MISEDUCATION LIMITS A CHILD’S IMAGINATION
THEMED BOOKS CREATE EMPLOYABLE, WISER ADULTS
WOMEN PUBLISHERS LEADING THE WAY
ADVOCATES MUST CREATE CHARTER FOR INCLUSION
ROOT RACISM OUT OF CHILDREN’S BOOKS
By Thomas L Blair 31 December 2021 rev 17/01/22©
All children deserve to see themselves in the books they read. However, Black British children hardly ever see positive images of themselves and their Caribbean, African and diaspora communities. With corrosive effects, in the view of Grenada-born Verna Wilkins publisher of children’s books.
THE DIRE FACTS
The enormity of the problem is clear. An estimated 30% of school children in England are from ethnic minority backgrounds. However, the voices and the world portrayed in UK children’s books are largely white. Fuelling concern, too, is the fact that less than 6% of published creators of children’s books are people of colour, according to BookTrust researchers.
THE BIG ISSUE IS HOW TO RESPOND TO THIS DEFICIT
Now, forward-looking Black publishers are filling the gap and creating edu-taining books for kids with stories and images that look them – not Goldilocks. And we have rounded up some of their tales — ranging from brave kids and great friendships to unforgettable true stories told under an ancient Baobab tree.
BLACK PUBLISHERS PRODUCE THEMED BOOKS FOR ALL AGES
Suspense is a winner. Is the distraught child going to find the lost adorable Black baby doll? Can teenagers convince their parents to let them wear Black Lives Matter tee-shirts? Is the Black girl going to realise she’s beautiful and save the world? You are expelled from school at 15: how did you become a world-famous poet?
I Love my Daddy. What’s something nice to give him on Father’s Day?
The letter J: What shall we have for dinner tonight? J for Jollof rice or J for Jamaican Rice and peas?
Why not C for mother’s beautiful Cornrow hair style and her tasty Callaloo soup.
All kids love tales of explorers’ amazing feats against the odds. Polar Preet: Battling the South Pole’s piercing wind and snow, British Asian Captain Preet Chandi became the first woman of colour – and Sikh — to make the 700-mile journey in 40 days. Inspirational picture book.
Adventurer Barbara Hillary 88-year-old was the first African American woman on record to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole. Titled Explorers — Illustrated with maps and scenes of sea and ice, space and land.
“Why Can’t I Be Me?” Themed illustrated books on current issues are increasingly important, too. Race equality and Black Lives Matter, gender identity, sexual orientation and family diversity are prime examples. Suitable for ages 7-11, these guide books make emotion-charged family table and schoolyard topics easier to explain to children.
WHAT BLACK PUBLISHERS SAY AND AIM TO DO
Even at reading age 2-5 years old, being read to by mum and dad or granny and grandpa can be a transformative experience, says former BBC journalist Sonya McGilchrist of Dinosaur Books. Her book-listed Journey to Benin City, set in the medieval Benin Empire, links suitably to the national KS2 curriculum.
Black-owned publisher and bookseller Jacaranda Books publishes award-winning diverse, inclusive literature for young adults. Founder Valerie Brandes aimed to create a platform for under-represented voices from Africa, the Caribbean and the Diaspora.
Formy Books, an independent family-run publisher, creates a diverse range of attractive and inclusive children’s books. Owners are passionate about encouraging Black creative talent.
Black hero books can be a booster for children ages 5 to 11 who often lack confidence and feel voiceless. Sowing self-worth and challenging colourism or shadeism is increasingly important, says Verna Wilkins. She founded Tamarind Books when shocked to find her five-year-old son coloured himself pink in a school booklet.
Suitable for young adults, New Beacon Press features Jamaica Airman: A Black Airman in Britain 1943.
Rosemarie Hudson’s Hope Road Publishers lists writers and stories from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean too often neglected by the mainstream book industry.
MC Grammar (Jacob Mitchell), a schoolteacher, rapper and father of three, believes “interactive learning can change children’s lives”. He is leading the trend in online digital books. Many are song books for four to 11-year-olds to teach them about the English language.
Exciting, page-turning adventures can be both educational and entertaining for all ages. Books can be enjoyable as well as teach language and numerical, conceptual or motor skills. Inquisitive students can create their own virtual library of favourites to share ideas through virtual socialising with friends.
These efforts will counter the mainstream publishing industry’s resistance to inclusion and change. Books that are diverse and inclusive in content and production have a positive value. They help young readers reach their full potential. Producing them is not only an ethical imperative but also a sound business model for Black publishers. And here are some reasons why.
KIDS BOOKS CAN LINK GENERATIONS
Black publishers, writers and illustrators are well placed to produce books about the Black freedom struggle. Read to by parents, kids and young adults can take pride in Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman’s stories and poems of anti-slavery Unheard Voices.
Family history and relationships link generations. Cuddled on Granny’s lap, they can marvel at books that tell of the historic first landing of pioneering post-war West Indians. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah brilliantly emphasises this in his Windrush Boy. Writer Ferdinand Dennis eloquently portrays the Black presence in London in his Black and White Museum book. Educator and musician Alex Pascall shares his good vibes with young Teletubbies and schoolchildren.
THEMED BOOKS CREATE EMPLOYABLE, WISER YOUNG ADULTS
Stories of romance, surprise and delight are nice, but publishers should not shy away from being practical. Young adults with social media skills can be the hub of community inter-networks. They can also boost their employability in the info-tech and digital labour markets.
