Thursday, 18 August 2011

Victims of Tokenism? - John Dougherty

When I was young I was a voracious reader, but I never read any books about children just like me. I don’t think anyone had written any.

There were lots of books about children a bit like me. I mean, most of the kids in the stories I read shared my skin-colour, more or less; but they were English. The Famous Five, the Pevensey children, Wendy Darling and her brothers - English, and posher than me, the lot of them.

But that was okay, because all the children on telly were English too. Clearly, people like me just didn’t get to appear in books and on television. Probably nobody from Northern Ireland had ever written a book, or at least not one good enough to go in the shops.

Well, apart from CS Lewis, I was proud to discover; but he didn’t really count - not properly - because according to the potted biography in my Narnia books, he’d only been born in Belfast. Being born somewhere isn’t the same as living there, and it didn’t say anything about him living in Northern Ireland. Maybe his parents had just been here on holiday or something. He’d certainly done all the interesting things in England, like being a professor. And anyway, he’d written a book, and hadn’t I already learned that people who were from Northern Ireland - I mean really, properly from here - didn’t write books? So he can’t have been from here. Not really.

So while I could enjoy books - and I did, believe me; I did - something inside me just accepted that books were about English kids, and written by English people.

To be fair, there were a few non-English children in some of the books I read. There was Prince Paul in Enid Blyton’s Secret series. He was African - although, as we learned approvingly in The Secret Mountain, his behaviour in the face of danger was just like an English boy’s, so that was okay [Note: see correction in comments, with thanks to Saviour Pirotta]. And I think Donald and Jean in Borrobil were Scottish. I liked Scottish people, probably because they were pretty well the closest you got in fiction to Northern Irish - apart maybe from the odd thick Paddy in sitcoms, and they really didn’t count, because they weren’t like real people at all.

Oh, and there was Nico in The Luck Of Troy. He was Ancient Greek.

I did come across one novel about Northern Ireland, when I was a teenager and they were just starting to invent Teen Fiction. It was called Under Goliath, and it was really good. Of course, it was about the Troubles, because the only time you ever saw anything about Northern Ireland it would be about the Troubles. Even if to me it was about being miserable, and bullied at school, and escaping into magical worlds any chance I got, I understood that to - the people who wrote books and made TV programmes - Northern Ireland meant the Troubles.

It was only a few years ago that I came across a series of books about children like me. By that point, of course, I wasn’t a child any more, but my inner child still was, and he was very happy about it. They’re by Sam McBratney, best known for Guess How Much I Love You, and they’re about Jimmy Zest and his classmates. My inner child and I could tell at once that these were children like us, because they said the sorts of things we and our classmates used to say:

“Ah, go on, give us one of your scones.”
“Go and get lost, Shorty.”
“Go away and give my head peace.”
“Just a wee bit, Gowso, I’m starving!”
“Your head’s a balloon, Zesty.”
“Wise up, Zesty.”

None of the children in the books I read as a boy ever said anything like that, nor did the kids on television - even when Grange Hill was invented - but my classmates and I did. These children, my inner child and I were sure, were Northern Irish children. I looked up Sam McBratney on the web; and, sure enough, he’s from Northern Ireland. I just had to be right.

Best of all, they weren’t Northern Irish children from sectarian areas learning important lessons about tolerance or getting involved with paramilitaries; they were just Northern Irish children being, well, children. Getting into scrapes, falling out, being silly. I loved them.

So when, a couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I came across a copy of Jimmy Zest, Super Pest in the library, we borrowed it. But it was a more recent edition - 2002 - than the one I'd read before; and in the illustrations they’d done something terrible.

They’d made two of the characters - Penny Brown and Stephen ‘Gowso’ McGowan - black.

Don’t get me wrong. Black kids are still, I think, under-represented in children’s fiction, as are most minority groups. The tendency in children’s publishing is still to default to white; a few years ago, an editor asked me if, in a story I’d submitted, I could perhaps turn one of the characters - any one - into a black child. To which I replied, “How do you know none of them are?” She’d just assumed they were all white because I hadn’t specified otherwise in the text. And that’s wrong. Where there’s an opportunity to even up the balance in favour of a minority, it should be taken, because all children need to see themselves represented in fiction.

