The link below is to an article reporting on the approval for a museum to be built in Bath, England, for a Mary Shelley/Frankenstein Museum.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article reporting on the approval for a museum to be built in Bath, England, for a Mary Shelley/Frankenstein Museum.
For more visit:
During the second world war, Britain’s national daily newspapers usually supported the government’s portrayal of the national war effort as flawlessly heroic. This was a just war – and supported as such even by many Britons who, until 1940, had supported pacifist organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union.
But Tribune, the weekly newspaper founded by wealthy Labour MPs Sir Stafford Cripps and George Strauss and edited by Aneurin Bevan, was bolder. Promoting itself as “Fresh and Fearless” Tribune relished controversy. In September 1943, it celebrated the recruitment of an expert controversialist as its literary editor: George Orwell.
Orwell soon seized upon a topic the wartime coalition had worked assiduously to conceal: the deliberate killing of German civilians in colossal RAF raids on German cities. His pretext was the publication by Vera Brittain, the feminist and pre-war pacifist, of Seed of Chaos, her pungent denunciation of obliteration bombing. Supporting her case with eyewitness accounts by neutral Swiss and Swedish newspaper correspondents, Brittain recounted tales of corpses “all over streets and even in the tree-tops” and women “demented after the raids, crying continuously for their lost children”.
Detecting sanctimony, Orwell attacked head on with a piece entitled “As I Please”. There was, he wrote, “something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features”.
Talk of “limiting or humanising” total war was “sheer humbug”, Orwell insisted. Warming to his theme, he condemned Brittain’s “parrot cry” against “killing women and children” and insisted: “It is probably better to kill a cross section of the population than to kill only the young men.” If allied raids had killed 1.2 million German civilians, “that loss of life has probably harmed the German race somewhat less than a corresponding loss on the Russian front”.
Tribune’s readers were not unanimous in their support for Orwell. A flow of critical letters arrived but the literary editor did not budge. He “did not feel that mere killing is all important”. There was, he suggested, a moral case for killing German civilians. It brought home the nature of modern war and might make such conflict less likely.
Orwell’s stance was in stark opposition to government policy. This was to pretend that civilian deaths were rare collateral damage in raids meticulously targeted at German industrial and military infrastructure. In fact, Orwell’s defence challenged the Air Ministry as directly as Brittain’s moral outrage. Orwell recognised that area bombing was intended to cause mass civilian casualties and routinely did so.
Military historian and author Martin Middlebrook describes the British government’s statements about area bombing between 1942 and 1945 as “a three-year period of deceit on the British public and world opinion”. The areas attacked were “nearly always city centres or densely populated residential areas”. Britain had invested vast resources to build a fleet of heavy, four-engine bombers among which the Avro Lancaster was king. Mass raids against cities including Cologne, Essen and Hamburg soon demonstrated that the Lancaster’s brave, vulnerable crews could not hit targets with any precision.
Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris pleaded with the prime minister to admit that raids involved the deliberate murder of civilians. In October 1943, he wrote to Churchill’s friend, the air minister Archibald Sinclair, demanding bombing tactics be “unambiguously and publicly stated”, writing:
That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised community life throughout Germany.
Harris wanted ministers to tell the public that the deaths of women and children were not a “byproduct of attempts to hit factories”. Such slaughter was one of the “accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy”.
Even when the Associated Press described Allied raids on Dresden as deliberate “terror bombing”, the government continued to deploy bland euphemisms. By recognising that RAF Bomber Command killed civilians as a conscious act of policy, Orwell and Tribune were playing with fire. They were not censored or condemned because it suited ministers to tolerate dissent in small circulation weekly titles. Such robust debate burnished Britain’s democratic credentials and reassured her American allies.
Brittain was not reassured. Writer Richard Westwood has shown that she resented Orwell’s attacks so intensely that she would revisit their dispute years after his death in order to “win her argument with Orwell in retrospect and when he could not respond”. This she attempted in Testament of Experience by quoting selectively from a report Orwell sent from Germany for The Observer in April 1945.
