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Nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Monday, 30 November -0001
Posted On 2017-09-27 10:12:50 |  Last Update 2017-09-27 10:12:50 |  Read 3352 times | 0 Comments

On 26th September 2017, Stripes presented a talk about our lead YA title of the year, with the publicity and marketing team Lauren Ace and Charlie Morris joined by teacher and author, Darren Chetty, who contributed the foreword to our BAME YA anthology.

We spoke about the A Change Is Gonna Come campaign at The Bookseller Children's Conference 2017. What follows is Darren Chetty's section from the presentation, verbatim. 

‘A Change is Gonna Come’ is no mere prediction. It's an expression of hope and intent. As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, But nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Let’s face it. Every year in primary schools up down the country, World Book Day is celebrated. And every year in the London schools I’ve taught in for 20 years this involves children dressing up as their favourite characters. But it’s noticeable that this means black children and brown children dressing up as fictional white children. Now I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with this, but I don’t think its always done out of choice.

Indeed, my chapter in The Good Immigrant is called “You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People”. And that is a verbatim quote from a six year old boy in a class I was teaching. Many people are shocked by the quote. But the more I think about it, the more I think that what’s shocking about it is the perceptiveness of the comment. For whilst no teacher, writer, editor or publisher that I know would say that stories have to be about white people, many would go about their daily business as if this were the case. In the run-up to World Book Day a few years ago, I received a phone call from a colleague. He asked me for suggestions for black male characters from children's books as he wanted to dress as one. We came up with a depressingly short list. Were kids going to recognise Dean Thomas from Harry Potter?

Before I talk about ‘taking children’s publishing to new heights’ (the theme of the conference), allow me a moment to face some ‘old lows’. Growing up in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, I was a keen reader. I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Often this would be Enid Blyton - I graduated from Noddy, where the three golliwogs were routinely described in terms of being stupid and scary to the Famous Five and Secret Seven series with suspicious swarthy strangers popping up. I recall reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Charlie was not black (despite recent reports that Roald Dahl wished him to be) but the Ooompa Loompa’s were in the version I read – Black pygmies who worked worked and lived in Willy Wonka’s factory. Non-fiction was much the same: A People’s of the World book informed me, that there were four distinct human races – the ‘Negroid’, the ‘Caucasoid’, the ‘Mongoloid’ and the ‘Australoid’. Even aged six, I suspected this was just bad science.

I share these reading experiences for two reasons – one, so that when we reflect on the pipeline for who gets to become a writer, and who gets to work in publishing we don’t forget that children’s publishing in this country has often contributed to a culture of racism, not merely been held back by it. And two because my peers read the same books as me - and I am now of the age of many children’s book-buyers. Whilst clearly many of my friends who are parents are trying desperately to find books that reflect their families, their communities and their city – I am also aware that many parents desire for their children to have childhoods like their own. When publishers suggest that white customers don’t really want books with black and brown characters front and centre, perhaps they should also face their industry’s role in shaping the attitudes and expectations of those customers through children’s literature of the 1970s and 80s. Here, I may diverge from what Lauren and Charlie have to say by claiming that there is not only business case, but a moral case for children’s publishing to actively seek to bring change and repair through its practices.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but let me offer a few suggestions in closing. ‘Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)’ writers often report the challenges of working with agents, publishers. Now I know that writers like a moan as much as the next person. But I think there’s something valuable to be gained from listening closely to what BAME writers are telling us about their experiences and the particular pressures they often encounter. I would suggest that publishers think further about how to mentor new would-be writers, including having authors working in partnership - perhaps this is a more egalitarian response to current #ownvoices debates in YA fiction for example. In my opinion some of the most creative writing and innovative wordplay for young people in this country is currently being written by young black men coming out of the grime and hip hop scene. Recent picture books by Akala and Doc Brown (aka Ben Bailey Smith aka Zadie Smith’s brother) are examples of MCs turning to children’s writing. I think there is huge potential for publishers to work with writers whose first instinct may be to record their words rather than publish them in books. (The music business has historically perhaps been more welcoming than the publishing industry to BAME people).

There is an on-going discussion about whether we most need diverse books or books overtly about diversity. I think ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ demonstrates how both elements are vital. The #ChangeBook campaign on twitter and elsewhere has not only enriched communities but also demonstrated how a book can contribute to community building bring people together in virtual and physical spaces to talk, think and share with one another.

In summary, and in a sentence:

Please do not under estimate your power and your responsibility to broaden, deepen and enrich the scope of stories our children and our young people encounter in the classroom, the bookshop, the library and at home.

Darren Chetty
September 2017

Some positive steps to action:


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