But Northern Ireland does not have a large African-Caribbean population. Take a look here if you don’t believe me. Statistically, it’s enormously unlikely that you’d get two unrelated black children in the same class anywhere in Northern Ireland. Which means that this no longer looks like a book about children from a Northern Irish community.

Jimmy Zest is already about a minority group - a group that’s horribly, horribly under-represented in children’s fiction. And - in the name of equality - they’ve made it look like just another book about English children.


John's latest book, Zeus Sorts It Out, has just been published by Random House Children's Books, and his next, Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en, will be published on September 1st.

You can visit his website at

I'm going to be away when this post appears on Thursday. If I can get online I'll join in any discussion; if not, I look forward to seeing your comments when I get back! - John


Martin H. said...

An interesting read, John.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Prince Paul was African? I thought he was Baronian.

Katherine Langrish said...

Mmm - I take your point. They meant well, doubtless - it shows how hard it is, if you ain't in a minority, to be even aware of the variety of minorities which exist.

Anne said...

As a white writer it is a problem to know when and WHY I include black characters. I lived in a very multicultural area and yet my stories seem pretty 'white'. By and large I just picture my characters as teenagers involved in crime. The colour isn't important unless the crime is about race. A couple of my books have race crime in them so there are black characters. But to just dot in the odd black characters for the sake of numbers doesn't seem right to me. On the other hand black/asian readers have a right to read about books which have characters like them. So what is the answer?

catdownunder said...

And sometimes minorities get mentioned (dare I say "used") in such a self-conscious way it would have been better not to do it.

hilary said...

I have to say re, Irish books, Joan Lingard. I remember being blown away by The Twelth Day of July.

Stroppy Author said...

I have just written a book about an Irish vampire. He lives in England, but he is Irish and has been bullied for his Irishness. Is it more of a minority to be Irish or vampire?

Cindy Jefferies said...

Great post John. I'm only half Irish, and was born and brought up in England, but spent a lot of holidays in Ireland with relations. Even I used to wish there was something to read with children in like me. I didn't feel hard done by, but I did notice the Englishness of everything I read.

Candy Gourlay said...

But that was two out of how many characters? The map link showed a growing population of Northern Irish black people - some no doubt will have totally Northern Irish voices.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A fascinating post John. Growing up in South Africa I thought stories only ever happened to English children who had things like snow and eels in their world. And I certainly didn't know what another black child must've felt about that strange English world. It was only much later that indigenous children's stories were published in larger numbers and even then in the beginning the black representation was always skewed. In stories of mixed race they were never portrayed as the hero or protagonist but always played a minor role... thereby compounding the mores of the apartheid system. Thankfully there's been a huge change.

Penny Dolan said...

Well said, John. It's difficult to write a story that's open to everyone while making it specific to its place and characters.

Glad you found your Sam Macbratney!

John Dougherty said...

Hilary - yes, of course, Joan Lingard; that's the other writer who was nagging away at the back of my mind when I wrote this post. Thanks. But, as I say: The Twelfth Day of July - it's about the Troubles, isn't it? Imagine if every children's book written about England in the Eighties had been about football hooliganism!

Candy - yes, the black ethnic population in Northern Ireland is growing. There are, as the map info says, now over 1,000 people from a black ethnic background in Northern Ireland.

That's over 1,000 in a population of well over one and a half million - about 0.01% of the population, if I've calculated correctly and most of those (same source) came to Belfast in the past twenty years.

Looking at the map, the area of Northern Ireland with the highest concentration of black residents is Belfast South. In total there are, according to the map, 139 Black people there. That's not many in a quarter of a city.

As I say, it's incredibly unlikely you'd get 2 unrelated black children in the same class, especially if we assume that the Jimmy Zest stories are not set in South or East Belfast - which I'd judge not, from the stories themselves.

There will, by now, still be only a handful of black children with totally Northern Irish voices in the whole province. I maintain that by putting two in the same class the effect is to make Jimmy Zest look like a book about English children.

madwippitt said...