Brittain suggests he retracted his support for obliteration bombing. In fact, Orwell described damage done by allied bombs and argued that the Allies should not impose harsh reparations. A punitive approach would leave Germans dependent on international aid. He did not apologise for the RAF’s work. Instead, he repeated his defence that “a bomb kills a cross-section of the population whereas the men killed in battle are exactly the ones the community can least afford to lose”.
Orwell’s candour about area bombing was a robust example of dissenting wartime journalism. It demonstrated Tribune’s editorial courage and that the wartime coalition understood it could not reconcile defence of democracy with suppression of free speech.
Brittain was wrong to misrepresent him. His work illustrates how intelligent publications with thoughtful readers upheld Britain’s democratic tradition in wartime. Such journalism was not restricted to the left. The Spectator and The Economist played comparable roles on this and other subjects.
Tim Luckhurst will deliver his online lecture to the Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures via Zoom between 4pm and 5 pm on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. To attend please register here.
The link below are to articles reporting on the shortlist for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK.
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Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up,
dragged their rain through the cemetery trees.
The gates shone cold. Wind rose
flaring the hissing leaves, the branches
swung, heavy, across the lamps.
From King Billy (1963)
Why do we remember particular poems and poets – and happily forget others? The Scottish poet Edwin Morgan was born 100 years ago, and this week marks the the start of a year of celebration of the man and his work. It goes ahead in a virtual way, with public events cancelled in days of lockdown or deferred to 2021 – an advantage of a year-long celebration.
Born in Glasgow on April 27, 1920, Edwin George Morgan led a remarkable and wide-ranging creative life. He published 25 collections of his own poetry and translated hundreds of Russian, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German poems too. He also wrote plays, opera libretti, radio broadcasts, journalism, book and drama reviews and literary criticism.
His work continues to be published, produced, taught and celebrated. His poetry is memorable not only for Glasgow, his native city, and for Scotland – but for a wider audience thanks to Morgan’s lifelong concern with universal and cosmic matters.
Morgan loved the city of his birth for its energy, industrial inventiveness, humour and crowded streets. He warmed to its humanity, shared its sorrows, wrote against scarring deprivation, recovered its history (real and imagined), and projected several Glasgows into the future.
He celebrated its changing cityscape in The Starlings in George Square, and its interactive street culture in Trio, where we encounter three Glaswegians bearing Christmas gifts of a guitar festooned with mistletoe, a new baby and a chihuahua, cosy in a tartan coat. He recorded the darker elements of Glasgow too, such as the city’s sectarian violence and notorious tribal gang culture in King Billy.
The directness of these interactions is carried in authentic urban speech rhythms new to Scottish poetry at the time. In the Snack-bar and Death in Duke Street vividly describe the long deprivation and the sudden death that are also part of the scene:
Only the hungry ambulance
howls for him through the staring squares.
Morgan taught English at Glasgow University all his working life, and became the city’s first poet laureate in 1999. He became Scotland’s laureate too, in 2004 – its first “makar” or national poet. He celebrated Scotland’s varied landscapes, people and places, whether humorously in Canedolia, or reflectively in Sonnets from Scotland.
For Morgan, part of a poet’s job was to remind Scots that if they want to achieve something in the world and to really be taken seriously, then they need to find words to show the world what they stand for. Poets and other writers can help them to do this. When Scotland’s ambitious new parliament building opened at Holyrood at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, he wrote:
What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking
persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.
A nest of fearties is what they do not want.
A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.
A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.
And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of “it wizny me” is what they do not want.
Lines from For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, October 9 2004
Morgan travelled widely – to Africa and the Middle East during the second world war, to Russia and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, to the US, New Zealand and the North Pole. These are the places he writes of in his poetry. The New Divan is his mysterious war poem in which he records in 100 sharp filmic stanzas, memories from the second world war desert campaign that shift like characters in an Arabian Nights tale – and yet are modern soldiers and lovers too.
