We live in a multi-cultural, multi-racial Britain. This is now a fact of life, to be recognised whether we live in Cornwall, East Anglia, London or the West Midlands. Unless we want our children to develop an inward-looking, insular perspective, educating them for the future must imply educating them to live in and play a positive role in a multi-cultural society, where cultural diversity is recognised and respected and a global perspective assumed.
I believe that books have a vital part to play in a child’s developing awareness and understanding. Books can foster racial and cultural understanding and offer children positive role models. Through books, curiosity amongst children about the culture, language and country of origin of their parents and grandparents can be encouraged, so that children can feel pride in belonging to two cultures rather than being lost in the abyss between the two. Books can demonstrate the values of different cultures but also show the similarities between children playing, learning and growing up anywhere. In books which show the current Great Britain, children of different cultural and racial groups can be seen participating as equals and cooperating together. Books can help children to find their true identity, to see their own lives in perspective and as having some significance.
We therefore need books which reflect, naturally and unselfconsciously, the richness and wide diversity of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds currently existing in Great Britain and books which offer a wide range of values and range of norms.
Until recently, there were few books for children which even began to think in these terms. Most children’s books presented a world in which all the characters, at least the significant characters were white and of European stock. The message such books inevitably carried was that children of Caribbean, Asian, Chinese, African origin were not the norm, they did not really matter or count. It was quite easy for white children, especially those not in multi-cultural areas, to assume that Black children did not experience the sorts of things that children’s books and picture books in particular dealt with: they did not go shopping with their parents or go to the zoo: they did not skip or read about monsters; they did not have birthdays or exist in the role of fairies, clowns or astronauts.
Books which give that impression are seriously misleading their readers. Books have a greater power to mislead where there are no classmates to prove that this is not reality, where there are no local shops to signify that a variety of languages and lifestyles exist in this country today.
The last ten years has seen the emergence of some significant and creative writers who have shown a deep concern for and awareness of the multi-cultural nature of modern British society and have tried to reflect this honestly in their books:
Bernard Ashley with his sensitively written stories, The Trouble with Donovan Croft and, for younger children, I’m Trying to Tell You (both in Puffin);
Bob Leeson, one of the few writers to blend fantasy with realism in The Third Class Genie, as well as taking a historical perspective in Maroon Boy (both in Fontana Lions);
Jan Needle who tackles the issues of prejudice and racism head-on, but with deep understanding in My Mate Shofiq and A Sense of Shame;
Farrukh Dhondy with his collections of short stories, East End at your Feet (Macmillan Topliner) and Come to Mecca (Fontana Lion) which sympathetically capture the feelings of Asian teenagers growing up in London today;
Geraldine Kaye one of the few writers looking at the Chinese community in Britain;
Nina Bawden, one of the earliest writers in this field who no longer feels the need to stress the existence of black children in her stories: they are there quite naturally.
Even so, there is a dearth of such fiction for the young reader. Peter Dickinson’s The Devil’s Children (Puffin), originally published in 1970, is still one of the most perceptive stories for this age group with its sensitive portrait of a Sikh community. One, I hope significant, development is that more writers who are themselves members of ethnic minorities like Jamila Gavin (The Orange Tree and Double Dare, both Methuen) and Buchi Emecheta (Titch the Cat) have recently begun to fill this gap.
Along the same lines and particularly encouraging have been the number of initiatives at grass roots level, with community bookshops such as Centerprise, Walter Rodney Bookshop and New Beacon Books selling multi-cultural books, including imports from the Caribbean, Indian subcontinent, Africa and People’s Republic of China, as well as promoting local publishing. Much of this local publishing has reflected the thoughts and writings of young people who have grown up in a multi-cultural society and the sense of urgency and vitality of the writing in titles such as Our Lives (The English Centre) and Accabre Huntley’s At School Today deserve recognition and a wider audience than they often receive.
