Throughout this series of articles, I have stressed the need for children to grow up aware of the multi-cultural nature of society today. I have tried to offer some thoughts on books which might help children at various ages towards a real understanding of the complexities of British society and the need for tolerance and flexibility in coming to terms with its demands.
At a stage when older children are beginning to search for their own identity and the answers to many of the confusing issues confronting them books have a tremendously important part to play. If young adolescents are to grow up to be tolerant, aware individuals, they need novels which offer them some perspective on the multi-cultural society. I want books which help young people to be aware and proud of their own cultural backgrounds, as well as helping them to find their place in British society, books which show the significance and importance of other cultures and which prepare young people to live and play a positive role in a multi-cultural society, and, most importantly for this age group, books which recognise the existence of racism and prejudice and offer some hope for combating them in the future.
Stories for younger readers
The Village by the Sea. Anita Desai, Heinemann. 0 434 93436 4, £5.50
Winner of the Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction 1982, this is a gently written and moving story about a family’s survival in a small fishing village near Bombay. With Father permanently drunk on the local ‘toddy’ and Mother seriously ill (from undernourishment), it is the two eldest children, Lila. aged 13 and Hari, 12, who have to earn the money, keep house and take responsibility for their two young sisters. Eventually Hari goes to Bombay to get work. His positive attitude and resourcefulness help him to cope with his dreadful surroundings and finally he returns home full of hope for the family’s future. A harrowing picture of extreme poverty but demonstrating the close family ties and relationships still possible in such extreme circumstances.
Playing It Right, Tony Drake, Collins, 0 00 184630 2. £5.95: Puffin. 0 14 03.1298 6, 80p
Half a Chance, Tony Drake, Collins. 0 00 184301 X. £5.50
Playing It Right is a realistic story set in a multi-racial junior school, capturing the rivalry and tensions amongst the boys in the newly formed cricket team. The relationships between the boys and the teachers are carefully observed and at times, very funny. The confrontation which occurs between the boys at Jenkins Street School and the middle-class (all white) Priory School is very amusing. The mixture of old-fashioned school story placed in a modern-day setting with the added dimension of race, is an interesting one.
Half a Chance lacks some of the freshness and impact of Playing It Right. Again the story has a school setting and a multi-cultural mix of children but this is for slightly older children. The relationships between the four main characters who form a school pop group is quite nicely balanced with Shakes, the Black teenager being the naturally dominant one. The dialogue is punchy and realistic with a lot of everyday swearing.
Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, Louise Fitzhugh. Gollancz. 0 575 02080 6, £4.95: Fontana Lions, 0 00 671351 3, £1.00: Macmillan Ed., 0 333 29450 5, £1.75
A compelling story about a Black American family whose Father is a lawyer. The two children. Emma, a fat 11 year old and Willie, a small 7 year old, are precocious and know exactly what they want: Emma to be a lawyer; Willie to be a dancer, completely the opposite to their Father’s stereotyped ideas. The story is seen mainly through Emma’s intelligent eyes as she looks at children’s rights and non-sexist and women’s lib. attitudes. How can she begin to affect her Father’s chauvinistic reactions? Excellent characterisation in this often very funny and carefully observed book.
Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, Bette Greene, Puffin, 0 14 03.0985 3, 85p
Get On Out of Here, Philip Hall. Bette Greene, Hamish Hamilton. 0 241 10881 0. £5.25
Two excellent novels set in rural Arkansas. U.S.A., and offering a splendid portrait of a small Black community. Fine characterisation of Beth who adores Philip Hall, the ‘number one best in everything’, or is he? Can Beth afford to show him that in fact she is the best’! She does, as the first title progresses but at the beginning of the sequel, the now rather over-confident Beth is devastated to find that the Abner Brady Leadership Award has been given to Philip Hall instead of her. She determines to demonstrate forcibly their mistaken thinking in making this award. It is only when she and her Pretty Pennies gang fail to beat Philip Hall’s Tiger Hunters gang, that she sinks to the depths of despair and goes away to live with Grandma. The delightfully drawn Beth cannot be repressed for long. She learns a powerful lesson about egotism, and her friends, including Philip Hall. realise how much she means to them all. Both stories are refreshingly humorous, warm, realistic stories and very readable.
My Mate Shofiq, Jan Needle, Deutsch, 0 233 96987 X, £3.50: Fontana Lions, 0 00 671518 4, £ 1.00: Collins Cascades. 0 00 33005 6, £ 1.70
A realistic, violent, and thought-provoking story of working-class children in a multi-racial area of Lancashire. The book tackles the issues of racism and prejudice head-on but without sentimentality. Bernard finds himself rather reluctantly supporting Shofiq. a Pakistani boy born in Bradford, against the school bully. Slowly, despite being labelled ‘Paki-lover’. Bernard becomes friendly with Shofiq. This is a difficult book to use as the early chapters could easily be interpreted (wrongly) as reinforcing racist attitudes. Only well into the story is the underlying anti-racist drift made clear. As with all Jan Needle’s books, there is much for children to think about and discuss.
Ganesh, Malcolm J. Bosse, Chatto, 0 7011 2621 3, £5.50
An interesting approach to helping children to understand the nature of the differences between cultures. 14-year-old Jeffrey was born and raised in India, living the life of a poor Hindu. When his American parents die, he finds he no longer belongs to this Indian community and is sent to live with his Aunt in America. This device clearly demonstrates the great divide between the two cultures and the problems faced by a child belonging to both cultures. The descriptions of life in India, coping with life and death, and the sudden transfer to America are effectively related but the end of the story is less credible and generally fizzles out. It still contains some interesting discussion points.
