First published in his anthology, Under the Moon & Over the Sea, John Agard’s poem has been delightfully brought to the picture book format by debut children’s book illustrator, Sophie Bass. Gifted with the space for his words and rhythm to stretch and roll, Agard’s poem about a child’s journey to England on board Empire Windrush becomes beautifully embellished and enriched through Bass’s traditional, gouache and pen illustrations.
With the gentle, insistent refrain of ‘Windrush child’, Agard’s poem uses the pattern of prepositional phrases to evoke scenes of the child’s past life on the shores of his Caribbean home (‘Behind you, Windrush child, palm trees wave goodbye’), the journey across seas and rolling waters, until the family arrive at his new home. Memories of his Grandmother, who remains behind, accompany him and, through letters, he shares his life in England with her and the new horizons that he dreams of. Windrush Child opens with sun and sand and closes with sun and snow; this is a new adventure but some things remain the same.
What Bass brings to the poem is something subtle and clever, reaching beyond the literal. With bright and engaging spreads, rich in cultural connections to the child’s Caribbean heritage (especially in his new English home), the illustrator invites a close reading of the child’s parents and white people on the fringes of their lives. The child themselves may seem comforted and happy by being a part of this new community but his father shows, at times, concern and longing for what they have left behind. In other spreads, on both the ship, the arrival at Tilbury Docks and the family’s time in parks, some white men and women are seen carrying stern, disapproving looks inferring heated displeasure and racist antagonism towards these new arrivals. The other, more racially diverse children, though, are far more accepting. This ironic interplay between the child’s story told through the poem and those moments captured through Bass’ illustrations, invite the reader to look beyond the child-like innocence and reflect upon the unspoken racial tensions: this is picturebook play at its finest.
The poem, written for Blue Peter, originates from Agard’s time as poet in residence at the BBC during the late nineties. Used to celebrate 50 years since the Windrush had arrived on English shores (1998), it was written from the perspective of Vince Reid (1935 – 2001), the youngest passenger on the ship at the age of 13. Sadly, Vince has passed away but the legacy of his time here, his journey and heritage have been lyrically captured in both word and picture.