Space and time travel fascinated him. A supersonic flight by Concorde to Lapland was the nearest he could actually get to outer space, where he had often journeyed in his imagination. The First Men on Mercury dramatises a linguistic encounter between Western astronauts and Mercurian beings that ends in a complete and hilarious transposition of language and power. Morgan believed that humanity would ultimately endeavour to create “A Home in Space”, which is the title of another poem that follows “a band of tranquil defiers” who decide to cut off all connection with the Earth.
This was a poet who could speak as a space module or a Mercurian, and also as an apple, a computer, an Egyptian mummy. He was an acrobat of words and identities. Perhaps his own identity as a gay man, risking censure or imprisonment through most of his life, encouraged that ability to shape-shift. His love poems are haunting. Some deal with loss or transience, as in One Cigarette, or Absence, or Dear man, my love goes out in waves, or with the physical risks of a forbidden lifestyle, as in Glasgow Green or Christmas Eve, which tells of a fleeting encounter with another man on a bus.
But his poems also celebrate ways in which all lovers share the tender details of everyday life together, as in Strawberries. His writing of gay and queer experience had a significant impact on social attitudes and political change in Scotland. His voice spoke for many young or isolated gay people, with an advocacy that was subtle but powerful in effect.
Morgan was an individualist, in some senses a loner. And yet he was also an inspirer of creative partnerships – in art, photography, opera, music and drama, cultural journalism and poetry in performance. His early support was invaluable to an array of groundbreaking poets and artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay, and he enjoyed collaborations with Scots musicians such as jazz saxophonist Tommy Smith and indie band Idlewild.
Such lists could be extended. They continue to grow through the Edwin Morgan Trust, set up to administer his cultural legacy by supporting new poets and poetry in Scotland and Europe as well as wider artistic responses to Morgan’s work. There are centenary publications too with new collections of selected poems and prose. For those who loved this quiet man of Scottish poetry it promises to be a memorable year.
The link below is to an article that looks at how independent bookshops are surviving the coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom – including book deliveries by skateboard.
The link below is to an article that reports on the removal of the Value Added Tax from ebooks in the UK.
These are unprecedented times – but, even so, comparisons are being made to the second world war in terms of the magnitude of the crisis that coronavirus represents. Some of this rhetoric is unhelpful but, as we bunker down into our homes and the government gets on a war footing, there is little doubt that the challenge to our liberty, leisure time and sense of wellbeing is real.
With early reports that book sales are soaring while bookshops and warehouses close down and publishers reassess their lists, what can the reading patterns of an earlier generation tell us about getting through a crisis and staying at home?
The restrictions at the beginning of the second world war affected all aspects of day-to-day life. But it was the blackout that topped most people’s list of grievances – above shortages of food and fuel, the evacuation, and lack of news and public services. Households were reprimanded and fined for showing chinks of light through windows, car lights were dimmed, and walking around, even along familiar streets, late at night became treacherous.
With the widespread limitations to free movement, the book trade was quick off the mark. Books were promoted by libraries and book clubs as the very thing to fight boredom and fill blacked-out evenings at home or in shelters with pleasure and forgetfulness. “Books may become more necessary than gas-masks,” the Book Society, Britain’s first celebrity book club, advised.
I’ve been researching the choices and recommendations of the Book Society for the past few years. The club was set up in 1929 and ran until the 1960s, shipping “carefully” selected books out to thousands of readers each month. It was modelled on the success of the American Book-of-the-Month club (which launched in 1926) and aimed to boost book sales at a time when buying books wasn’t common. It irritated some critics and booksellers who accused it of “dumbing down” and giving an unfair advantage to some books over others – but was hugely popular with readers.
