In the latest in their series examining the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic voices in British children’s literature, Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor examine depictions of two important anniversaries.
The new year brings a transition between two 75th anniversaries: 2022’s anniversary of the partition of India, and 2023’s anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush to Britain. It is not too much of a hyperbole to say that both these events changed the world of the British Empire and of Britain itself, and that the consequences continue to influence modern Britain. British children’s books have acknowledged both anniversaries, but have had to face the difficulties of representing British imperialism and racism in doing so.
Children’s books have been examining Windrush for decades, and the pending anniversary has occasioned the re-packaging and republishing of some of these stories for new audiences. Floella Benjamin’s popular 1995 biography, Coming to England, was originally published for middle grade readers. It includes an account of Benjamin’s happy family life in Trinidad; a period of unhappiness when her parents and younger siblings went ahead to England leaving Floella and her sister in the care of people who made them work ‘like servants’ (43); the adventure of the ship journey to England; and the racism that she and her family faced in England, from school bullying to being made unwelcome in English churches to a teacher calling Floella a ‘guttersnipe’ (100) for speaking in patois. Benjamin is well-known for her sunny personality, but her original biography indicates the struggles she faced – and the tenacity required to survive and thrive in Britain. In 2020, Benjamin’s biography was reissued in picture book format, with cheerful illustrations by Diane Ewen. The picture book is billed as ‘An inspiring true story celebrating the Windrush generation’ on the front cover, and indeed, celebration rather than struggle is the focus of this version. Adult racism and abuse is erased (the woman who treated her like a servant is called ‘wicked’ in this version, but the illustration shows her with hands on hips as Floella and her sister play in a pond in their underwear; the incidents of the church and teacher are removed). Racist bullying from other children at school is reduced to name-calling, and quickly resolved.
John Agard’s poem, Windrush Child, originally performed on Blue Peter in 1998 and then published in Under the Moon and Over the Sea by Candlewick Press in 2002, was published by Walker as a stand-alone poem in 2022 with illustrations by Sophie Bass. Whereas the original publication placed Agard’s poem in a collection with poems by other authors, giving a variety of viewpoints on the transition from the Caribbean to England, the new version of Windrush Child, like Benjamin’s picture book biography, highlights a positive experience of the transition. In only one illustration – the arrival in England – is the main child character depicted without a smile, but he is encouraged by his smiling father to enter into the new part of the adventure. Agard himself did not come to England until nearly thirty years after the Empire Windrush, and the poem was written in a time when most Black schoolchildren in Britain had been born in the country; Agard’s poem was therefore a piece of history to most of his listeners, and Agard clearly wanted to depict that history positively.
However, although Windrush Child mentions racism in the afterword, the racism is not present in the part of the book that young readers read – the poem itself. Benjamin Zephaniah’s We Sang Across the Sea (Scholastic 2022), with illustrations by Onyinye Iwu, is also a poetic exploration of Windrush that does not address the struggles and racism faced by Windrush passengers in England. Zephaniah tells the story of singer Mona Baptiste, who (like Calypsonian Lord Kitchener) arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948. The story, illustrated in bright colours throughout, has only a single page depicting Baptiste as unhappy. The poem seems to indicate on this page that it might discuss racism when Zephaniah writes, ‘As a Caribbean girl, sometimes I just had to be quite strong’ (n.p.), but the next two lines focus on Baptiste’s stage fright. Zephaniah’s depiction is very different from Patrice Lawrence’s Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush (Nosy Crow 2022). Although both are stories of women crossing the Atlantic for a new life in Britain, Lawrence’s narrative includes several things that other Windrush picture books do not. Unlike other picture books, Lawrence’s begins in the present day, with a small girl requiring a dress-up costume for school and asking her grandmother for ideas. This allows Lawrence to include pre- and post-Windrush Black history, including stories of Winifred Atwell, Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks. But the granddaughter is more interested in her grandmother’s own story, which is nuanced and thoughtful despite the limited narrative space of the picture book. While the book depicts racism and loneliness, aided by the careful use of colour in Camille Sucre’s illustrations, it also depicts the grandmother’s reason for remaining in England despite these struggles. This makes Lawrence’s picture book unusual; while books for older readers, including Sita Brahmachari’s When Secrets Set Sail (Orion 2020) and Benjamin Zephaniah’s Windrush Child (Scholastic 2021), focus on difficult issues (including the Windrush Scandal) as plot points, books for younger readers tend to focus on the celebratory aspects of Windrush.
A focus on the celebratory is impossible when writing about the 1947 Partition of India. Britain’s departure from the country and overnight division in August 1947 of India into Pakistan and India caused displacement, terror, and chaos. Between 200,000 and a million people lost their lives, many massacred by neighbours with whom they had long lived in peace. Swapna Haddow’s Torn Apart: The Partition of India (Scholastic 2021) is the only fictional account of this event for children, and it is, like Partition itself, a grim story. Like Zephaniah’s Windrush Child, Torn Apart is part of Scholastic’s Voices series. However, unlike all the other books in this series, the events take place entirely outside of Britain, and the British are conspicuous by their absence: on page 2 in the book’s prologue, ‘the British … left’. In their wake, religious tensions result in horrific brutalities, including trains filled with massacred people. The first one that Ibrahim, the displaced Muslim main character of Torn Apart, sees, he reports: ‘Scrawled on the side of the train in blood were the words, ‘a present from Pakistan’. And then the bodies of the Hindu refugees fell out’ (24). Haddow makes clear through the narrative that these ‘present’ trains travel in both directions. Although a brief friendship is formed between Ibrahim and a Hindu boy named Amar, the friendship cannot last and there is no later reunion during times of peace. In the last chapter, Amar reports, ‘I never heard from Ibrahim again’ (115). Haddow’s novel describes an important part of history, but unlike the Windrush stories, it does not celebrate the anniversary of Britain’s decision to change its relationship to part of its empire. But it does encourage readers of all backgrounds to consider the ways that the British Empire created the conditions for racism and sectarianism within and outside of Britain, and how those histories still matter today.
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.
Coming to England, Floella Benjamin, ill. Diane Ewen, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1529009422, £7.99 pbk
John Agard’s Windrush Child, John Agard, ill. Sophie Bass, Walker Books, 978-1529501124, £12.99 hbk
We Sang Across the Sea, Benjamin Zephaniah, ill. Onyinye Iwu, Scholastic, 978-0702311161, £6.99 pbk
Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush, Patrice Lawrence, ill. Camilla Sucre, Nosy Crow, 978-1839942310, £7.99 pbk
When Secrets Set Sail, Sita Brahmachari, Orion, 978-1510105430, £7.99 pbk
Windrush Child, Benjamin Zephaniah, Scholastic, 978-0702302725, £6.99 pbk
Torn Apart: The Partition of India, Swapna Haddow, Scholastic, 978-0702300417, £4.99 pbk
We Sang Across the Sea, Benjamin Zephaniah, illus Onyinye Iwu, Scholastic, 978-0702311161, £6.99 pbk