What a hardened young cynic you must have been: or maybe I was just gullible. When I excitedly read in MY Narnia books that CS Lewis was born in Belfast I assumed that he was still in residence. I lived in hope of bumping into him in a bookshop or the library ... even though I had no idea what he looked like ...

Rose said...

that really hit home - it sounds awful to say it now, but id never really thought about the ethnic minorities in bvery much detail in books. i guess i just assumed that there were books from everywhere, and that, given the amount of books i consume yearly, i would ahve by now read at least one from many of these places. i think that you shouldnt think too much about WHERE the books come from and WHO theyu are written by and HOW those character within came to be where they are. Just READ. its more fun that way. fantastic post :) x

Leslie Wilson said...

Well said, John! I've been going on visits to NI ever since I got to know David, and have only ever heard a bomb. People always assumed that we were taking the kids into a war zone, and of course it wasn't like that. People just got on with their lives. Sure, there were inconveniences - like that checkpoint on the way to Aldergrove, where my brother-in-law and his new wife were hauled in to have the luggage searched on the way to their honeymoon - and then realised they'd left the keys to the suitcases in the hotel! They did make the plane. But I'm sure the kids didn't really notice, all that stuff, like having to show your handbag when entering a shop, was just part of ordinary life. There has always been so much more to Northern Ireland than the Troubles. And a lot of Catholics and Protestants who were just friends with each other...

John Dougherty said...

Candy - sorry, forgot to answer your other question. It was 2 out of 7 major characters.

And, of course, I meant to say 'well under 0.01% of the population' rather than 'about 0.01%'.

And, Saviour - having done a bit of a web-search, it appears my memory has played me false (it was a very long time ago, and this was the only one of this series I ever read).

Yes, Prince Paul is Baronian, and Baronia isn't in Africa. I must have been confusing Prince Paul with Mafumu. Sorry, and thanks for the correction.

Emma Barnes said...

Best of all, they weren’t Northern Irish children from sectarian areas learning important lessons about tolerance or getting involved with paramilitaries; they were just Northern Irish children being, well, children.

I love that - I think every child would identify with that.

Leila said...

Great post! I identify with it totally - I am half Asian, half English-as-in-white. When I was growing up the only Asian kids in the books I read were 1) Mowgli 2) My Mate Shofiq. And just as you say all Northern Irish kids seemed to do in books was get mixed up with paramilitaries or learn lessons about tolerance, all Asian kids seemed to do in books was be the victim of racist bullying. As for Asian girls, no way, they were presumably all locked in a kitchen somewhere, draped in headscarves and waiting to get married. When I tell you that as a child I sometimes played I was the girl at the end of the Disney film of the Jungle Book ( onthe screen for aproximately 5 seconds) you will appreciate how crap the selection of role models was. (In these games I ditched Mowgli and ran off into the jungle to find my own wild animals, obv).
And yet - even though I know exactly how it must feel to be the few black kids in NI longing to see themselves in books doing anything, please God, but nobly suffer racist bullying - I agree that they shouldn't have changed the characters like that. It's lazy. They should publish a real book containing a black Northern irish child, a character in their own right, a person with their own story, own adventure, own point of view. Not just dip white characters in black paint. That's like introducing a character as coming from Belfast, and then having him speak exactly like a boy from London.

Leila said...

"it shows how hard it is, if you ain't in a minority, to be even aware of the variety of minorities which exist"

*Everyone* is in a minority. It just depends where you are standing. Perhaps if people bore that in mind, they would not find empathy so terribly difficult.

John Dougherty said...

"*Everyone* is in a minority."

Yes! Just as everyone has an accent!

Leila, I hope you'll take a look at my Bansi O'Hara books, and let me know if she's the kind of role model you were after in your own childhood. I'd love to think so.

(By the way, an editor recently asked me to change the name of a character in a short story to "something more Indian", on the grounds that "It's unlikely Adil would have a cousin called Katie". I pointed out that my own children have a cousin called Ravi, and said that - on the grounds that mixed-heritage extended families are very poorly represented in children's fiction - I'd prefer to leave them as they are.)

Aaran said...

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