Stoke, 978-1800901018, £7.99 pbk