Thursday, 17 November 2011

BLACK, WHITE AND JUST RIGHT - Malaika Rose Stanley

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, now hosted by Elizabeth on the Mixed Race Family website (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?

21 comments:

jongleuse said...

Wonderful list. May I also suggest Lionboy by Zizou Corder? And on the picture book side The Hello-Goodbye Window by Norton Juster. My children are half-white British, half Indian so your post and list are very useful. So far the 'dual heritage' has not been seen as anything other than a huge advantage by either of them (Diwali AND Christmas!) but they are still little so more challenging issues will no doubt arise.

JO said...

At last this is being addressed. I have a mixed race grandson - he urgently needs ways to understand himself. Thanks for this.

John Dougherty said...

It's interesting; over the last couple of decades the book industry has become relatively keen to depict children of different colours... but there still seems to be a lack of awareness of children of mixed heritage.

Can I suggest my Bansi O'Hara books for your list, Malaika? Book two - Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en - came out in September, and Ellen Renner reviewed Bansi's first adventure on this very site a couple of months ago.

Elen C said...

Great post! And what a shame so few publishers got back to you.
If mine had, they might have mentioned 'How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini' which is a Blyton-esque middle grade story featuring very contemporary children.

Abi Burlingham said...

I enjoyed reading this post Malaika. The representation of children of mixed race in children's books clearly needs addressing doesn't it? I'm surprised so few publishers have addressed it given, as you say, the increase in the mixed race population. Raising this for discussion can only help, so thank you for encouraging me to think about it.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Hi malaika, My novel Cut Off features a family where the mother is of mixed heritage. At school her daughter Ava is stopped in the corridor and asked by a teacher about her heritage and then told she will be marked as 'other'! Not one reviewer picked up on their heritage.

Book Maven said...

My picture books Nancy No-Size (now, alas OP) and the recent Great Big Book of Families could be on this list.

Also Stravaganza: City of Flowers and the subsequent three books in the sequence feature Sky Meadows, a bi-racial character.

My husband is mixed race - Indian Parsee mother, white English father - so I have been interested in this since the 70s.

Marnie said...

What a great post! You're absolutely right that there needs to be wider representation of mixed race heroes and heroines in children's fiction. My debut novel, "Zeeba Marple" features a heroine with a Muslim Pakistani-origin Mum and white Dad. Her two best mates are black and white - a trio of friends that could be found in almost any British school today. I hope a mainstream publisher will be forward thinking enough to represent the lives of kids who are not just like Harry, Hermione and Ron because young readers need them.

malrostan said...

I'm really pleased that this is resonating with people. Thanks for your comments - and for the additional titles which I will add to the list over the weekend.

Odette said...

This is a great blog. My "Sammy" books came out starting in 1989, then 1990, 1991. They were based on our adopted son who is of dual heritage. When he in his turn had children I had expected to find quite a few books with children of dual heritage - after all 20 years had elapsed and I thought things would have moved on. I was first alerted to the lack, when my friend tried to find a picture book for our granddaughter featuring a black child - never mind a child of dual heritage. She lives in Norwich and couldn't find any. She eventually came up with "A Pirating we will go" by Kay Umansky. This became a firm favourite. Now I have the benefit of your list as the children grow older. Thanks!

Greg Leitich Smith said...

Most of my novels and most of my wife's novels feature multi-racial characters (Her newest, the TANTALIZE series, are available in the UK from Walker books).

We also have a blog page that has recommendations on multiracial reads (scroll about midway for links to pages on multiracial picture books, novels, and nonfiction): http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/lit_resources/diversity/multiracial/multi_race_intro.html

R.J. Anderson said...

What a shame that so few publishers responded! I can add two more to your list: my own ARROW (11+, published by Orchard Books/Hachette in January 2011), which features a mixed-race faery heroine who is clearly described as brown-skinned in the book and also depicted in all her nappy-haired glory on the cover; and also Elizabeth E. Wein's superb historical fantasy books about Telemakos, the Ethiopia-based son of Mordred and an Aksum princess (technically beginning with THE SUNBIRD, but I think that's out of print -- the most recent duology is THE LION HUNTERS and THE EMPTY KINGDOM).

Sarah Rees Brennan's YA contemporary fantasy novel THE DEMON'S SURRENDER (Simon & Schuster, 2011 - US and UK editions) also features a dynamic mixed-race heroine. I'll come back with more recs as I think of them.

Jasmine Richards said...

Great post! Thanks for taking the time to cover this.

My family come from a Caribbean background and my husband is from a Middle-Eastern background and when we have children I hope there will be more books out there than we currently have. Can I just say though that as senior commissioning editor for a children's fiction publisher it is incredibly rare that I have a manuscript come across my desk that features a mixed race character or any character for that matter from an ethnic minority background -so it is not just what publishers are publishing but also what they are being sent in the first place.
Just for interest - Here is a little list of books with mixed race characters:
Shark Island
Sea Wolf
Leopards Claw all by an OUP author called David Miller
A book coming out in the states soon called Darwen Arkwright http://darwenarkwright.com/
Sephy’s daughter in Noughts and Crosses
The Broken Bridge Phillip Pullman – I remember really connecting with this book when I was younger.

malrostan said...

Thanks again to everyone - whatever 'hat' they were wearing - who took the time and trouble to read and/or comment on this post. I really hope that the discussion continues...

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I would suggest adding Dark Dude, YA book on mixed race by Oscar Hijuelos.

Lucy Coats said...

Excellent post, Malaika, so cheers from me too. As you know, I've just finished a fantasy YA with a mixed-race/dual heritage heroine. But I am dishearted to hear that so few publishers got back to you. Work in progress!

malrostan said...
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malrostan said...

Once again, many thanks for the suggested titles, which have now been added to the list.

R.J. Anderson said...

Thanks for adding my suggestions! Just a correction to my own title, though -- it's ARROW that has the mixed-race heroine, not KNIFE. Thanks.

malrostan said...

@R.J. Anderson - Oops... now corrected.

APGifts said...
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