The Book Society was run by a selection committee of literary celebrities – the likes of JB Priestley, Sylvia Lynd, George Gordon, Edmund Blunden and Cecil Day-Lewis – chaired by bestselling novelist Hugh Walpole. Selections were not meant to be the “best” of anything, but had to be worthwhile and deserving of people’s time and hard-earned cash.
Guaranteeing tens of thousands of extra sales, the club had a huge impact on the mid-20th-century book trade, with publishers desperate to get the increased sales and global reach of what publisher Harold Raymond called “the Book Society bun”.
The Book Society guided readers through the confusion of appeasement and the run-up to the second world war with a marked increase in recommendations of political non-fiction examining contemporary geo-politics. The classic novel of appeasement was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart (Book Society Choice in October 1938) in which a sense of malaise and inevitability of future war haunts the characters’ desperate actions.
When Britain finally declared war against Germany in September 1939, the Book Society judges were divided. Some were relieved that, as George Gordon put it, “an intolerable situation has at last acquired the awful explicitness of war”. But others were devastated, especially Edmund Blunden who was still traumatised from fighting in the first world war.
The judges advised members that when they became weary of news, people “will turn to books as the best comfort”, as had happened in the first world war with the increase in reading and library membership. Publishers and booksellers faced huge challenges during the second world war, including paper shortages, problems in distribution, a vanishing workforce, and bomb damage to offices and warehouses. But there were more readers – and from a wider social class – at the end of it. Demand consistently outstripped supply as consumer expenditure on books more than doubled between 1938 and 1945.
Throughout the second world war, the Book Society varied its lists between books that offered some insight on the strangeness of contemporary life and works of fiction – especially historical fiction – that took readers’ minds off it.
Titles in the first group include comic novels by the likes of E M Delafield and Evelyn Waugh, as well as forgotten bestsellers like Ethel Vance’s Escape (1939) (an unlikely thriller set in a concentration camp) and Reaching for the Stars (1939), American journalist Nora Waln’s inside account of life in Nazi Germany.
More topical non-fiction became a priority as the devastation of the Blitz kicked in. Winged Words: Our Airmen Speak for Themselves (1941) and Into Battle: Winston Churchill’s War Speeches (1941) were especially popular.
Historical fiction was consistently in demand. Half the club’s choices in 1941 were long novels with historical settings. As today’s readers prepare to batten down the hatches with Hilary Mantel’s 900-page latest book, it is sobering to reflect on how an imaginative connection with the past has long helped readers find relief from the madness of the present.
The other fail-safes in the second world war were the classics. As books already in print became scarce, the Book Society reissued new editions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. These were books that Walpole said he believed he could sit down with even through an air raid.
Indeed, Neilsen BookScan has reported a rise in sales of classic fiction as the coronavirus crisis deepens – including War and Peace – as readers use this unfamiliar time to knuckle down to the heavyweights.
You can also join a War and Peace reading group online if you want a bit of company. After the homeschooling, working from home, and everything else. Here goes.
It is 250 years since the birth of the great English poet William Wordsworth. A lover of nature, his poetry abounds with images of lambs, flowers in full bloom, windswept crags and woodland scenes. His pleasure in nature, particularly that of his home the Lake District, is famous.
His contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge once describes his genius as “not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprang out of the ground like a flower.” Wordsworth did find much inspiration in the natural landscape that he would revel in on his long walks. In these house-bound times and on this anniversary, we can all find inspiration in the great poet and his love of walking as we take our daily exercise.
In a comic article from 1839 entitled Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets: “Mr Wordsworth”, the writer Thomas De Quincey criticised Wordsworth’s unshapely legs while also noting that:
[He calculated], upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles
In his summer vacation from Cambridge University in 1790, he walked right across revolutionary France, over the Alps and back through Germany (arriving late for the start of term). Wordsworth was still able to ascend Helvellyn, one of the highest peaks in the Lake District, aged 70 – a feat celebrated in Benjamin Robert Haydon’s portrait of him in 1842.
