Dr Meg Roughley, NSC, U of York (via a moment of Catherine Johnson’s Freedom)
Representation of ‘diversity’ versus ‘quality’ of writing: this is a theme that keeps popping up, no matter how many times it’s whacked on the head. Just last year, Lionel Shriver quizzed (in The Spectator, of course) Penguin Random House’s ‘new company-wide goal’ to increase the representation of minority staff and authors:
“Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’ȇtre as the acquisition and dissemination of good books. Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision. Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes…. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.” (www.spectator.co.uk/2018/06/when-diversity-means-uniformity)
Shriver has come right out and said it, but the accusation runs like a murmur through the sanctioned literary classes. Listen, and you can hear it everywhere: ‘pandering’ to demands for ‘diversity’ leads to substandard writing which benefits no-one. It isn’t true, of course. The only truth revealed here is the conservatism of a literati entrenched in Oxbridgean notions of “good books” and literary “standards” and fearful of change/loss of power.
When it comes to children’s literature, those murmurings don’t die down. Even amongst those who consider writing for children a lesser sort of writing, there is an assumption of loss of “quality” if the work offers representations of diversity outside the parameters set by the status quo. Just what is meant by “quality” is never really made clear. What is “fine writing”? Are we meant to refer back to TS Eliot, FR Leavis and The Great Tradition? Should we be comparing everything to Shakespeare?
I’m going to duck around these questions, because I have become sceptical about the thinking behind that thinking, and I don’t think children are particularly bothered by it anyway. From what I’ve observed, children want two things from a book: an interesting story and some useful information. We do know this — right from its beginnings in the 17th century, children’s literature in English has had the dual purpose of ‘pleasing whilst instructing’. The instructing bit is obviously very important, especially to educators and parents, but so is the pleasing bit without which much of the instructing might not be absorbed.
Few things are more pleasurable than a good story, one that affects us both intellectually and emotionally. Those are the first two boxes a story has to tick: it has to be interesting and it has to move me. If it also ticks others by, say, giving me an unusual sort of hero or different knowledges, so much the better, I say. For me, its “quality” is all bound up in the satisfactions it affords me, my heart and my mind.
As an example of a truly satisfying story that ticks many boxes, let’s take a look at Catherine Johnson’s Freedom( available here https://amzn.to/2KyxjZ3). Just to assure you that we’re not relying on my judgement alone, it won this year’s Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction, so clearly some well-informed people think the same. Set in London in 1783, Freedom is the story of Nathaniel Barratt, a 10 year old enslaved boy brought by his owners from Jamaica to England to tend a cargo of pineapple plants intended as a wedding gift. When Nathaniel, who thought he would be free in England, finds out that he, too, is to be a wedding gift, he runs away and soon finds himself in the company of Black abolitionists and embroiled in the famous Zong legal case. (In 1781, 132 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard from the slave ship Zong, and the ship’s owners went to court to get their insurers to compensate them for the loss of ‘stock’.) Lots of ticked ‘diversity’ boxes, here: our hero is an enslaved boy who will triumph without a ‘white saviour’; other principal characters are Black abolitionists; the tale is based on an actual historical event which it re-presents with a focus on real people who ‘White’ History has erased. On top of that, as one of the judges, Darren Chetty, has commented, “Johnson’s writing is a masterclass in the maxim ‘show don’t tell’ – through the point of view of her protagonist we are brought into his world and yet we are afforded space to emotionally engage with the story she offers us.” (https://littlerebels.org/2019/07/10/catherine-johnson-is-the-2019-little-rebels-award-winner/) So, it also ticks the ‘well-written’ box.
Let’s have a look at a bit of the ‘show don’t tell’ wizardry. In Chapter 6, Nat has just run away from his mistress’s home after an undeserved beating. With no knowledge of London, he sets off to find a kind sailor who had befriended Nat on the ship from Jamaica and told Nat to find him at his sister’s pub if he needed help. Nat relates, “I kept running and running for what felt like hours, down what seemed like a thousand streets, all lined with high buildings” and all looking the same. A footman shouts at him to “Get off” and a carriage driver almost runs him down. He is utterly lost, confused and forlorn. But, then, he is then plucked from under the horses’ feet by someone who he, initially, thinks “looked as angry as the footman”.
His salvation from death by carriage is followed by a series of realisations: his ‘saviour’ has an American accent and a face “darker-skinned than my own”, and he is “worried not angry”. As Nat wonders if he can trust this stranger, “[h]e bent down and his eyes were dark brown and uneasy. ‘I know what you are,’ he said. ‘I can help.’” The colonial accent, dark skin, dark brown eyes all mark the old soldier and street performer, Shadrack Furman, as someone like Nat. This impression is sealed when Shadrack “pulled his shirt away from his collarbone: there was a mark, a brand, of interlocking letters – ‘if I am not mistaken we have much in common.’ He saw me nod and covered up again.” The momentarily revealed indelible true thing, the mark of oppression that they share beneath their clothes, suggests a connection that is deep, essential, and something to be relied upon. In Shadrack we can trust: “[if] anyone asks, tell them I’m your father”. (There is not space here to go into the hints of the story of Shadrach with Meshach and Abednego in the book of Daniel, but it is worth acknowledging in passing.)
The immediate effect on Nat is that he is now, with a “father” to hand, secure enough to notice, for the first time, details in the surroundings. Where before everything looked the same (“The garden square looked exactly the same as the one I’d fled.”), he now sees shops with “bowed-glass windows, bright coloured fronts, red and blue and yellow. Gloves displayed in fans like flowers, hats, lace, china that the old mistress would love in her house and that the young master would love to smash.” From terror and confusion to trust and clarity: this is the difference that Shadrack, the branded Black father figure, has made to the boy lost in a threatening White world of privilege. And, it has all been done without any explicit description. We haven’t been told: like Nat, we are seeing.
Shadrack leads Nat from the shops full of expensive, frivolous things to “a street of bakers and saddlers, shops of the more useful sort, and he pulled me into a grocer’s shop. Inside, it was warm and smelled of coffee and spices….” (This is not the first, and it won’t be the last, time Nat finds relief in a working-class setting. The class associations are also worth noting in passing.) The grocer’s is run by a real person, Frances Sancho, daughter of Ignatius Sancho, an important historical figure about whom we find out more as the story progresses. Nat, whose mother and sister had been sold away from the Barratts’ plantation in Jamaica, is enthralled by Frances — “a tall brown woman … with bright skin and black braided hair, she was such a beauty I was struck dumb” — who will feed and clothe him. From terror and confusion to trust and clarity to warmth and safety in a ‘maternal’ space: this is the arc on which Chapter 6 has taken us. It ends with Nat full-fed, fathered and mothered, falling asleep in an armchair, “in the flicker of candlelight.” Naturally, things will change, threats will rear their heads, action will subsequently occur, but for the moment, we and Nat know where safety lies.
This is a book for ‘middle-grade’ readers (upper primary/lower secondary), and it ticks the pedagogically relevant boxes of ‘accessible language’ and ‘stimulating narrative’, on top of the ‘diversity’ boxes. However, more than that – or despite that, as Shriver might contend – it is a complex fiction with some real psychological depth. Whether or not the child reader consciously takes all of that on board, they will be absorbing layers of meaning and good aesthetic principles, and they will likely find that satisfying, even if they couldn’t say why. There is nothing “secondary” about writing like this, absolutely nothing.