Monday 21 October 2019

Diversity, names and politics in children's books, pitfalls and things to be proud of, by Anne Booth

Like many people, I feel a bit overwhelmed by politics at the moment, and I have been thinking a lot about what relationships children's books can have with  politics, and how authors can make a difference. I thought I'd share a little bit about some aspects of what I have tried to do myself, and some pitfalls I have encountered and luckily, been helped to avoid.

In children's books we have The Little Rebels Award, and I am very very proud to have had two of my middle grade books on the shortlist for this - my first book, 'Girl with a White Dog', and my most recent middle grade novel, 'Across The Divide'. I had to research lots for both of these books, and my motivation is to share maybe overlooked parts of history with children, to help them understand the world they live in and  what lies behind current affairs, and hopefully empower them in the future and help them discern when they are being told the truth or not, to recognise repeating patterns and know how to react to stop bad things occurring again.

For younger children I have tried to make sure that my books reflect diversity in a quietly political way.  I wanted for example, the fairy princess in The Magical Kingdom of Birds series with OUP, to be mixed race, because I once baby sat for a beautiful little girl whose father was black Nigerian and mother White Scottish, and she told me she could never be a princess because her black curly hair wasn't right. I told her about Paula Harrison's Rescue Princesses series with Nosy Crow, and about characters like Princess Lulu, and I was determined that if I had the chance, I would also introduce characters which could make her realise that she could be a princess.  For books for younger children I had the great benefit of having illustrations and working with amazing illustrators. So when I started writing my own series 'The Magical Kingdom of Birds' I asked Rosie Butcher to draw a beautiful mixed race fairy princess, and I talk about her black curls and brown eyes, and you can see what a great job Rosie has made of depicting Princess Willow here.

One of the easiest ways for me to ensure that my books reflect a diverse range of children is when they are illustrated picture books and I am working with wonderful publishers and illustrators.  I always specifically ask that characters reflect diversity, but it has been easy because the publishers and illustrators I work with are already concerned about this. So we have, for example, Amy Proud's lovely illustrations for 'I want a Friend', Rosalind Beardshaw's for 'The Fairiest Fairy' and 'The Christmas Fairy', Ruth Hearson for 'Jenny, The Shy Angel', and the many diverse characters you find in the scenes for 'Sarah Massini's 'Little Cloud'.

Thank you Amy Proud and Lion!

Thank you Rosalind Beardshaw and Nosy Crow

Thank you Ruth Hearson and Lion. I did not want Jenny to be a golden haired pink cheeked blue eyed angel, and Ruth has provided a gorgeous diverse heavenly host of angels to go with her !

Sarah's characters throughout 'Little Cloud' are gorgeous and diverse.

I try to introduce a range of names into the classes mentioned in the MG books I write, often using names of friends of my children from different cultures, and I know that is appreciated.

But sometimes, using names to add diversity,  doesn't work if you don't really know exactly what you are doing, and especially if you don't entirely know, that you don't really know exactly what you are doing, as I found out recently, luckily just in time! 

The author Catherine Johnson  won the 2019 ' Little Rebels Award' for 'Freedom',   Catherine's mother was Welsh and her father was Jamaican, and you can read her biography and more about her books on her website if you click on her name above.

Catherine helped me with a particular problem  when I was writing my latest book for 5-8 year olds, and I learnt a lot from her.

I was very well intentioned but got in an awful, embarrassing  muddle about a name, luckily sorted before publication.

I was writing my most recent Lucy book, and I had already decided that I wanted a new, gentle, boy character, and I wanted him to be black/mixed race, with one white and one black parent, which wouldn't be mentioned specifically in the text but reflected in the illustrations.

I love how Sophy Williams illustrated him:

So far, so good.

At the same time, I was also very upset by the news about what happened  to The Windrush Generation. I am the daughter of white Irish working class immigrants who were needed as workers in 1950s Britain, came to England to work and met, married and had four children and stayed here. Both my parents have died, but when I saw on the news about the way older members of The Windrush Generation, who came to Britain at the same time as my parents,  have been hurt, and how they and their children have ended up being so badly treated, I felt and feel very very upset. It is so unfair and shameful.

Completely unrelated to this, decades ago, my father and mother in law were at the 70th birthday party for a good friend of theirs, an NHS nurse and a fellow Methodist at their London church, and were given a commemorative mug which her family had had made for the party,  with her name and picture on it, There was a lovely photograph on the mug of a beautiful, kind-looking, smiling black woman wearing a headdress, and her name and date of birth. Her name was Comfort. When my lovely parents in law died, we inherited this mug and I always loved using it and thinking of this good woman. In my mind there was also a link with the racism and  injustice experienced by the Windrush Generation, because I knew that their friend Comfort, a mother and grandmother, after a life time working for the NHS, decades and decades helping others as a nurse, had been, outrageously and very distressingly, under threat of deportation by the Home Office, and it was only the campaigning work of my parents in law and the other members of the church which enabled that to be overturned.

The most helpful midwife to me when I was living in Brixton, London, and had my first child, twenty three years ago, was a lovely black nurse called Comfort.

So, I was writing a gentle animal rescue book for 5-8 year olds, the most recent in the Lucy series. I was also shocked by the news about Windrush I saw on TV and read about on twitter and in the press. I thought it would be nice to pay tribute both to The Windrush generation, and the two lovely Comforts I knew of, and have Alfie, my new boy character, have a grandmother called Comfort.