It is interesting to note that one place where such writing is recognised, is in some of the anthologies accompanying various educational television series, such as The English Programme and Middle English (both Thames). The influence of television programmes which reflect the multi-cultural nature of society is particularly important, and programmes such as Tomorrow’s People (Yorkshire) and Everybody Here (Channel 4) and the accompanying teacher’s notes and anthologies can provide useful source material.
Children have the right to a body of literature which truly reflects its whole readership and we have a moral responsibility as teachers, librarians or parents to demonstrate a multi-cultural breadth of vision in the books we are making available to our children. Over the next six issues of Books For Keeps, I shall be looking in some detail at some of the above-mentioned books, and others, and offering a Lifeline guide to the books I feel ought to be strongly represented in any school interested in offering such a multi-cultural base of understanding. The areas I shall be looking at are:
1. Folk Tales and Legends.
2. Picture Books.
3. Novels for the Primary and Middle Years.
4. Teenage Novels.
5. Anthologies of short stories and poetry.
6. Background Books.
Judith Elkin is a past Head of Services for Children and Young People in Birmingham Libraries. She is also the compiler of Multi-racial Books for the Classroom (YLG Publications), now in its third revised edition.
I should like to start by highlighting a few books which can help younger children to become more aware of the multi-cultural nature of society.
The Baby’s Catalogue
Allan and Janet Ahlberg, Kestrel, 0 7226 5777 3, £4.95
Based on the premise that very young children are interested in pictures of other children and familiar objects in things like the Mothercare catalogue, this delightfully illustrated picture book follows the exploits of five babies in five families through the course of a day and amidst a vast array of baby paraphernalia. It seems perfectly natural that one of the families should be black. The babies are all shown in typical baby poses and positions and the mothers and fathers are seen in non-stereotyped roles – dad doing the washing, mum going to work in the car, etc. A humourous view of life with small babies, and suitable for the very youngest children.
Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street
compiled by Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann, ill. Dan Jones,
Kestrel 0 7226 527 7. £3.95 Puffin 0 14 050.313 7, 80p
A collection of 20 traditional rhymes, some familiar ones like “Girls and boys come out to play” and other less well known ones, all vibrantly illustrated by Dan Jones and given an inner-city, multi-cultural setting. The detailed, crowded drawings give a refreshingly new interpretation to the rhymes. (See also Inky Pinky Ponky, playground rhymes collected by Mike Rosen and Susanna Steele, illustrated by Dan Jones with the same style and dash. Granada, 0 246 11319 7, £4.95)
compiled by Michael Rosen, Bodley Head, 0 370 30944 8, £3.95
The book is based on the Channel 4 TV programmes (see Books for Keeps 17 November 82) and follows the same lively, child-centred, fun-loving magazine programme approach. The stories, things to make, silly things to do, songs, games and photographs all reflect the varied cultural backgrounds of the children involved, with some of the items related in the Mother Tongue as well as English.
The ideas incorporated in this quite slight (64 page) book aim to provide a starting point for a whole range of activities which encourage multi-cultural awareness through the child’s own experiences and home background. It is one of the few books so far in existence which takes a refreshingly unforced look at a happy multi-cultural group of children playing and working together in close harmony, whilst obviously recognising the values of differing home backgrounds and languages.
Terraced House Books
Peter Heaslip and Ann Griffiths, Methuen, several sets available, each set of four £2.75
A series of early readers written with the urban child in mind but suitable for any classroom for they show such wide cultural diversity in the children and families depicted. With clear, colourful photographs, large type and short sentences (only one line per page), they are ideal for children beginning to read or whose English is poor. There are now 4 sets of books (with 2 more planned for Spring 1983) and all titles have familiar everyday settings, for example My Mum. My Dad, School Dinners, The Launderette, The New Baby, Birthdays, The Market. The texts are separately available in Urdu and Bengali on adhesive sheets, so that they can be overlaid on, or stuck alongside. the original English text: a commendable initiative.
