LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
I read Shereen Pandit’s account of the Diversity Matters conference ( BfK No. 160) with interest. It is heartening that publishers are finally taking the issue of under-representation of certain groups in children’s literature so seriously that they have devoted a conference to this subject. However, there were a couple of things that concerned me.
Firstly, ‘diversity’ seems to have been interpreted by this conference as meaning ‘multi-cultural’. This is a dangerous, and dare I say it, out of date, interpretation – multi-culturalism is an aspect of diversity, it does not define it. There is absolutely a need to reflect black and minority ethnic groups more widely in children’s literature and publishing, but this is the subject of a different conference, and only one part of one on diversity.
Diversity is about all groups in our society, so what about the representation of children and young people in books who are disabled, have learning difficulties or are gay, for example? Or those who live on a council estate, or in the north of England? The conference may well have covered these issues, but this was not evident in the report – what came across strongly was that diversity is limited to colour and cultural heritage.
Living in London, it is easy to forget that in many parts of the country there are children and young people who may have never come into direct contact with someone who isn’t white. Including more black characters in books isn’t going to reflect their reality, but depicting disabled or Polish characters, or a child with a depressed parent (or even a depressed child) may.
I also found it strange that the publisher Frances Lincoln got a mention in the report of conference proceedings, but Tamarind didn’t. Tamarind specifically promotes positive images of our diverse community in its books, predominantly, but not limited to, children from a range of ethnic backgrounds. That Tamarind has been a lone voice for so long now in promoting images that more accurately reflect our society today seemed to go unacknowledged, which I think is a shame. Unlike some publishers, their representations are not token. In addition they attempt to show life as it is for children who have in the past been excluded from many picture books. My own book for them, for example, shows a black, possibly single father spending the day with his two children, in a recognisably urban environment, complete with graffiti-ed walls and overflowing street bins. The book was not written to be politically correct, but as a genuinely entertaining story starring the children that I see around me every day. The feedback that I have had from parents – black and white – is that their children enjoy it both as a story in itself, and because they can relate to it on many levels – environmental, cultural, social.
It sounds as though there were some excellent issues raised and discussed at the conference, and that publishers do need to be bolder in the authors and books they take on. However, do not confuse ‘diversity’ with colour. If we wish to truly reflect the diverse truth of children’s lives today, we must cast the net so much further.
Gary McKeone, Literature Director, Arts Council England, replies:
If I may respond to Lucy Marcovitch’s letter, let me point out that Arts Council England absolutely agrees that diversity covers far more than multi-culturalism. Indeed, so seriously does the Arts Council take the question of diversity, that it has a dedicated Diversity Department. Our ongoing Decibel programme is further evidence of our commitment to the broad canvas that is diversity in this country.
I don’t accept that the Diversity Matters conference fell into the trap of conflating ‘diversity’ with ‘cultural diversity’. The Diversity Matters conference came about as the first major initiative of the Arts Council’s recently convened working party on children’s literature, and was intended to be the first of a series of conferences, each of which will address a particular issue of concern. The theme for the first conference was, unapologetically, cultural diversity, and it was felt that issues here were of such importance that they warranted a two-day conference on their own. Had the conference decided to take on a broader remit, it would have lacked the close focus and practical orientation that both conference organisers and delegates wanted.
Verna Wilkins of Tamarind is a member of the Arts Council’s working party on children’s literature and made a major contribution to the conference, not least through her presence over the Diversity Matters weekend. A number of speakers, both from the floor and from the platform, paid generous and fitting tribute to Tamarind’s considerable achievements over the years and its pioneering contribution to multi-cultural children’s literature. Verna declined an invitation to sit on one of the main panel sessions at the conference, though contributed massively to the proceedings. We were delighted that so many publishers, including Frances Lincoln, so generously gave of their time and so openly shared their experiences with the rest of the conference.
We recognise that Diversity Matters is only a starting point – though we believe it will come to be seen as a very significant one. We wholeheartedly share Lucy Marcovitch’s sentiments, and look forward to seeing other important aspects of diversity featured in future conferences.
How pleased I was to see teachers fighting back ( BfK No.159). Sue Wilsher and Rachel Crystal were spot on. There wasn’t a Golden Age of teaching before the National Literacy Strategy and the National Curriculum. (Many teachers did not take advantage of their freedom to teach what they wanted to teach. Some used the same book – I mean book – year in year out and re-cycled the same lessons. My children did the Vikings umpteen times and the Stuarts never.) More to the point, the introduction of NLS and NC has not stifled creative teachers.
Robert Hull writes ‘…ultimately creativity depends on freedoms.’ Well, yes and no. Writers have produced brilliant works within constraints of all kinds, stylistic and political. Teachers can and do give brilliant lessons within the constraints of the NLS and the NC. I see them when I travel round schools. Robert Hull asks ‘How can teachers reclaim creativity in the classroom?’ Let’s ask those who are being creative to tell us how. Let’s have less ‘Ain’t it awful?’ which demoralises teachers and more ‘Try this – it works!’ I bet Sue Wilsher and Rachel Crystal could give you some examples.
Steam engines and multi-culturalism
Brian Alderson comments on ‘the gendering of the steam shovel’ (Classics in Short No. 58, BfK No. 159). In my experience engines, cars and locomotives are nearly always female – just like ships – just put locomotives and she into Google! (Eg http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northwest/sites/volunteer/pages/steamrailway….
‘It’s a railway tradition that all steam engines are called “she”, though this does seem odd for our flagship engine, which is called Russell.’ Perhaps Brian has been unduly influenced by Thomas the Tank Engine & co!
May I also comment on Rosemary’s editorial? As librarian for a Multicultural Centre I am always trying to find books which feature children from diverse backgrounds and it can be really difficult. I find it so helpful when reviewers include this information in their reviews.