But I realised, thank goodness, that there were big gaps in my knowledge, and I am so glad I had a confidence wobble, because it was completely  justified. I am SO glad that I contacted Catherine via Twitter and asked her for advice.  She very kindly said I could ring her. In the course of the conversation with her it quickly became embarrassingly clear that I was very well meaning BUT

I didn't actually personally know anyone from The Windrush Generation.

I didn't know where my parents in law's friend Comfort came from but it wasn't from the Caribbean. I had a vague idea she was from somewhere in Africa. And absolutely  nothing to do with Windrush. The link in my head with racism and injustice was real, but that didn't make Comfort necessarily a good name for a contemporary West Indian character. Basically, I am embarrassed to say, I knew Comfort was black and a retired nurse and a Methodist and a very good woman, but I hadn't a clue which country she came from.

I didn't know where my lovely nurse came from either. I think she was African, but I have no idea what country. At the time, 23 years ago, all I was asking her was tips on breast feeding. She was amazing.  I feel so grateful to her, but all I know is that she was called Comfort and she was a wonderfully kind black woman and brilliant nurse at Kings College London.

I felt so embarrassed by my own ignorance of black culture and names.  Catherine was so lovely to me, but I realised that the nagging feeling that made me ring Catherine in the first place was entirely justified. I just really didn't know enough. Because of my background I would never have got in such a muddle with Irish names, and I would have known what was a modern Irish name and what would be appropriate for different generations. But I really loved the name Comfort and wanted to pay tribute to the two women I knew with that name.

So I still called his grandmother Comfort, and made her a retired nurse, and lovely and kind, but I don't say anything more in the book. It's OK as the story doesn't need us to know, but I think she is African, and from wherever my parents in law friend was from.  In my mind she is based on my parents in law's friend, and I mention her and the other nurse Comfort in my acknowledgments. She is also partly inspired by  Peggy, a lovely retired white English nurse in my village who whizzes around on a mobility scooter and is kind to everyone.

I was also going to have my character Lucy call Alfie's grandmother Mrs Comfort and then a surname, because that was what was on the mug and the formal way Comfort was addressed by other people in her church, and I thought that must reflect African culture, but when the editor sent me back notes she thought it sounded too formal.  Talking to Catherine we realised the editor was probably right - I realised that the mug I had was from about twenty years ago, that I didn't know where that particular Comfort lived to ask her, or even if she was still alive, and if she was living now she would not necessarily be addressed like that, As I didn't even know where the original Comfort came from I couldn't ask anyone from her country. I had been thinking of her as from my mother and father's Irish generation , who always called even friends they had known for years Mr and Mrs so, but Alfie's grandmother in a book published in 2019 would be considerably younger than my parents. In fact, I realised, I myself could actually be a young grandmother.  It had seemed such  a small thing, the naming of a lovely but actually very minor character in an animal rescue book, but it was so much more complicated than I had thought and I was getting so stressed and I was trying for it to do  a hugely symbolic job which was nothing to do with the story.

So I didn't manage to do something in honour of The Windrush Generation in this book because this book wasn't the right book to do it in and I wasn't the right author to do it.  I just don't know enough about this and that's completely  OK, as I was trying too hard. I don't know why I even got myself in such a  tangle and I am so glad I spoke to Catherine.

When I researched for 'Girl with a White Dog' and 'Across the Divide' I knew that I didn't know anything, and I don't mind saying that I DID do really really good and very thorough  research, that I took years to do it,  and can now confidently go to my bookcase and take out any number of books on Nazi Germany or First World War Pacifism and talk to you about them. I also throughly researched my other MG book 'Dog Ears' about young carers, and was a carer myself.  But when  deciding to do what I naively thought was a relatively simple, last-minute thing and just name a minor contemporary character in a book for 5-8 year olds, Comfort, I didn't, at first, really realise how much I didn't know.

The best thing I did in all this, was to doubt myself,  get advice and to talk to Catherine, and I feel I have learnt a very important lesson. Names are NOT simple. It isn't at all that you can't name or write about characters who are from cultures other than yours, but you need to realise how much you don't know if you are going to do that, and get some good advice from someone who does! And also, politics are important, but  you can't overload a book with politics, however well meaning you are, and however important the politics,  if the story is nothing to do with the politics you are trying to introduce AND you also don't know enough about the politics in the first place! This is embarrassingly blooming obvious now to me, but I thought I would share this for anyone who may be getting into muddles about names at the moment and/or who is a bit overwhelmed by the news and politics and feels a little too obliged to save the world and fix things, even if  they can't.

By the way, just in case I have given the wrong impression (!) I do actually love the finished Lucy book 'Lucy Makes a Wish'  and am very proud of it. I am proud of it as, thank goodness, it ended up, thanks to my agent and editors, and a wonderful illustrator, and in spite of my muddled intentions, being  a lovely, simple story about friendship and community with a gorgeous little puppy  and donkey.  I love kind Lucy and I love Alfie the new character.  I am glad he is a gentle boy with kind brown eyes and I love how I have imagined him and I LOVE how Sophy Williams has illustrated him and all her illustrations. Look at this gorgeous little puppy!

And maybe simply writing a story about a kind and welcoming community who care about each other and a lost puppy, is also a political act  and can make the world better. I hope so.

And I am going to look for children's books - fiction and or non-fiction - about The Windrush generation and buy them and read them and give them to my local school library - so recommendations will be welcomed!


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this post, Anne - a good read and a good point!

Anne Booth said...

Thank you very much Joan. And thank you also for always taking the time to comment on posts- you are so kind and supportive.

catdownunder said...

I want to hug that puppy!

Sue Purkiss said...

Names are tricky, aren't they - another thing that can cause problems is the way names go in and out of fashion; that's easy to recognise in your own time and country, far less so in other times and other countries!