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were not only interested in large-scale walking tours but walked almost every day, at all times of the day. Dorothy’s famous Grasmere Journal, documents their walks and is itself a wonderful example of nature writing. In it she logs the minute details they would see on their walks, like daffodils near the Lake District’s Gowbarrow Park:
I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew about the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake.
Walking was not just for pleasure, though. We know that Wordsworth frequently walked to write. Dorothy’s Journal describes how:
Though the length of his walk maybe sometimes a quarter or half a mile, he is as fast bound within the chosen limits as if by prison walls. He generally composes his verses out of doors, and while he is so engaged he seldom knows how the time slips away, or hardly whether it is rain or fair.
In a poem entitled When first I Journey’d Hither to his brother John, who was away at sea, Wordsworth writes of the joy of finding a path carved into the earth by him:
With a sense
Of lively joy did I behold this path
Beneath the fir-trees, for at once I knew
That by my Brother’s steps it had been trac’d.
My thoughts were pleas’d within me to perceive
That hither he had brought a finer eye,
A heart more wakeful: that more loth to part
From place so lovely he had worn the track,
Out of his own deep paths!
The poem ends by imagining John, walking up and down on the deck of his ship at sea in tune with William as he also walks up and down to write the poem on the path that John has made for him. He imagines an empathetic connection between the two constrained spaces:
Alone I tread this path, for aught I know
Timing my steps to thine
Wordsworth is known for composing in the rhythm with the pace of his walking. In his epic autobiography, The Prelude, Wordsworth describes himself doing this and sending his terrier (Pepper) ahead to warn him of others:
And when at evening on the public way
I sauntered, like a river murmuring
And talking to itself when all things else
Are still, the creature trotted on before;
Such was his custom; but whene’er he met
A passenger approaching, he would turn
To give me timely notice, and straightway,
Grateful for that admonishment, I hushed
My voice, composed my gait, and, with the air
And mien of one whose thoughts are free, advanced
To give and take a greeting that might save
My name from piteous rumours, such as wait
On men suspected to be crazed in brain
This is also a wonderful example of why walking alone can be freeing. It allows us to be alone with our thoughts and to act freely (till someone happens by that is).
So, as you undertake your permitted daily walk, remember that constraint can also be creative, the familiar walk enjoyable in its very familiarity. Enjoy the calm of nature and, like William’s brother, John, receive that calm as a “silent poet” appreciative and receptive to the simple pleasures around you.
In revealing the charms and follies of genteel English society, Jane Austen has few competitors. Yet as Britain limps towards Brexit, I can’t help wondering why there are no foreigners in her major fiction. Many thousands of continental Europeans settled in Britain after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic wars. Couldn’t just one of the Bennet sisters have fallen in love with a charming Belgian or a wealthy German? Wouldn’t the well-travelled Frederick Wentworth of Persuasion have a dear friend from Spain or Italy?
Such questions may seem trivial, but they gain significance at a time when we expect a lot from Austen. In the past few decades, scholars have regularly turned to her novels for insights into the larger issues of her era (women’s education, slavery, war) and our own (climate change). Some even want to see her as a radical.
I’m not so convinced by this progressive – or even subversive – Austen. She was unquestionably sensitive to the epoch-defining events taking place around her. Two of her brothers were officers in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars; another was a banker who was ruined in the post-war financial crisis. Certainly, there are moments in the novels when these larger events make an appearance. How could they not?
But are such moments enough to make Austen’s works a source of great insight into the social issues of her era? In matters of love, friendship and the societal expectations of the landed gentry, Austen is always astute and entertaining. But consider all the elements of her society that Austen left out.
Are there, for instance, any Catholics in Austen’s novels? Any Jews? Mark Twain wrote that Austen’s novels made him feel like a “barkeeper” surrounded by “ultra-good Presbyterians” – but are there any actual Presbyterians in her novels? So far as I can tell, all of her principal characters are Anglican.
