A personal post to acknowledge the repulsive skirmishes around what Malorie Blackman may or may not have said about diversity and representation in children’s literature.
Her point that there is “a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading” is what I’m thinking about. Wise words, and I want to explore three examples of books: “classic” books, modern children’s books and modern children’s picture story books. I’m going to make this post confessional, rather than dispassionate.
When I as a white, middle-aged man read Narnia, for example, I can “be” (in the sense that I strongly identify with) at least eight human children. When I was a boy, reading Dawn Treader I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was Eustace, and from C S Lewis I understood that this was not a good person to identify with (There were all sorts of reasons I couldn’t possibly do more than hero-worship Peter, but apart from Lucy, I think I found the posh and very familial Pevensey children a bit difficult; Lucy was most like an only child, and I got that). I also thought some of the animals were closer to my aspirations, especially in Prince Caspian: Reepicheep, for example, was a bit over-the-top, and Bulgy Bears sucked their paws, &c., &c. But the children were posher than me, had brothers and sisters and a lifestyle that left me cold, by and large. I loved the Narnian Chronicles, but Lewis’ judgmental attitude gave me a very clear message about how far I had to go to be a Narnia child. Getting to be an undergraduate at Lewis’ old college, Magdalen, was probably it.
Narinia is problematic in its depiction of race, and even in sixties Essex I found that puzzling. I got the notion of the allegory, I suppose, but why are all these Calormenes either bad or good-looking? I’m not arguing for a children’s edition of Said’s Orientalism, but it was what I lacked: someone to talk me through the puzzles of identity that these engrossing stories threw up for me.
As a young teacher I joined (for a while) the enthusiasm for Roald Dahl, but even then (late eighties, early nineties) I found I had to Bowdlerise his texts, getting rid, for example, of the casual side-swipes about foreigners. Like Lewis, he was “of his time,” but there was a difference here: colleagues liked the things he did (as did I) but didn’t seem to think there was much of a problem with his depictions of race, or class – and anyway it was softened by Quentin Blake’s illustrations. There were, at any rate, some clashes around what status Dahl should have; I edited as I read aloud.
In terms of identification, I confess I didn’t pay much attention to how bad so many of the women were; when they were bad, they were so mythologically bad they seemed unreal, and there were good strong female characters, too, and atrocious men like Mr Twit. My class were not slow to point out how my beard made me look like Mr Twit. Is there, however, a challenge to identity in the books of his I read with the children? I think it came – and came positively – in Revolting Rhymes. By turning the stories around (Cinderella rejecting the psychopathic Prince; Red Riding Hood being nastier than we had exected), the chidren were invited to think again about the messages of traditional tales. I remember an uncomfortable afternoon retelling, with my Reception Class, the ending of Rumplestiltskin: why would the miller’s daughter want to marry the king? I think, in the end (and in Roald Dahl fashion) they got the goblin to steal the king away…
In young children’s picture books, identification is an important part of the business of becoming a reader. While race can be sidestepped by anthropomorphic animals (I have in front of me Mr Wolf’s Pancakes by Jan Fearnely and Emily Gravett’s Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears) or by pure fantasy (Shaun Tan’s books, or Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman), many books have got representations of children and childhood in them that demand “real” children. Ian Whybrow’s Harry, with his dinosaurs, engages boys in narrative while playing with a reader’s understanding of technical names for dinosaurs: we have some identification possible here.
Of course, there are other kinds of representation too: my own thinking about representation of landscape might also extend into why we sell the pre-mechanised farm as an ideal, or why do we sell the countryside as wallpaper for delighted town-dwellers or a place where we can have adventures away from parents. Misrepresentation, coming, sometimes from hidden “should” statements; we should be out in the countryisde, and farmers should keep their farms pretty, small-scale. &c. In the case of how we create possible worlds in the imagination, the “should” I’m unearthing might be a warning.
Here, for me, is the difficulty with diversity of representation. Blackman, as children’s laureate, highlights a problem about how race, gender, sexuality are avoided by failure to represent characters from different groups. She is quite right to do so. However, she is also a first-class author; those of us who consume children’s literature (teachers, parents, children – even down to academic study [the least important group for an author to consider]) also know – as doubtless she does – the perils of depicting people specifically so that readers can identify with them. This worst kind of didacticism leads to clumsy storytelling, tokenism, writing from outside an author’s genuine understanding or empathy. This is as much of a turn-off from leading a child to identify with – or be challenged by – a character as ignoring the issue and writing about the Pevensey children in a different guise. We need diverse books; we also need publishers and creative writing tutors to nurture those writers and illustrators who can deliver writers who can produce characters we can identify with.
So, although it doesn’t really connect with the above, a last bit of confessional self-disclosure.
I was Mole in Wind in the Willows, and learned it was OK:
- not to be cool;
- to be inspired by my wittier, more able friends;
- to have a part to play.
But I also learned a lot more from children’s literature; that’s probably why I’m still here.