No. 4 Stories for the Primary/Middle Years
In the last three issues of Books for Keeps, I have tried to demonstrate the need for a multi-cultural breadth of vision when choosing books for children. Having looked at picture books and fairy tales, I now want to turn to novels for younger children.
Children from an early age should learn to show a concern for others and this seems to me to be particularly vital in a multi-cultural context. Children’s books can help to inspire the young with respect and understanding of other races and cultures, and help them to grow up in an atmosphere of racial tolerance and awareness. Children need to be offered positive role models to enable them to build up a positive self-image, a true sense of identity. I would like to see books where black, brown and white children of many ethnic groups take a normal part in a story, interacting and displaying all the usual ranges of emotions, abilities, skills and rivalry which exist naturally in any real cross-section of society, but where the children are individuals, proud of their identity.
There are still comparatively few novels for younger children which do reflect the multi-cultural nature of society and surprisingly few which offer a picture of life and culture in other countries, in story form. I am saddened to see how few illustrators seem to be able to respond positively to the challenge of depicting realistically different racial groups. The impact of so many of the books included here seems to me to be lessened by the crudity of the illustrations.
Stories for early readers
The Julian Stories, Ann Cameron, Gollancz, 0 575 03143 3, £4.95
“My father is a big man with black wild hair. When he laughs, the sun laughs in the windowpanes. When he thinks, you can almost see his thoughts sitting on all the tables and chairs. When he is angry, me and my little brother Huey shiver to the bottom of our shoes.” So begin 6 short stories written in simple, but powerful evocative language. The two children in the stories are delightfully drawn characters, involved in typical childish pranks and misunderstandings, but always rescued by a very sympathetic father. The mother is a shadowy figure but the relationship between the boys and their father is particularly nicely developed and full of humour. Beautiful bold black and white illustrations enhance the stories.
The Steel Band, Wendy Green, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10777 6, £2.50
A welcome addition to the Antelope series, aimed at children just learning to read a complete story. Vernon, a restless inattentive black child, has his energy channelled into raising money for a school steel band. A pleasant little story stressing in simple terms the excitement of the music, the hard work, commitment and skill required and showing a multi-cultural group of children participating positively.
Linda’s Lie, Bernard Ashley, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 099 4, £2.95
Flames in the Forest, Ruskin Bond, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 027 7, £2.75
Two titles in the Blackbird series aimed at 5-8 year olds and intended for newly independent readers. Linda’s Lie is a gentle little story reflecting a small child’s anguish at the prospect of being shown up in public, when her parents cannot afford the money for her school trip. The description of the black father helping a white stranger to change a wheel, is a trifle sentimental but there is a strong message here. Flames in the Forest is a dramatic little tale set in India. Romi sets out on the 7 mile journey home from school, aware that a forest fire is burning ahead. The tension builds up as the animals flee from the fire and Romi struggles to get home before the fire engulfs him. Attractively illustrated.
Kamla and Kate, Jamila Gavin, Methuen, 0 416 22780 5, £3.95
A series of little stories about two six-year-old girls, one English, the other Hindu, who are firm friends. Kate loses a tooth and tells Kamla about the tooth fairy and Kamla’s family holds a Diwali party, where everyone is enchanted by Kamla’s dancing. Mundane stories, but making a commendable effort to demonstrate the beginnings of awareness of each other’s cultures between these two young children and the need for tolerance and understanding.
Stories for experienced readers
I’m Trying to Tell You, Bernard Ashley, Kestrel, 0 7226 5725 0, £3.75 Puffin, 0 1403.1337 0, 85p.
Four children from a multi-racial inner-city school tell their stories in their own words. Nerissa can’t think of a single idea for her “exciting story” at school because her head is too full of her sister’s wedding the day before. A gentle irony and humour runs through the four stories and again demonstrates Bernard Ashley’s perceptive understanding of children and their private feelings and reactions.
The Orange Tree, Jamila Gavin, Methuen, 0 416 86240 3, £2.75
Double Dare, Jamila Gavin, Methuen, 0 416 21540 8, £3.95
Two collections of short stories by Jamila Gavin about urban children but from very diverse backgrounds. The stories in The Orange Tree are pure fantasy, transporting the children into a world where anything could happen, providing a nice contrast between everyday life in England and the exotic cultures and backgrounds and dreams of these children, from West Indian, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Chinese, Asian and Polish backgrounds. Double Dare is for slightly older children and all four stories have elements of the supernatural skilfully woven in.