Are there any foreigners – a Frenchman, say, or a visiting Spaniard? Nope. Northanger Abbey mocks the English affection for gothic novels set on the continent, but no one from the continent appears in the novel. In a scene from Emma that Priti Patel might applaud, Frank Churchill rescues Harriet Smith from a group of “loud and insolent” Romany children.
How about representatives from other parts of the UK? In Austen’s novels, Scotland is mainly a place to which giddy young women elope. As for Wales, well, there’s a “Welch cow” in Emma. Ireland does a little better: in Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennet annoys her sister by playing Irish songs on the piano; and in Emma, an honest to goodness Irishman, one Mr Dixon, plays a minor role – though, like so many other male characters in Austen’s novels, he isn’t important enough to earn a first name.
Austen is deservedly recognised for bringing greater realism to the Anglophone novel and for presenting a new psychological depth in her characters. Yet this position should not be confused with the idea that Austen somehow tells us more about Regency England than any of her contemporaries – or that her works contain all the complexities of her era if only we look closely enough. They tell us very little about the way the English looked on their British and European neighbours.
I hear you ask, well come now, you don’t really expect a Regency-era author to include foreigners, revolutionaries and exiles in her novel, do you? Well, yes, actually I do. Many of Austen’s forgotten contemporaries – writers like Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth – did just that. Another more famous contemporary, Mary Shelley, created the era’s greatest study of an outsider ostracised by society, Frankenstein. If we imagine that Austen provides a complete picture of Regency life, these authors prove us wrong with their more international and political perspectives.
This is not to say that they are better writers than Austen. Reading Austen’s contemporaries illuminates what makes Austen a great (in many ways superior) writer. Austen is utterly in command of the order and organisation of her best narratives – every character, every encounter, every character foible is there for a well-planned purpose.
Similarly, Austen’s protagonists are true to themselves. It is rare indeed for a reader to feel that her characters act in ways that were not foreseeable from the start. Her narrators keep a respectable distance from the action of the story: they provide enough information to leave readers feeling secure, but they rarely call attention to themselves or comment at length on the unfolding action. In all of these aspects, Austen has no Regency-era peer.
Nevertheless, some of these forgotten works illustrate the storytelling pathways that Austen never attempted. If I were to choose one work from Austen’s time that speaks most clearly to our own moment and showcases all that Jane left out, it would be Jane Porter’s novel from 1803, Thaddeus of Warsaw. Porter’s novel was a great success when it first appeared, and it remained in print for most of the 19th century.
Thaddeus – an early 19th-century forerunner to Walter Scott’s Waverley and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – tells the story of Count Thaddeus Sobieski, who escapes to Britain after his homeland falls to Russian invaders. Penniless, he hides his identity and makes his way among the rich and poor of London, finding work where he can, and coming to the aid of those less fortunate than he. He is befriended by a group of women, who assist or punish him, according to their impulses.
Imagine a Jane Austen novel with a Polish protagonist. Imagine an Austen novel where British women welcome an immigrant into their lives. Imagine an Austen novel where a character goes looking for work.
The passages in Thaddeus that resonate the most today, however, are the commentaries by British characters who are troubled by the presence of Polish exiles, like Thaddeus, among them. One character announces, “it is our duty to befriend the unfortunate; but charity begins at home … and, you know, the people of Poland have no claims upon us”. Another declares, “Would any man be mad enough to take the meat from his children’s mouths, and throw it to a swarm of wolves just landed on the coast?” No question that these characters would have voted “Leave”.
Today there are almost one million people living in the UK who were born in Poland. No matter what happens with regard to Brexit, these people have already changed their adopted homeland. While writers like Agnieszka Dale and Wioletta Greg create a new body of Anglo-Polish literature, Thaddeus of Warsaw reminds readers of the long links between the two countries.
