Beyond the Secret Garden: A Sporting Chance

January is the month when many people are thinking about sport and exercise as part of their New Year’s Resolutions. So Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor kick off this Olympic year with a column about sports and children’s books.

2019 was an interesting year for fiction with a sports theme. The list of nominated books for the 2020 Carnegie Medal includes books that use sport as a major plot device, and some of these are by or about people of colour. It can be illuminating to take a look at the way sport is has been used in books about people of colour over the years.

In Britain, people of colour have been participating in British professional and semi-professional sport for well over a hundred years.

Footballers like Walter Tull were playing before World War

I. Thanks largely to the research of Phil Vasili, books for children such as Walter Tull’s Scrapbook by Michaela Morgan (Lincoln 2013), and Dan Lyndon and Roger Wade Walker’s Walter Tull: Footballer, Soldier, Hero (Collins 2011) appeared over the past decade. However, sportspeople of colour were largely ignored in British children’s literature until relatively recently.

Fictional depictions of contemporary Black or Asian Britons as part of team sports were also rare; Tony Drake’s Playing it Right (1979) depicted both Black and Asian players on a school cricket team (and included themes of social class and racism into a lively narrative) and Gillian Cross’s Swimathon! (1986) featured a Black British girl as part of a school swim team, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Interestingly, some children’s nonfiction about team sports continue to ignore British-born players of colour; the 2017

Fantastic Footballers: 40 Inspiring Icons, for example, features only Didier Drogba and Paul Pogba as Black icons playing on British teams.

More common historically was the sports story about the character of colour using an individual sport, such as boxing, to find a way to fit in to or survive in British society. Sport gave a character a chance to be seen, and thus to be seen as human, and increased that character’s chance of survival or success in Britain. Marjorie Darke’s pioneering trilogy about a formerly-enslaved Black Briton and his descendants included two focused on sport. The First of Midnight (1977) concerns a formerly enslaved man forced into the boxing ring to recoup a white woman’s lost fortune before he finally escapes Britain altogether. The third book in the trilogy, Comeback (1986) is a contemporary story about a girl who uses gymnastics to both construct and understand her identity in British society. These seem to be the options presented to Black Britons during the 1970s and 1980s: go “back home” or learn to fit in. More recently, Catherine Johnson’s Hero (2001) has another Black boxer in the early 19th century who is sent back into slavery in the Caribbean while his daughter learns to become a prizefighter herself in order to rescue him.

Boxing continues to be prominent in sports books about characters of colour. Nikesh Shukla’s The Boxer was nominated for a 2020

18 Books for Keeps No.240 January 2020

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