Fancy Dress Party
Gillian Klein, Methuen, 5 titles plus teacher’s notes, 0 423 50920 9, £4.95
A recent series of five books for beginning readers about children from five different cultural backgrounds preparing costumes and food for a fancy dress party at school. This ingenious idea enables the individual child in each story to be seen in his or her own home background using the cultural heritage of the family in preparing for the party. Key words in the Mother Tongues involved are given at the back of the books and there are extensive teacher’s notes. The illustrations by Simon Willby are rather crude and disappointing but this remains a valuable set of books demonstrating multi-cultural awareness. A further set (Scrapbooks) based on a similar idea (all the children in school have been on holiday to their Mother countries) is due in Spring 1983.
66 songs for children chosen by Sylvia Barratt and Sheena Hodge, instrumental parts by Leonora Davies, ill. Lisa Kopper. A & C Black, 0 7136 2170 2. £4.95
A lively selection of 66 songs from all over the world, including traditional African. Gujerati, Caribbean and Hebridean songs, a song about Diwali and a Soviet children’s peace song, as well as songs by Tom Paxton and Woodie Guthrie, and one composed to teach the Indian hand movements used in dance. Black’s series of spiral-bound music books, make a valuable contribution as there are so few collections of songs available for children. They deliberately, both in the illustrations and choice of material, set out to be multi-cultural and international. Other titles include: Merrily to Bethlehem, 0 7136 1892 2 (64 unusual carols including Polish, Welsh. French and West Indian spirituals): Harlequin, 0 7136 2155 9 (44 songs round the year celebrating different festivals, including Hanukah, Christmas, Halloween and the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival): Mango Spice, 0 7136 2109 5 (44 Caribbean songs), (also available in a words only edition, £1.35).
A & C Black, £2.95 each
A series for 8 to 13 year olds which aims to encourage an understanding of people from different cultural backgrounds. Each title is about a real family and shows the people within the family going about their everyday lives in various parts of Britain. The books are illustrated with attractive high quality photographs which capture very effectively the spirit of the books. The books are factual as well as fictional so that in Pavan is a Sikh, 0 7136 1721 7, the reader is shown how Pavan’s father ties his turban and his beard and the religious significance of the ‘five Ks’. Other titles include Nahda’s Family, 0 7136 1732 2, The Phoenix Bird Chinese Take-Away, 0 7136 1832 9, Shimon, Leah and Benjamin, 0 7136 1957 0, and Rebecca is a Cypriot, 0 7136 1921 X. A very useful series showing different cultures within a British urban setting.
by Joan Solomon, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 8978 3. £2.95
The most successful title in a series of books by Joan Solomon again using a photo-journalistic approach. The setting is an inner-city school where Berron loses a tooth, puts it safely in his pocket, loses it and finds it again. A mundane little story but one very familiar to all children. The photographs delightfully capture a multi-racial group of children in very natural situations. Berron, Montrice and the other children appear again in A Day by the Sea, 0 241 89782 3, £3.50, and Kate’s Party, 0 241 89780 7, £2.95. News for Dad, 0 241 10215 4, Bobbi’s New Year, 0 241 10214 6 (both £3.25) are in a similar format but look at a Sikh community and Wedding Day, 0 241 10552 8 and A Present for Mum, 0 241 10553 6 (both £3.50) look at a Hindu family. As in the Strands series, these last four titles have a strong factual element, taking the opportunity within the story to talk about the religions concerned, and again make a valuable contribution to multicultural understanding.
Just out in the same format, also from Hamish Hamilton are Carnival by Ian Menter with photographs by Will Guy (0 241 10828 4, £3.50) in which Adrian and Samantha visit the summer Carnival in St. Paul’s. Bristol and A Day with Ling by Ming Tsow with photographs by Christopher Cormack (0 241 I0833 0, £3.50) in which Anne spends a day with her friend Ling.