Saturday, 2 August 2014


Malorie Blackman has asked for more stories of people of colour in YA fiction. And in The Times on July 15th in My Hunt for Stories about Children that look a bit like mine, Nikita Lalwani quotes the Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz who says vampires reputedly have no mirror reflection and in his work he sets out ‘to make mirrors so that kids like me, might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.’ And on TED the writer Chimamanda Adichie speaks on the danger of the single story and warns that ‘if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.’ 

The exciting news – YA might be lagging in showing people of colour, but picture books aren’t. To kick off as its summer, I’m beginning with one of my favouritea ­– The Boy on the Beach published by Bloomsbury in 1999. Why is this book out of print? Safeguard it if you have a copy. Niki Daly has jumped across borders and shown us a boy on a hot summer’s day. Sheer joy and energy on every page. You can smell the sea, hear the seagulls and feel the sticky ice-cream running down your chin. Of course the boy gets lost as many children do on crowded beaches, and is found by a lifeguard and rewarded with an ice-cream but can’t interrupt licking it for one second to tell his name... which he writes with his toe in the sand.

Diversity needs to be unselfconscious – telling about children of all cultures and all skin colours in all situations. The Tamarind list has picture book stories like The Silence Seeker by Ben Morley, illustrated by Carl Pearce where a boy from a family of asylum seekers moves in next door, and Joe thinks they are ‘silence seekers’ and tries to find a quiet place in the city for the boy. Modern, dynamic, comic style illustrations.

On their list too are: Mum's Late, by Elizabeth Hawkins illustrated by Pamela Venus, where a boy waiting for his mum, worries and imagines everything that might have happened to her, or My Mummy is Magic, by Dawn Richards, illustrated by Jane Massey which depicts a mixed-race family or Siddharth and Rinki by Addy Farmer, illustrated by Karin Littlewood, where Siddharth dreams of India where he used to live. Now in England when his toy elephant gets lost, he feels lonelier than ever.

Frances Lincoln has always forged ahead with picture books that represent children of all colour in a way that doesn't feel forced or pigeonholed, as in Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace books, illustrated by Caroline Binch, and Niki Daly’s Jamela stories as well as his The Herd Boy,

or in Piet Grobler's zany illustrations of a mixed race family 'Fussy Freya' by Katerine Quarmby.

Then there are older books like One Round Moon (Bodley Head 1994) written by Ingrid Mennen and also illustrated by Niki Daly. These books depict many overlapping stories of children both rural and of the city – children who have high aspirations, who believe they can do anything they imagine, children who love dressing up, herd boys who dream of being presidents, children who are fussy eaters, children who are jealous of new born brothers. 

The illustrator Karin Littlewood's name pops up continually also on the Frances Lincoln list. Leslie Beake’s Home Now is about a little girl, Sieta, who has lost her mother to AIDS and finds comfort by befriending an orphan elephant. It shows the deep loss any child experiences at the death of a mother.

Other books illustrated by Littlewood, like Chanda by Margaret Bateson Hill, Leah’s Christmas Story by Bateson Hill, Home for Christmas by Sally Grindley, and The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman all present overlapping stories with abundant energy.

In the early 80’s when South Africa was in the midst of our apartheid years, I started collecting picture books that depicted black children as heroes and looked to the US (simple because I was travelling there more regularly than to the UK) with illustrators like Jack Ezra Keats, Jerry Pinkney and John Steptoe in his very handsome depiction of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters – a Cinderella story of two sisters who compete for the hand of a king. (though I'm not fond of Steptoe's pastiche approach to the landscape of Africa with Mount Kilamanjaro, a jumping springbok and proteas all depicted on one page... things that occur some 2000 Km apart) 

An all time favourite of mine from those years, is Ben’s Trumpet published in 1979 by Greenwillow Books, written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora, an ex ballet dancer. Set in the Jazz Age it tells of a little boy who hangs about listening to music and longs to play the trumpet but doesn't own one and so plays his imaginary trumpet. It’s as pertinent now as it was in the Jazz Age, or even in 1979 with its message of inspiration for all young musicians.

Picture books seem to encapsulate these overlapping stories in very visual terms. The heroes in them are every shade of brown and reflect all cultures. I'm neither an academic or a librarian. How can I ever hope to make this dip into picture books an entire rich experience of what's available and out there. Please add your titles in the comments below or your personal favourites on Twitter of Facebook, so we are armed with a list that won’t tell a single story but will tell overlapping stories, so that children don't risk 'critical misunderstanding' and will see themselves reflected back in all shades and from all cultures – heroes all of them!
Dianne Hofmeyr's latest picture book, Zeraffa Giraffa, is illustrated by Jane Ray. On Twitter @dihofmeyr


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this overview of overlapping stories!

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely to get a glimpse into so many beautiful books!

Anonymous said...

Di, thanks for your most enjoyable and informative writing on your selection of multicultural picture books that occupy a small nook on the bookshelves of most bookshops and (less so) libraries. And MANY thanks for including some of my titles. I smile because I had to learn what multicultural books were AFTER I done Not So Fast Songololo. I make no distinctions between my books - my motives are always the same - to tell a story. But I became aware of the importance of showing children of colour experiencing recognizable childhood experiences in different environments when a German publisher decided not to publish the Jamela books because, as she put it,'We don't have a sufficiently large black population to justify publishing such books'. This, of course, is the VERY reason for offering children of a dominant race a glimpse of the 'other' - so that they get a balanced idea of their place within a richly diverse world. You don't touch on the politics of 'writing beyond one's own culture' - and that would need more than one blog! But the identified lack of black representation in YA fiction, points to the problem, I think, of there being a lack of black writers of both picture books and YA fiction - leaving that base being covered by white writers. It's a position that we have not been made to feel politically comfortable in, and must tread carefully and with respect as we slip into the skins of others. Another story!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Niki you have put it so well... 'children of colour experiencing recognizable childhood experiences in different environments'. How appalling of that publisher not believing a story of a black child was appropriate in Germany... missing the point entirely of the need for inclusive stories in every society.

And yes we do need more black writers in children's books both for YA and picture books. Thank you for your lucid comments. What discussions we could have if only you lived around the corner!