The World in Multicolour

The Local and the Global on the Carnegie Shortlist

in: Children's books

IMG_0812At Lantana Publishing, we are always interested in children’s books that can have some claim to be categorised as ‘diverse’ or ‘multicultural’. In recent years, a significant proportion of the annual Carnegie shortlist could be classed as diverse fiction and this year’s inclusive list, featuring one main protagonist who is gay and another who struggles with Tourette’s syndrome, is no exception. Three of this year’s novels, The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean, Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman and The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird are set in countries outside Britain and feature characters of diverse cultural backgrounds.

The Middle of Nowhere does not fit neatly into any of the categories of diverse titles that we have outlined in previous blog articles (and in reality, what books do fall neatly into boxes, even when we create these boxes ourselves?) but probably shares the most similarities with those novels that are inspired by real events. Although McCaughrean is quick to point out that you won’t actually find her setting, Kinkindele, on the map, her novel is clearly based on extensive research into the real world men and women who exchanged a ‘civilized’ life in Australia’s emergent towns and cities for a remote existence manning the telegraph stations that spanned the length of the country.

According to her ‘Author’s Note’, McCaughrean’s story was partly inspired by what she sees as a lack of “comity” between nations in the twenty-first century (‘comity’ being a word akin to harmony or agreement). In fact, to reinforce this, the main protagonist herself is called Comity and represents McCaughrean’s hopeful belief that children, not shackled by an acceptance of tradition and the ‘way things are’, are able to move fluidly between cultures, accepting difference at face value. Therefore, although the plot of The Middle of Nowhere shows many instances of violence and conflict, the story does, as Agnès Guyon (chair of this year’s judging panel) puts it, “illuminate the darkness with the bright light of optimism.”

Buffalo Soldier, inspired by the more specific real-life story of Cathy Williams, a former slave who joined the US Army just after the American Civil War by pretending to be a young man, has a perhaps more complex message than McCaughrean’s. Landman explores a dark period in American history when newly liberated slaves were instrumental in depriving the similarly oppressed Native Americans of their own liberty. Through the vibrant narrative voice of Charley O’Hara (a character based on Williams), Landman explores the grim complexities of the Buffalo Soldiers’ behaviour. Eventually, Charley’s emotional and physical journey demonstrates that inherited prejudice forced upon a person by necessity and hardship can be overridden by personal empathy and understanding.

Laird’s The Fastest Boy in the World is aimed at a slightly younger audience and is therefore a far less harrowing read than the previous novels. This deceptively simple story introduces us to eleven-year-old Solomon, who aspires to join the roll call of talented Ethiopian athletes who have competed successfully at an international level. Laird’s novel is at heart a contemporary story set in a culture we hear little about in mainstream publishing. However although Solomon’s story feels authentic, and is no doubt based on Laird’s own experiences teaching in Addis Ababa and her work collecting stories from Ethiopia, his journey is both specific and universal. Many novels for children focus on their characters coming of age and, for Solomon, the events recounted in The Fastest Boy in the World are fundamental to shaping his route to adulthood.

In actual fact, all three of these novels on the Carnegie shortlist involve us in the intricacies of the culture in which they are set, as well as ensure that these unique cultural features speak to all readers, whatever their background. Comity’s innocent acceptance of people from other backgrounds in The Middle of Nowhere ultimately inspires the adults in the novel; Buffalo Soldier’s Charley learns that empathy rather than necessity is what shapes lasting relationships; and Solomon’s determination in The Fastest Boy is rewarded with a life-changing offer from somebody he meets on his visit to Ethiopia’s capital. Although we would like to see more stories from the pens of those who are themselves from culturally diverse backgrounds, all three of these novels should be celebrated for carefully treading that delicate balance between the local and the global, appealing to readers whatever their cultural heritage.


Trends and Patterns in Culturally Diverse Books: Part II

in: Children's books

In this two-part post, I am looking at the kinds of books we might class as culturally diverse and the trends and patterns that emerge when we classify such books by genre.

In the first part of this post, I looked at two genres of culturally diverse children’s books that are currently available on the market: ‘Issues-driven books exploring racism and prejudice’ and ‘Non-fiction and non-fiction inspired’. Here I will look at two more.

Retellings of traditional folktales

Folktales can provide fascinating glimpses into cultures we ordinarily learn little about and can make a wonderful addition to the western staples of Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and so on that we all know and love.

Again, however, there is a danger with books such as these. When only folktales can be found about a particular ethnic group, this group – that may have a flourishing contemporary and urban presence – may be relegated to a regressive stereotype of the ‘tribal’ or ‘village’ community. While it is important to recognise the traditional ways of life of the Maasai people in Kenya, for instance, it would be irresponsible to give children the impression that contemporary Kenyan society is made up only of tribal warriors.

Folktales, like most fairy tales and other oral stories, are often steeped in regressive social codes and values. It is not often, for instance, that we encounter gender neutral scenarios or progressive family arrangements in folktales hailing from times long passed. While this does not devalue the tales in and of themselves – or their meaning for the cultures that have benefitted from their wisdom for centuries – it does make them more difficult to package up and communicate to modern children in the form of a children’s book.

It is also probably fair to say that books such as these are most often authored by white authors and illustrators, increasing the dangers of cultural inauthenticity and appropriation. However, the burgeoning world of self-publishing is opening up this area to authors of minority backgrounds who are increasingly making their voices heard.

Contemporary stories

The breadth of children’s books currently available in mainstream publishing is breath-taking – from realism to fantasy, historical to contemporary, school story to romance (paranormal or otherwise), graphic novel to pop up book, picturebook to young adult novel. And culturally diverse books are slowly but surely finding representation in many of these facets of children’s publishing, although there is still a lot of catching up to do.

Malorie Blackman Noughts & CrossesThere are generally two ways to approach cultural diversity in contemporary writing: either make race a talking point, or show characters who just happen to be culturally diverse.

Malorie Blackman, our current Children’s Laureate, chooses to explore race and racism in her much-loved Noughts and Crosses trilogy through fantasy rather than realism. While race remains a category of difference, it is explored through a suspense-filled, action-packed fictional narrative by means of a clever literary inversion that implicates its majority readers as much as its minority ones.

Nnedi Okorafor, one of our own authors, similarly writes in the fantasy genre but – unlike Malorie – doesn’t call attention to race in and of itself. Her wonderful feisty characters are black, yes, but they may also be albino, or descended from a race of quasi-mythical beings, or half ghost and half human. Being different, in Nnedi’s fantasy worlds, leads to self-understanding, self-respect (and lots of wacky adventures!) but never victimisation, thereby empowering readers through her message of inclusion.

Nnedi Okorafor Zahrah the Windseeker

Books such as these are fascinating for the possibilities they open up for contemporary culturally diverse writing, as are many contemporary realist texts that I don’t have the space to analyse here.

Each category has its pros and cons, yet there is little I can find to criticise in this category except, perhaps, the possibility that an author’s or illustrator’s focus on the contemporary and popular may run the risk of misrepresenting or undermining the seriousness of the very real race-related issues faced by children of diverse cultural backgrounds.

It is here, however, that we must trust our authors and illustrators (not to mention editors!) to know what they are doing when they reflect the myriad experiences of culturally diverse peoples today in their work. And it cannot be said enough that any book that champions cultural diversity, in any one of the categories above, should rightly make us proud.