Mixed-race people have existed ever since our ancestors first set out to explore and wage war - and today, the UK has one of the largest and fastest-growing mixed race populations in the western world. Partly this is because of the greater number of people who choose to define themselves as mixed-race on census forms and elsewhere and partly as the result of more mixed marriages and relationships and more blended, adoptive and step-families.
The BBC’s recent Mixed Britannia series told some of the stories behind the headlines and statistics and stirred up quite a few personal memories of my own. As a result, I decided to try and compile a list of children’s and YA books which feature mixed-race and mixed heritage main characters and I began by asking friends, colleagues, social network contacts and UK publishers to let me know what’s out there.
I didn’t particularly want to politicise the idea but, of course, it is political. For some people, racial mixing represents the hope and positivity of a multicultural society whilst for others, it undermines national and cultural identity.
Simply asking the question raises some tricky issues because the mixed-race (or bi-racial, multi-ethnic, mixed heritage or whatever you want to call it) experience is so varied and complex. Whether someone chooses to identify themselves – or the characters in their books – as mixed-race depends on who’s asking – and why. Is it The Office for National Statistics, a National Book Week event organiser or the British National Party?
Self-definition is crucial and in my experience, physical appearance, familial influence (or lack of it) and racism all affect how mixed-race people identify themselves and this can change at different points in their lives.
For me, as the daughter of a Jamaican father and an English mother, I sometimes felt rejected because my skin was too fair and my hair was too straight and sometimes because my skin was too dark and my hair was too frizzy. ‘Mixed-race’ was definitely preferable to the labels of half-caste or coloured that I had dumped on me as a child growing up in care in the 1960s – and to the names I got called at school and in the street.
In the 1970s, complete with my Angela Davis style Afro and radical pan-African and feminist politics, I was shouting it loud: I was black and proud! I was black and beautiful too, although my skin colour was actually rather more beige.
My sons were born in the 1980s and that was when I realised that the lack of diversity in children’s and YA books had persisted from my childhood to theirs. Racial identity has never been the problematic issue for them that it once was for me, but we still had to search hard to find kids that looked like them in the pages of books and it was one of the reasons that I started writing myself. My sons are now both in ‘mixed’ relationships – one with a beautiful young Hindu woman and the other with a beautiful young woman of Irish and Jamaican descent. And if I’m ever lucky enough to have grandchildren, they’ll need books too.
Of course, most families encourage their children to be proud of their cultural heritage, but what happens when, for whatever reason, children do not have access to these family connections? What happens when mixed-race and multi-ethnic children do not see themselves reflected in books – except possibly as the ‘best friend’ or ‘trusty sidekick’ or in gritty tales of so-called social realism and the tortured search for identity? Where is the magic, the romance, the comedy?
As the mixed-race population has increased, in the media at least, ‘brown is the new black’. Mixed-race people have been appropriated as the supposedly more acceptable and less challenging face of diversity. But that’s not the whole picture. Although mixed-race people are highly visible in some spheres of life – we can model haute couture, win F1 Championships and BAFTAs, and even become the President of the United States - in some fields like educational policy, we are often ignored. Is the same true in children’s and YA publishing?
I contacted the publicity departments of 18 UK publishers – and heard back from only three! Sadly, one of these had no books with mixed-race characters, but OUP sent Catherine Johnson's Face Value - a murder mystery set in the London fashion world - and Barrington Stoke sent James Lovegrove’s The 5 Lords of Pain – a series of fast-paced stories about saving the world. So let’s hear it for models and gangsters and for martial arts, magic and demons from hell! Of course, I have to mention Tamarind – publisher of several picture books and middle grade fiction titles with mixed race characters, including my own Spike and Ali Enson – a story of inter-planetary alien adoption.
I am grateful to everyone who took the time and trouble to let me know about their own and other people’s books: Sarwat Chadda, author of Devil’s Wish and Dark Goddess, featuring ‘bad-ass’ hero, Billi Sangreal; Catherine Johnson, screenwriter and author of ‘enough books to prop up several tables’ including the historical Nest of Vipers and the contemporary Brave New Girl; Eileen Browne, illustrator of Through My Window, now back in print but first published in 1986 when ‘it was the first ever picture book in the UK – and the USA! - about an interracial family, where ethnicity wasn’t part of the story’; Zetta Elliott, author of A Wish After Midnight and networker extraordinaire; and so many others, too numerous to mention.
I hope the final list (click here) will be a useful resource for families, children’s centres, schools, etc. Many of the books are quite dated and many are US publications which may be less easily available and less reflective of the British experience, but I felt it was better to leave people to make their own choices and draw their own conclusions. I am happy to correct errors, add omissions and include new publications.
It’s a short list – and not in a good way - but in the end, isn’t quality always more important than quantity?