Beyond the Secret Garden?

In this new series for Books for Keeps, Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor discuss how Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices have been represented in our national story of children’s literature, and how we can bring about change.

Part One: The Fantasy of Story

Raymond Williams, in his essay, ‘Culture is Ordinary,’ commented that ‘The making of a society is a finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact and discovery, writing themselves into the land’ (54). In this new column, we want to look at how children’s books can ‘write themselves into the land’ and become part of the national story—and also how and why those books that try to go ‘beyond the Secret Garden’ often find themselves up against a seemingly insurmountable wall.

British children’s literature rose and gained prominence along with the rise of the British Empire; it therefore found its way onto bookshelves throughout the world. The ‘common meanings and directions’ of stories for British children made white middle-class British children, from Alice to Mary Lennox to C. S. Lewis’s Pevensie children, into inheritors of a great tradition, one in which the secrets of power could be found in (or in Alice’s case, under) England’s green and pleasant land. The repetition of this same story—white, middle-class Briton gains money/power/status by reclaiming the land—normalizes this idea in the mind of readers. ‘We learn so many things from reading stories,’ Darren writes in his chapter in The Good Immigrant, ‘The problem is that, when one of these conventions is that children in stories are white, English and middle- class, then you may come to learn that your own life doesn’t qualify as subject material’ (99). BAME readers repeatedly learn that their place is, at best, helper to the white character (Robinson Crusoe’s Man Friday is an early example; another is Ram Dass in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, who returns the white child Sara to her former place in the economic hierarchy while remaining a servant); at worst, they are in opposition to all that is right and good (Enid Blyton’s dirty ‘gypsy’ characters or C. S. Lewis’s dark- skinned crusaders against the white Christian Pevensie royalty).

In the secret garden of the canon, BAME children rarely get a look in. Many initiatives have worked to address this (see for example #WeNeedDiverseBooks and Rudine Sims Bishop’s much-quoted work on books as mirrors, windows and sliding doors). While BAME readers need books in which they can see themselves, it’s also important to challenge the idea that books with BAME characters are only for BAME readers. All children deserve to have literature that opens up the world in all its complexity.

All children deserve to have literature that opens up the world in all its complexity.

To offer a specific example, in The Hate U Give (2017), Angie Thomas writes about sixteen-year-old Starr who ‘lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and posh high school in the suburbs’ (back cover blurb). Starr’s father compares the gangs in their neighbourhood to the school houses in Harry Potter, Starr comments,

‘Okay, so it is a good theory. Daddy claims the Hogwarts houses are really gangs. They have their own colors, their own hideouts, and they are always riding for each other, like gangs. Harry, Ron, and Hermione never snitch on one another, just like gangbangers. Death Eaters even have matching tattoos. And look at Voldemort. They’re scared to say his name. Really, that “He Who Must Not Be Named” stuff is like giving him a street name. That’s some gangbanging shit right there.

“Ya’ll know that make a lot of sense,” Daddy says. “Just ‘cause they was in England don’t mean they wasn’t gangbanging.”’ (Thomas 2017:165)

Thomas shows Starr’s father engaging in an activity familiar to many black people and people of colour – translating a mainstream narrative into a particularity closer to home. Immediately before this passage, Starr quotes her father’s regular question when they watch Harry Potter. “Why don’t they shoot that nigga Voldermort?” Thus the translation that follows is introduced in a light-hearted tone – African- American Vernacular English is brought to bear on quintessentially British Hogwarts. Nonetheless ‘it is a good theory’. Race isn’t explicitly referenced in the passage. However, the four characters mentioned are all racialised as white, lending “just ‘cause they was in England” a potentially racialised subtext along with the obvious national one. Equally, gang membership in the US is a multiracial phenomenon but

14 Books for Keeps No.228 January 2018

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