It also reminds us that a satisfying romance, whether it concerns Emma Woodhouse or Thaddeus Sobieski, needs to please its readers. It won’t be giving too much away to note that, at the conclusion of Thaddeus of Warsaw, the meeting of wealth and love allows for a happy ending. That was one lesson that Jane Austen taught us a long time ago.
Cuddling up in a big chair with a good book, either with a familiar adult reading to you or starting the first chapter of a book on your own is a fundamental part of childhood – emotionally as well as intellectually. Reading about people who are like yourself affects both your self-image and the likelihood you will enjoy reading. Becoming a habitual reader, in turn, affects your life options. Reading about people different from yourself also encourages empathy and cultural understanding.
But if the world of children’s books doesn’t include people who look like you, it is difficult to feel welcomed into reading, as the writer Darren Chetty, among others, has pointed out. And recent research suggests that child readers, especially, but not exclusively, readers of colour, are being seriously shortchanged.
There simply aren’t enough authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds being published, as academic Melanie Ramdarshan Bold pointed out in the 2019 Book Trust report on representation of people of colour among children’s book authors and illustrators. In fact, between 2007 and 2017, fewer than 2% of children’s book creators were British people of colour.
Authors of colour often feel isolated within the publishing industry. They are frequently encouraged to focus on racism and similar problem narratives, a recent report from Arts Council England (ACE) found. They do not have the freedom (as many white British authors do) to write across the broad spectrum of children’s literature genres if they want to be published.
While about a third of school-age children come from a minority ethnic background, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that only 7% of children’s books published in Britain in 2018 had a Black, Asian or minority ethnic character. With so few diverse children’s books being published, these books are deeply important.
When characters of colour appear in children’s books, they are rarely the protagonist with the agency to effect change. Recent books sometimes still depict characters of colour as “sidekicks” who support and affirm the white main character. Other times, the “diversity” in a book appears in the background only.
Characters are defined by their colour, which makes them irreconcilably “other”. Descriptive words of character features compare them to food or animals. Sometimes characters appear early on in a narrative, only to quickly disappear in favour of a refocus on the white character. These techniques can dehumanise people of colour.
Children’s nonfiction, including history and science, either ignores contributions of people of colour to British society or pigeonholes particular ethnic groups into certain spaces only – such as the history of British slavery (and very specifically not the history of Afro-Caribbean uprisings against British slavery).
In a single children’s book, this “sidelining” of people of colour may not matter. However, when it is the enduring norm, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie stressed in her 2009 Ted talk on the danger of a single story, it situates readers of colour on the sidelines, too. This affects the reader’s perception of who matters in books.
While it would be easy to suggest that the problem lies with the British publishing industry alone, this is too simplistic. All people involved with children’s books need to participate in changing the narrative so that the books being published better represent the population and encourage all children to become readers, according to the ACE report.
This can be done in a variety of ways, and involves committed effort. Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, began dedicating some of its collecting efforts to culturally diverse children’s literature in 2015. This has resulted in the acquisition of materials relating to children’s books by the Guyanese-born British poets John Agard and Grace Nichols in 2019. The acquisition of diverse materials by a national museum is one way of indicating the importance of this material to Britain and to British children’s literature.
Another way of highlighting the critical importance of including all children in children’s books is through awards. The longest-running children’s book prizes, the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal, have never been awarded to a British author of colour. Following the commissioning of a diversity review of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) revised the judging criteria for the annual prizes. These new guidelines ask judges to consider representation within books as they are making selections. Other children’s book prizes, including the Little Rebels prize, focus on children’s literature that challenges the status quo in areas such as diversity.
These efforts, large and small, bring attention to children’s books with characters of colour that might otherwise slip under the book-buying public’s radar. And getting librarians, educators and parents, no matter what their ethnic, racial or cultural background, to buy books is critical.
Publishing is a market-driven industry. If books aren’t selling, publishers can make the case that there is no audience and therefore they do not need to publish more books with characters of colour. All children need to feel welcome in the book world, and all children need to understand the diversity of British society now and throughout history.