Being a non-British parent
I have just received my first issue of BfK. I think my experience may be of interest to the parents who were not brought up in English language or British culture, or the teachers who have contact with these parents.
I was born, brought up and educated in Japan. I settled in England when I was 27 (or there about, it was a long time ago…), married and had a daughter who is now 28. Despite the fact that I had passed Cambridge Proficiency in English, I soon realised how little use my English was for life with a child. I knew no songs to sing to her, could not teach her games so she could play with other children and had only scant knowledge of traditional tales that all the other children knew (they did in the 1980s in a village school). Besides, I was living here now and I wanted to know how things had become how they were. In other words, I needed to grow up all over again. I did this by reading to my daughter. I started from Rosie’s Walk when she was two years old and continued reading to her until she left primary school (by then, her bed time got too late). By reading, I do not mean ten minutes now and then, but at least half an hour (later on, it could easily go on well over an hour) every day. Soon, I was interested in reading children’s books (after all, they were easier to read than serious novels for adults) for my own pleasure and read well ahead and out of the range of my daughter’s interest.
All this may be nothing new to most parents who read BfK, but for parents whose language and cultural background are not English, it has two very significant advantages: firstly, it is a very good way of learning the history and traditions. As Rosemary Sutcliff said ‘what houses did they live in, what food did they eat, what weapons did they carry, what songs did they sing?’ It was not just knowledge of the history but sense of place and feelings of the people that I came to know. I also learned what children said in the classroom and did in the school playground (our copy of Please Mrs Butler nearly fell apart). It made me feel I was part of where I lived. Secondly, it was the best possible English practice. Starting from Rosie’s Walk and Each Peach Pear Plum to short stories by Joan Aiken and Margaret Mahy to novels by William Mayne and Diana Wynne Jones, I read aloud the ‘choicest’ language without worrying about making mistakes or sounding funny, as there were only us to hear it. At the same time, we listened to tapes. Not those of jingling songs and bits of stories but tapes like Just So Stories read by Johnny Morris, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Williams, and the best of all The Sheep-Pig read by Stephen Thorne, until we could tell each other any part of the story.
As I was more concerned with learning English myself than teaching her my own language, my daughter does not speak Japanese. Neither my daughter nor I regret this. We gained far more from reading all those books together than her ability to speak her parent’s language insufficiently. And more than anything else, it has made me happy to be living here.
Swear words in children’s books
I recently bought a copy of Naked Without a Hat by Jeanne Willis, which was mentioned in Authorgraph No. 152 ( BfK, May 2005) as being appropriate for exploring difference issues. There was no mention in the article about which age range it is suitable for and as we have many of Jean Willis’s picture books, I decided to order it. When it arrived, something in the blurb on the back made me think that it might not be appropriate for Primary children; so I started to read it. I got as far as page 5 which contained the F*** word and went no further. I passed the book on to a local secondary school whose Librarian also had reservations about it.
I used to think that I was safe with books which have won children’s literature awards. However, A Gathering Light by Donnelly, which won the Carnegie Medal, disproved this theory due to the graphic sex scenes.
I know that quite young children know swear words and about sex, but this does not necessarily mean that we should be endorsing these issues in the books we offer them. There is a great deal of difference between what is suitable for children when being guided by an adult, who can explain and explore issues, and what we provide for them to read alone. Many of our pupils are very able readers who need challenging books, but they may not be emotionally ready for more adult themes. As a school Librarian I have to consider the impact of books upon the pupils and the views of parents. My problem is in identifying which books I need to be cautious about. Has the time come for warnings on books, like the ones we have on films, CDs etcetera? I would welcome your views on this issue; perhaps it could be explored within BfK.
J K White (Mrs)
School Librarian, Winslow C of E Combined School, Lowndes Way, Winslow, Buckingham MK18 3EN
Letters may be shortened for space reasons.
Bookbird: Special on China
Described as an ‘orientation course in Chinese children’s literature’ this bumper size issue of IBBY’s quarterly journal includes articles by Chinese and Western children’s book specialists on the history and contemporary publishing of books for children in China. ISSN 0006 7377; $12 from Bookbird, c/o University of Toronto Press, 5201 Dufferin St, North York, ON, Canada M3H 5T8.
MAFF: Picture Books and Young Learners of English
ed. Janet Enever, Gisela Schmid-Schönbein, Langenscheidt, £26.95
A collection of research papers (including one on boys as young learners of English by Opal Dunn) which explores teaching English using authentic picture books with children of primary school age. Orders for ‘Picture Books and Young Learners of English’ can be made online to the UK distributor, Grant & Cutler at: email@example.com
Nicholas Tucker writes…
Colin Thiele’s combination of realism, broad humour and strong emotional commitment won him success with readers of all ages. Drawing on his Australian rural roots, his over one hundred books constantly argued the case for protecting the natural world against environmental threat. Starting off as a poet, he came to fame with Storm Boy (1963). Subsequently filmed, this powerful story describes the love affair between the isolated son of a beachcomber and an orphaned pelican. This was the first of many rite of passage stories within which a child comes to maturity after overcoming dangerous natural forces. Also successfully filmed, Blue Fin (1969) describes the tough life of a child from a tuna-fishing family.
Thiele also wrote some engaging autobiographical novels set in the Australian-German community he knew from his childhood re-invented by him in the fictional town of Gonunda. Starting with The Sun on the Stubble (1961), this series has been described as Australia’s answer to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In 1988 he wrote Jodie’s Journey, which tells the story of a young rider who has to put aside her dreams after discovering she has rheumatoid arthritis, a disease Thiele also suffered from since 1955. His authorised biography Can I Call You Colin? (2004) was written by Stephany Evans Steggall.