Stories for older readers
The First of Midnight, Marjorie Darke, Penguin. 0 14 00.5370 0, £1.50
A Long Way to Go, Marjorie Darke, Kestrel, 0 7226 5485 5, £4.95: Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1359 1, £1.25
Comeback. Marjorie Darke, Kestrel, 0 7226 5743 9, £5.50: Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1405 9, £1.50 (December 1983)
A loosely connected trilogy which begins at the end of the eighteenth century and finishes in the present day. The First of Midnight is a powerful novel revolving around the slave trade in Bristol. It provides an interesting contrast between the life of a Black slave, Midnight and an orphan wench, Jess, showing how both are treated as almost worthless chattels. The main characters in A Long Way to Go. set during the first World War, are Luke and Bella. the great grandchildren of Midnight and Jess. Both are well-drawn, individual characters, proud of their African slave origins. The story lacks some of the emotional impact and depth of feeling of The First of Midnight but provides an interesting portrait of the pressures on Luke as a conscientious objector. Comeback is set in the present day and revolves around the competitive world of gymnastics. The central character. Gail was abandoned as a baby and is torn between her desire to trace her parents (could she possibly be related to Midnight and Jess?) and to concentrate on the rigours of intensive gymnastic training. Again strong characterisation and a powerful story.
The Friends, Rosa Guy, Gollancz,
0 575 01839 9, £5.95: Puffin, 0 14 03.0933 0. £1.25: Macmillan Ed., 0 333 29514 5, £1.75
Edith Jackson, Rosa Guy, Gollancz. 0 575 02607 3. £5.95
Ruby, Rosa Guy. Gollancz, 0 575 03052 6, £5.50
The Disappearance, Rosa Guy, Gollancz, 0 575 02804 1. £5.95
Rosa Guy has established herself as a writer able to portray with great sympathy and sensitivity the Black American experience, with her stories based mainly in Harlem. The first three titles form a loosely connected trilogy.
In The Friends, Phylissia Cathy, a 14-year-old West Indian girl comes to live in Harlem where her Father works. She is mocked for her accent and background by the other kids in school but is befriended by the unprepossessing Edith. It is through her contact with Edith and the growing awareness of the responsibilities she takes for her family and the awful poverty in which they live, that Phylissia comes to terms with her domineering father and her mother’s death. The story is continued in Edith Jackson, a deeply moving story which looks at the role the now 17-year-old Edith takes as surrogate parent and the frightful pressures she faces. Ruby concentrates on Phyllissia’s elder sister Ruby. unsure of herself, bored and desperately lonely until she meets fellow classmate Daphne and forms a deep and intimate relationship with her. Sympathetically written but less heartrending than the earlier two titles. The Disappearance is a brutal, disturbingly realistic story of contemporary American society which contrasts the squalor of downtown Harlem with the outwardly cosy Brooklyn environment. This is a dramatic thriller for older teenagers with a chilling ending.
Delroy Is Here, Rhodri Jones, Dent. 0 460 06138 0. £5.95
A dramatic first novel by a London headmaster, which reflects the uncertainty and rebelliousness felt by many teenagers. Delroy is Black, an intelligent, misdirected, high-spirited Black teenager, often in trouble at school and, consequently, frequently at home too. The story traces his confusions about rebelling or conforming at school: the unfairness of being picked upon by certain teachers because he’s Black contrasted with the care and concern shown to him by his form teacher and, to a certain extent, by his headmaster. Goaded by a particularly vindictive and racist teacher, Delroy’s violent temper gets the better of him and what had looked like a promising future is almost certainly condemned to failure. The writer shows a real understanding of Black teenagers and a commitment to demonstrate the existence of prejudice in the school situation, but there are times when the story is obviously written by an `outsider’ rather than from within the Black community and certain parts of the story seem forced and lack conviction. Again there is much to talk about.
Piggy in the Middle, Jan Needle, Deutsch, 0 233 97481 4. £3.95
A hard-hitting, uncompromising story about the police and their conduct during an investigation into the murder of a Muslim. The story is seen through the eyes of a police cadet who has always wanted to be in the police force but finds her feelings and loyalties confused and torn when she is involved in the vexed world of police brutality. prejudice and violence and finds herself in the diametrically opposite position to boyfriend David. a liberal local newspaper reporter. Disturbing, thought-provoking, this is a book which questions attitudes about race and law and order-from all sides. Again lots of food for discussion here.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor. Gollancz. 0 575 02384 8. £6.50: Puffin, 0 14 03.1129 7, £I.35
Let the Circle Be Unbroken, Gollancz, 0 575 03084 4, £6.50
Two extremely powerful novels set in Mississippi. at the height of the Depression and charting the story of a Black family’s fight to maintain its integrity and pride against all the forces of a racist society. The characters of the whole family are richly portrayed. especially Cassie. a self-willed, independent 9 year old. The close family relationship is set against a background of night riders, burnings and blatant injustice. The two books depict Cassie’s hopes and fears as they develop from childhood innocence to awareness, to bitterness and disillusionment. These are demanding, lengthy books but extremely rewarding for the persistent reader and with many pertinent messages to today’s teenagers.