Multiculturalism in Children’s Books 

Britain has inherited an impressive body of “multicultural writing”  though, of course, that’s not how it was described before 1947. Within the context of the British Empire, writers such as Henty, Kipling, Stevenson,  Rumer Godden and Frances Hodgson Burnett were all bringing the world into British homes – with tales of  adventure and romance.


My parents made me conscious of the origins of language and culture; this word is Arabic, or that has its roots in Sanskrit; this Latin, that Greek, and that so many words and terms embedded in the English language, came from India and beyond. Within the British isles it was fascinating to know that place names were Saxon, Viking, Roman or Norman – sometimes running into each other.  It brought alive the sense, that races and religions have been on the move, mixing and merging, since time began.


In the 1970s families such as mine were not being reflected in the culture around us.  It seemed to me that, post empire, Britain had turned in on itself and was not properly dealing with the phenomenon of immigration. I noticed bewilderment among ethnic minority children: who were they, why were they here, and why HERE – not there? Many didn’t know their own history and culture. There was an almost equal bewilderment on the part of the host country. Even today, few seem to link the Empire of the past with the Commonwealth of the present.


I heard of young black and brown school children painting themselves white. Why? Was it because they didn’t think it was O.K. to be other-than-white? Certainly, story books mostly featured white children; advertisements demonstrated that it was white people who drove fast cars and ate Blue Band Margarine. Television programmes of the time barely showed a black face – unless it was starving. To be black was to be almost culturally invisible.


As English medium schools burgeoned throughout India and Africa, the problem was exported abroad. As late as 1998, a school girl in Nigeria said, after one of my talks, “I didn’t know black children could have adventures.”


The backlash against imperialism meant that swathes of books were swept from bookshelves. I stepped into this vacuum with my first book,  The Magic Orange Tree, which, though it was not the word I used then , was multicultural. My stories featured children to be found in any British city neighbourhood – Ghanaian, Chinese, Scottish, Pakistani, Cypriot, Welsh, Irish and Afro- Caribbean. I went on to write novels which reflected much of my own background and history.  It felt vital for children to see their own mirror image, and to validate their existence within British society as something normal rather than exotic.


Everyone needs to know their own personal history and origins; their myths and legends. We acknowledge this with adopted children, yet fail to ensure that within our education system children are given the basic tools which will enable them to define their identity.


Multiculturalism is part of a dynamic, modern and progressive society, and I mourn the fact that it is increasingly being challenged, and labelled as divisive and damaging, rather than nourishing. But I don’t believe this means we have to accept codes and practices which violate hard won human rights. On the contrary, we have to develop a moral consensus in order to achieve  social cohesion.


There have been some wonderful initiatives such as the AEMS project in the eighties – (Arts Education in a Multicultural Society). Funded for four years by the Gulbenkian Foundation, this initiative enabled culturally diverse artists – from within and without  the British Isles,– to enter schools and bring creative activities to children all over the country – whatever their make up.


I still remember this as one of the most successful and important projects I’ve ever been involved in.  Now, with the constraints of the National Curriculum, such a project could not happen in quite the way it did then, when schools were able to sweep aside a whole afternoon, or even a week, for a team of artists and performers.


Sadly, its legacy soon seemed to dissipate when the four years were up and the funding stopped. And that’s the problem. An initiative may work marvellously for a given period but unless it becomes part of the curriculum, we can easily drop back to square one.


Thankfully, we do now see more Black and Asian faces on television. There are more Black and Asian writers, painters, poets and personalities, and  another initiative this year, sponsored by the Arts Council – a new British Book Award for a Black or Asian writer of the year. Won by Hari Kunzru, the other short listed writers are acknowledged mainstream writers: Malorie Blackman, Andrea Levy and Benjamin Zephaniah.  But in its wake must come ongoing support and encouragement for new writers.


Although publishers, agents and writers recognise that cultural diversity is both a moral and a commercial issue, it is still largely white and middle class and not adequately representative of ethnic minorities.   “Multiculturalism” should never be seen as just a duty, a fringe interest – or even a threat – but as an extension of our already hugely rich literary heritage, continuing to reflect the way we are today.

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