Rosemary Stones considers the issues.
Children like to ‘see themselves’ in books – to identify in the widest sense with the characters and situation depicted, and to have implicitly reinforced their worth as people (the sort who are important enough to have books written about them). Books also have a formative influence on young readers. Without their realising it consciously, books are helping to shape their view of other people and groups; in a multi-ethnic society such a process has an obvious part to play in fostering respect and understanding for all people in our society. In an interview (Children’s Book Bulletin, June 1979) Errol Lloyd, the Jamaican illustrator and painter, commented that children’s books with positive Black characters ‘support Black children while they are developing their sense of cultural identity within white dominated society’ and at the same time ‘they help to normalise for children the presence of Black people in Britain.’
Over the last five years the children’s book world has welcomed the appearance of the occasional children’s book that reflects the multi-ethnic society that is Britain today, e.g. the positive response to Petronella Breinburg and Errol Lloyd’s pioneering My Brother Sean (Bodley Head and Puffin). But this welcome has not been accompanied by any widespread serious consideration of the issues that surround publishing for children in a multi-ethnic society. My own experience after five years of working with concerned groups of parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers on the question of children’s books in a multi-ethnic society has taught me, however, that such groups want to discuss and are discussing:
- What do we do about racism in children’s books?
- How do we find out about non-racist children’s books?
- How important are these issues to children in all white areas of the country?
What indeed do we do about racism in children’s books?
It should be no surprise that one can still find racist children’s books in Britain – we were an Empire, we did have colonies and the ideology of Empire dies hard. But in some subject areas (e.g. ‘great explorers’) it is still almost impossible to find suitable non-racist books. Book selectors must try to inform themselves of the nature of racial bias. Books for Keeps (May 1980) for example, in an article devoted to Willard Price, fails to comment on the heroes’ white supremacist attitudes to the luckless Third World peoples they encounter on their travels. Nor is there discussion on whether the merit of accessibility in Price’s books is countered by their racism. In Amazon Adventure (1961, reprinted 1979) we are told that the Indians were ‘chattering like monkeys’. ‘They’re really very clever people,’ said Terry, ‘even in shirts and shorts, some of the men looked a bit wild.’
We are in a period of transition, and selection policies must constantly be revised as more and better material becomes available. Clearly books like the Willard Prices and the W. E. Johns which are offensive and which have no outstanding literary or historic qualities do not merit a place on our book stalls. The problems arise with books like Lucy Boston’s The Chimneys of Green Knowe (Puffin) which presents a Black character in a positive and dignified way but which also contains descriptions (‘rolling eyes’ etc.) which are (unintentionally) pejorative; there are also the white liberal books of the sixties about racism like The Cay (Theodore Taylor, Puffin) which can now be seen to be paternalistic. Books such as these should be made available to young readers but alongside good books which genuinely reflect the Black experience – Come to Mecca (Farrukh Dhondy, Lions). Long Journey Home (Julius Lester, Puffin), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred Taylor, Puffin) are some of the outstanding titles available from Black writers. From such a dynamic juxtaposition can only grow an under-standing of cultural responses in a changing society.
But what has this to do with young readers who do not live in multi-ethnic communities? Few of us would be so parochial as to suggest that such young people will not travel or should not be informed about British society as a whole. But the crux of the matter is this: racism in Britain today is a white problem, and, in the words of the introduction to the World Council of Churches Criteria for the Evaluation of Racism, `racism hinders both sides from a fully human experience. The victims. dominant or dominated, cannot have a normal relationship with themselves or with others. Racism destroys both parties; it dehumanizes.’ The NUT Guidelines In Black and White point out that: ‘In some ways it is the schools in which there are no ethnic minority group children which are at a disadvantage, and where the most dangerously prejudiced public attitudes stemming from ignorance may occur. So the teacher in an all-white school needs to be doubly aware of the problem of stereotyping: it is here that the misleading stereotypes of other ethnic groups which children receive from their textbooks will meet no contradiction in reality and may be unthinkingly accepted.’
But presenting a wider range of titles to young readers is a pleasure, not a boring chore. There is a great wealth of literature from Black British writers, from writers overseas and now from white writers who have responded creatively to living in a multi-ethnic society, that young readers should not be deprived of. Missing out on such books means bypassing a window onto the richness and diversity of human experience.
There is a great sense of urgency among those who work with children and their books in the inner city areas: Black parents’ groups, community groups, concerned teachers and librarians are in the forefront of a movement which is developing expertise and collecting information about every aspect of children’s books in a multi-ethnic society – guidelines on racial bias, books in first languages, books with dual language texts, books about countries of origin, books which reflect multi-ethnic Britain. And so forth. There is much that can now be shared with all our children.
Rosemary Stones is co-editor of Children’s Book Bulletin and also reviews children’s books for, among other journals, Issues in Race and Education, Spare Rib and Time Out. She is the compiler of the Puffin catalogue A Multi-Ethnic Booklist and co-editor of the multi-ethnic nursery rhyme collection Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street (Kestrel/Puffin.) She is the children’s book buyer at Centerprise community bookshop and runs a school bookshop at her children’s school.
Children’s Book Bulletin – news and reviews of children’s books for the multi-ethnic society. 3 issues a year. 60p per issue + 15p p.&p. 3 issues (a year subscription) £1.80 including postage.
Cheques and postal orders to Children’s Book Bulletin, 4 Aldebert Terrace. London, SW8 IBH.
In Black and White, guidelines on racial stereotyping in text books and learning materials. 20p from the National Union of Teachers. Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC I.
Assessing Children’s Books for a Multi-Ethnic Society: Practical Guidelines for Primary and Secondary Schools
Free to ILEA teachers on receipt of an A4 sae; 10p and an A4 sae, if outside ILEA, from The Library, The Centre for Urban Educational Studies, 34 Aberdeen Park, London N5 2BL.
Criteria for the Evaluation of Racism in Textbooks and Children’s Literature formulated by an international working party of the World Council of Churches Workshop on Racism in Children’s and School Textbooks. Reprinted in Children’s Book Bulletin, No. 1.
For other useful sources of information, see page 32.