Today the children’s publishing industry accepts that it has a responsibility to publish books for the multi-cultural society that we live in. But this was not always the case. Why and how did attitudes change? Rosemary Stones explains.
In 1971 a pioneering bibliography was published by the Institute of Race Relations, Books for Children: the Homelands of Immigrants to Britain. Lambeth children’s librarian Janet Hill wrote: ‘Many books are blatantly biased and prejudiced… How is an African child growing up in this country likely to react to some of the patronising, insensitive and outmoded tales of the noble white man and the native that are still in print… despite the rich variety of adult novels by African, Indian and West Indian writers, there are hardly any for children.’
That there were any such books for children at all was initially due to individuals from the Black community itself, people such as the Trinidadian intellectual, publisher and activist John La Rose who founded New Beacon Books in London in 1966. La Rose (who died in February this year) was centrally involved in the struggle for social and racial justice and for him this included making available books by Black writers – including books for children. He himself wrote and published biographies for children of Marcus Garvey and Mary Seacole. New Beacon Books became the place where Black school children (the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson amongst them) first discovered books about their history and culture that were not available in the classrooms of the 1960s. In 1974 Eric and Jessica Huntley started Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop in Ealing (renamed The Walter Rodney bookshop in 1980) and they also began to publish books by Black writers, including books for children. One of the seminal books of this time was teacher Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System which was to lead to many of the anti-racist and multi-cultural initiatives of the ’70s and ’80s.
Despite the tremendous pressure on Caribbean and Asian intellectuals to be spokespeople for their communities on any number of pressing social and political issues, it is striking that they also saw the central importance of education and of children’s books. In the ’70s, for example, under the editorship of Darcus Howe, children’s books were included in the review pages of the journal Race Today.
The community bookshop movement
The 1970s also saw the beginning of the community bookshop movement, the first of which was Centerprise in Hackney founded by the African American Glenn Thompson and Ken Worpole. These bookshops began publishing books which reflected multi-cultural realities for children as well as local people’s writing and reminiscences. Meanwhile, book suppliers such as Soma Books run by Minnie and Anand Kumria made it possible to obtain children’s books published in India.
Some mainstream children’s publishers were becoming aware that there was a need for books that reflected multi-cultural realities that was not being met. The pioneering children’s writer Petronella Breinberg managed to place the text for her picture book, My Brother Sean, with The Bodley Head who commissioned the painter Errol Lloyd to do the artwork. This was the first, full colour picture book featuring a Black child from a Black author and illustrator to be published by a mainstream publisher.
Pressure groups such as my own Children’s Rights Workshop became involved in campaigning against continuing racist stereotyping and omission in children’s books which led to much heated debate. These were the days of the alternative children’s book award, The Other Award. However, by the mid 1980s there was much of note. Black American writers for children and young adults (Rosa Guy, Virginia Hamilton, Julius Lester) were published in the UK giving us instantaneously the definition of a ‘Black voice’ and laying down the highest and most demanding standards for what was possible.
White writers and illustrators (amongst them Bernard Ashley, Chris Powling, Shirley Hughes, Peter Dickinson) reflected multi-cultural realities via fantasy or social realism. New Black British writers and poets – John Agard (I Din Do Nuttin), Farrukh Dhondy (East End at Your Feet), Jamila Gavin (Kamla and Kate) amongst others – whose countries of origin were in the main Caribbean or Asian brought new particularity. And, as attitudes to being bilingual changed (it began to be seen as an asset rather than as a handicap), teachers’ centres and mainstream publishers began to publish to dual language picture books. Of course there were problems as issues continued to be hotly debated – from the unwitting internalisation of colonialist assumptions painfully discovered to the need for a critical response that was sensitive to the issues of stereotyping and exclusion.
British born ethnic minority writers
By the ’90s, there was a new generation of British born ethnic minority poets and writers – Jackie Kay (Two’s Company), Benjamin Zephaniah (Talking Turkeys), Malorie Blackman (Girl Wonder and the Terrific Twins), Jacqueline Roy (Soul Daddy) amongst others. There were (and still are) very few Black illustrators. Jenny Bent, for example, remembers being advised at school to do accountancy instead. The late ’90s also saw the emergence of ethnic minority children’s publishers such as Magi, Mantra and Tamarind.
More transnational themes began to be evident in fiction publishing for older children, reflecting shifts in global politics, cf Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth, with a background of military rule in Nigeria and Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier about a boy soldier in an East African rebel army who becomes a refugee in London. The days when we were told that young readers are not interested in countries other than their own appear to have gone.
The new millennium
The aftermath of 9/11 in 2001 saw an increase in Islamophobia and unprecedented levels of hostility towards the British Muslim community including attacks both physical and verbal on Asian pupils. The children’s book world became aware of the paucity of books representing the multiplicity of voices from North Africa and the Middle East. There is almost no tradition of a special literature for children in the Arab world so it is hard to fill the gap with imported titles. Some writers are responding to the challenge with titles such as Elizabeth Laird’s Kiss the Dust, Eoin Colfer’s Benny and Omar and Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner. There are also some fine picture books from Mantra.
Whilst the achievement of the pioneers in multi-cultural publishing, often against a social climate of ridicule and alienation around equalities issues, are to be acknowledged and celebrated, there remains much to be done at every level of the publishing process and at every level of debate on children’s books. For example, so far as I am aware, Books for Keeps is the only UK children’s book review journal to have a multi-cultural review team. This is just one example of how the children’s book trade can exclude the contribution of talented and knowledgeable ethnic minority people.
Expectations have been raised by this Diversity Matters conference – let us hope we can look to tangible outcomes.
This article is based on a presentation given at the Diversity Matters conference in June.
Rosemary Stones is Editor of Books for Keeps.
A useful link is www.diversityinpublishing.com