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 www.visitingauthor.com.
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