SO, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Black publishers for kids’ books matter. Why? Because major issues must be tackled. One, is the lack of diversity and inclusion in the publishing industry, says Natalie Jerome Literary Agent at Curtis Brown Group. Two, it is necessary to counter the damaging effects of an uncaring school system identified in Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971)
BLACK PUBLISHERS OF KID’S BOOKS MUST ACT TO CREATE CHANGE
One way to do this is to link with the British KS2 national curriculum and help create school reading plans. Another is to produce books that give a fascinating insight into the tireless and wide-reaching activism of unique individual, communities and organisations. See The Legacy of John La Rose: The Book of the Exhibition New Beacon Press
Young adults can be introduced to modern Black activists. These might include journalist Claudia Jones of Notting Hill carnival fame, Bernie Grant MP reparations champion, fierce anti-apartheid Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela revered freedom fighter and first president of South Africa.
DEFY THE ODDS: KEEP GROWING
Publishing books for kids is not just something that’s “good” to do. Of course, the goal is more good books featuring characters that are produced by Black authors and illustrators. But edu-taining children of all ages helps grow their self-confidence and positive communication skills.
To do this, Black publishers of kids’ books must open up their own markets for Black readers. These include creating Podcast discussions by child educators, behavioural psychologists, community leaders and librarians about kid’s books.
Admittedly, achieving these goals means taking risks. But it’s worth it. Publishing books that are diverse and inclusive in content and production is not only an ethical imperative but also a sound business model.
CREATE FRESH MARKETING STRATEGIES
The aim is to increase positive Black representation across all genres in children’s literature. For example:
Draw from the pool of prize winners in the prestigious Caine Prize for African Literature
Aim to win The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour
Enter the Bare Lit Festival an annual event that promotes the writing of people of colour;
DEVELOP PUBLISHING COMPETENCE AND SCOPE
Improve skills in Podcast technology, writer development schemes and publisher’s awareness sessions
Challenge mainstream houses to incorporate inclusion and diversity into their infrastructure and search methods
Monitor impacts and significant improvements.
Keep up with the latest reports laying the foundations for change, such as The Writing the Future report, commissioned by Spread the Word in 2015.
PAY DUE RESPECT TO THE PIONEERS
Caribbean publishers, bookshops and literary movements dominated the 1960s-70s in Britain.
Eric and Jessica Huntley’s Bogle L’Ouverture Publishing house aimed to create children’s literature that educated and rallied youth to the tune of Bob Marley’s strident anthem — Get up. Stand up for your rights.
John La Rose’s New Beacon Press encouraged parent-child schooling and grassroots activism in Britain and the Caribbean.
The Caribbean Artists Movement organised writers, artists and critics from the English-speaking Caribbean.
ROOT OUT RACISM IN KIDS BOOKS
Black advocacy and literary movements against racism in children’s books have a long history — well worth reflecting on today. The Golliwog stories created in 1895 were seen by many white British and American parents as innocuous cuddle-up tales associated with childhood. But Caribbean and African Americans considered Golly as an anti-Black caricature associated with pickaninnies, minstrels and mammy figures.
In response a century ago Professor W E B Du Bois — the ‘Father of Sociology’ — created The Brownies’ Book that helped 1920s kids navigate racism. When the mainstream publishing culture denied Black children their humanity — he urged his readers to see “Beauty in Black”.
Du Bois set the standards and the platform of excellence so necessary today. He said this book “aims to be a thing of Joy and Beauty, dealing in Happiness, Laughter and Emulation. Designed especially for Kiddies from Six to Sixteen it will seek to teach Universal Love and Brotherhood for all little folk, he pledged.
BLACK WOMEN LEADING THE WAY
Black women are and have always been leaders in publishing in Britain. Some included in this article have challenged, shaped and changed the UK publishing industry. Prominent others include Margaret Busby of Ghanaian heritage, current Chair of the Booker Prize, and the first Black woman publisher in Britain. Of Sierra Leonean descent, Kadija George is a co-director of Peepal Tree Press’s writer development programme, and researcher on the work of Independent Black Publishing within the creative industries.
CREATE A CHARTER FOR CARIBBEAN AND AFRICAN VOICES IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS
The lack of true images of Black characters reveals the fatal flaws in the British publishing industry. Black staff are few in number and you are probably more likely to see an animal as the lead character in a children’s book than a person of colour, it is reported.
Therefore the tasks ahead for Black publishers are clear. Create a charter of principles and obligations.
One, Black publishers should aim to break down employment barriers.
Two, they should challenge stereotypes that linger long after Agatha Christie’s offensive children’s rhymes “Ten Little Niggers” and “Ten Little Indians”.
Three, they should encourage children’s communication and thinking skills and abilities to counter social media disinformation.
Four, they should seek to ensure that every child can access and enjoy great books that portray a culturally diverse society.
Five, they must encourage pupils, parents and communities to explore their roots in Africa, the Caribbean and links with kith and kin in the global diaspora.
Planting the seed of self-worth is essential for Black children in a hostile society. In the harvest, they will prove worthy of the sacrifices their forebears made to gain racial justice — and know why the struggle continues and they must carry on.
Founded in 1997, the Chronicleworld is Black Britain’s most significant online news journal authored by cyber-scholar Professor Thomas L Blair.