Someone else whining about ‘diversity in children’s books’

Nikita Lalwani

This year, on World Book Day, my seven-year-old-daughter dressed up as Pippi Longstocking. She had a red wig left over from last year when she chose to be Judy Moody — the tomboyish eco-adventurer created by Megan McDonald — but she chose not to use it.

Instead she went for red hairspray, on her own long black plaits. I drew the freckles on to her brown skin with face paint, and was pleased (they showed up pretty well I thought).

I consulted the internet for advice on super-quick, authentic Pippi looks, put coat hangers in her hair to make the plaits curl upwards, pinned a cuddly monkey to her shoulder, and efficiently sent the photo round to friends and family within seconds of dropping her off at school.

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Seconds after that, I received a phone call from a worried friend. Yes, Pippi is a good role model she said, but surely you should send her in as a character who . . . well, celebrates her ethnicity? Yes, great, I said, not so much offended as genuinely curious. Give me some ideas for next year? She paused. Well . . . what about something like Pocahontas? I googled accordingly, but the search just turned up the Disney character, and plenty of non-fiction picture books about the “real” native American hero Pocahontas, no children’s fiction.

Disappointing, but not unexpected. However, performing the search did leave me with some guilt, and a desire to plunge myself into the cyber-vacuum and find something better for next year. If I put in the correct search terms, I thought, surely I can find it. Why isn’t there something on my radar already? What is it that I am giving my daughter to read? Shouldn’t I be more conscientious on this front?

I tend to be optimistic that my daughter has a reasonably good grip on her ethnicity. She is born in the UK, to two British-Asian parents, and has visited India, where her grandparents were raised, three times since birth. When she draws a picture of herself, she tends to colour the face in with brown crayon (unlike my self-portraits as a kid, which I left white or sometimes, when feeling more audacious, coloured in pink). She likes Indian outfits, music, rituals and myths and has asked me to teach her Hindi — so far, so good.

However when it comes to her reading (she reads several books from the local library each week), most of the characters that she is reading about, day in, day out, have white skin. It seems churlish to mention it, given the pleasure that the books bring.

She loves the elemental wonder of the Narnia series, the tremendous, atmospheric “Dark is Rising” sequence by Susan Cooper, the mischievous, twisty trickery of Lemony Snicket and of course, anything by Roald Dahl. Although, thankfully, there are occasionally female leads to be seen in the pages with something to do (rare, and another problem in and of itself), the characters she talks about usually have names such as Lucy, Arthur, Beatrice, Simon and Jane.

I have, of course, given her books by Jamila Gavin and the children’s laureate Malorie Blackman — who brought up the issue in an interview at the weekend — to read, and she did devour them with great enjoyment, but once you have read these two brilliant writers, where do you go next?

When she was younger we thought about these things quite a bit, and raised her on a multicultural diet of Sesame Street, Ezra Jack Keats and the series of picture books by Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta for Oxford Reading Tree, which contains whole swathes of cheeky anecdotes and misadventures from families who quite casually just happen to be black or Asian.

However, since she has begun reading “chapter books”, we have mostly used the new phase as an opportunity to pass on books that we enjoyed as children ourselves, without thinking of the constituent elements. This laxity has consequences. Recently I gave her The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, without realising that it contained several mentions of the “n” word — it was a pretty awkward conversation when she asked what it meant, but also, I hope, a fruitful one.

One of the books that my husband gave her is also in her list of favourites — Goldenrod, by Jim Slater, a book first published in 1978, which fascinated him as a child purely because it was set in India and featured a blonde-haired kid with super-powers (he can see through solid objects and concentrate an hour’s strength into one minute) derived from being blessed by a mystic old Indian fakir, or holy man.

Our daughter loves it for the same reasons that my parents would call me excitedly to the living room in the late-Seventies when Mind Your Language or It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum were on the TV. She loves that it has something Indian in it, regardless of the context. But surely, I should be able to prove that things have changed quite a bit since then?

Going to the website of Tamarind Books, publishers who set out to address the issue of diversity in British children’s fiction — I see that their strapline is “see yourself in our books”. I am reminded of the lines by Pulitzer-winning Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz where he talks about it being a culturally accepted fact that vampires have no reflections in a mirror.

“What I have always thought,” he says, “isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” In his work, Diaz sets out to “make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it”. Diaz writes for adults, but the sentiment is clear — we need to be creating more mirrors for our children.

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