Three of the stories sensitively explore the relationship between the young and the old. I particularly liked the title story about a young Anglo-Indian boy who begins to see visions of an elderly Indian man who turns out to be the grandfather he has never met.
City Summer, Rosalind Jackson and Pamela Johnson, Black, 0 7136 2019 6, £2.95
A simple, lively collection of five stories about a very mixed racial group of children in their first year at a comprehensive school. There is Costas, a Greek Cypriot; Kofi, a Nigerian; Kamal, newly arrived from India; Georgia, with both parents from Jamaica; Kwai, a Chinese girl and other children who form a warmly drawn, inter-dependent, supportive group. I liked the story “Match of the Day” in which Georgia starts a 5-a-side football team and meets the predictable prejudice of the youth leader who fails to take them seriously because they are girls. Realistic settings and well portrayed children.
Gowie Corby Plays Chicken, Gene Kemp, Faber, 0 571 11405 9, £4.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.1322 2, 90p.
A refreshing and very funny story set in the same primary school as “The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler” but dealing with a new set of characters. Gowie Corby is a monstrous child, the bane of every teacher’s existence: he does not have problems, he just has enemies (apart from Boris Karloff, his pet rat), and life is bad, until Rosie appears. Rosie is a large, energetic, Black American girl and it becomes her role in life to reform Gowie. Rosie is a splendid character and the closeness of her family life, her positive attitude and general good nature, contrast markedly with Gowie’s depressing home circumstances, totally lacking in support and his ensuing negative approach to life. The story again demonstrates Gene Kemp’s great skill in capturing the real essence of the primary school, warts and all.
Save Our School, Gillian Cross, Methuen, 0 416 89800 9, £3.50 Magnet, 0 416 30110 X, £1.00
The Mintyglo Kid, Gillian Cross, Methuen, 0 416 25420 9, £3.95
Two fast-moving, readable stories by Gillian Cross revolving round the same three main characters: Clipper, the very likeable, larger-than-life, dominant Black girl, the best footballer, cricketer, climber, fighter in the Junior School; Spag, the thoughtful, quiet, organised boy and Gobbo, the fat, disorganised son of the local scrapdealer, full of bright ideas which normally misfire. In Save Our School, they set out to do just that when the school is threatened with closure. In The Mintyglo Kid, they set out to win the local school cricket competition. Clipper, as captain of the cricket team, is a demon bowler, considerable batsman and stands no nonsense from her team, most of whom are terrified of her. Two very funny novels.
The Runaway, Gillian Cross, Methuen, 0 416 87230 1, £3.95
Also by Gillian Cross, The Runaway is a rather more serious, socially-committed story. When Denny’s only relative, his granny is taken to hospital, he runs away and meets Nachtar Singh. Their initial antagonism (“Rotten Paki!” … “I am not a rotten Paki … I am a rotten Indian”) changes, predictably but convincingly, into mutual understanding as Nachtar helps Denny hide from the police. Strong characters in an exciting and often funny adventure story.
The Devil’s Children, Peter Dickinson, Gollancz, 0 575 00410 X, £4.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.0547 7, £1.10
This is another fascinating adventure story, again revolving round a group of Sikhs. Basically an historical story set in the future, this is the third book about the “Changes”, a time when the people of Great Britain turn against machines and revert to a mediaeval form of existence. The story gives an accurate portrait of a Sikh community, their customs, pride and feelings and the admirable way in which they adapt to their new environment.
The Third Class Genie, Robert Leeson, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10623 0, £4.95, Fontana Lions, 0 00 670930 3, 90p.
A very amusing and highly readable story. Disaster-prone Alec, living in an inner-city area, stumbles upon an unopened beer can and finds it houses a genie from twelfth-century Baghdad. This unlikely episode is superbly depicted and allows for all sorts of exotic developments, such as looking at the Crusades from the opposite to normal viewpoint, through the eyes of the genie. A very likeable fantasy with a strong multi-cultural element.
The Day After Yesterday, Geraldine Kay, Deutsch, 0 233 97344 3, £4.25
A gentle, unusual story about a young Chinese girl, Su Su, now living in London and helping her parents run a Chinese Take-away. Enigmatic Su Su lives in a world of her own, haunted by foggy memories of her terrifying last weeks in Hong Kong when she was left in sole charge of her brothers and baby sister, Chai Eng. Geraldine Kaye manages to explore with great sensitivity the loyalties, fears, obligations and hopes within the Chinese community as well as the heroism of children in the face of threat and difficulty. Su Su’s problem is finally worked out in the classroom through sensitive handling by a teacher and children.