Wednesday 23 September 2015

Is There Enough Diversity In Literature?: part I

I grew up in rural Gloucestershire in the late 50s and 60s where the only diversity was class based which nobody was overly bothered about, or whether you went to the Anglican church or the Methodist chapel, and nobody was very bothered about that either.
   In my early years differences were negligible. We kids all played the same games and began to read the same books. We outgrew The Secret Seven and graduated to The Famous Five, and although some of us began to expand our world by reading more widely, those Enid Blyton stories, however formulaic, were favourites because they were about us. Going off all day with friends on bikes with a picnic in the pannier was exactly what we did in the summer holidays in the 60s, although we rarely caught any robbers or foiled dastardly plots by kidnappers. We were a bit slow when it came to spotting criminals.

I grew out of The Famous Five, but still loved books about kids having adventures such as The Fell Farm Campers, (I camped) Swallows and Amazons, (I didn't have a boat but pretended I did,) The Pullein-Thompson sisters' pony books (I rode ponies) and Monica Edwards' Punchbowl and Romney Marsh series, but without realising it, even as a kid, I was seeking more diverse literature because I was fascinated by people living in other lands and leading lives very different to mine.

American, Canadian and Australian stories were accessible and gave a taster of other customs and lifestyles but I wanted something more removed from my experience. Although I had found books set in other countries such as The Treasures of the Snow, and Hans Brinker they were often written by UK or US authors and seemed similar to English stories. The only books in translation that I had read were Barbar the Elephant, Pippi Longstocking, and the Mrs Pepperpot series, which I hated and didn't give me any insight into living in different lands. Heidi was better, and then I discovered The Wheel on the School, Landslide and A Hundred Million Francs which were more satisfactory, but let's forget The Little Prince that I had to read in French, which might explain why I never understood it. Were these the only books from abroad? It seemed as if they were. What about children in India, or Brazil or Nigeria - what did they read? I began to wonder if they had books.

I realised it wasn't only cultures from overseas that weren't represented in the books I was reading (although I didn't think of it in those terms) but different aspects of British life seemed limited.  
   Those adventurous kids in the stories I enjoyed all belonged to some strata of the middle-class. Certainly my early reading had included The Family From One End Street and White Boots where the children came from poorer families for whom finding money for the grammar-school uniform or a set of ice skates was a problem, but they weren't so different. Their viewpoints and values were the same. Maybe that's because we all have more similarities than differences, but actually it seemed that poor children weren't worth writing about.

When I met her, I didn't think of Maria, my new classmate who came from abroad, as being different although she seemed very exotic being able to speak two languages. It wasn't until her birthday party that I realised there was far more to her adjustment to UK than I had previously understood. She was mortified because her mother served food that was hitherto unknown to us, her new British friends. I loved the experience of trying new tastes and was appalled when some of the other girls turned up their noses and refused to eat it causing Maria's embarrassment and humiliation. (I bet those girls still want English food when they go abroad.) Were there stories about children like Maria who had to make friends in a new country with a new language and different customs? Unfortunately it never occurred to me to ask Maria what books she had because she was too busy devouring my copies of Malory Towers and St Clare's in order to become one of us.

Well, that was back then - a long time ago and I'm sure today's children are more worldly - yet 50 years on it seems that children's literature in UK is still not very representative of the huge diversity of British life. And although there are more than when I was a child, I still don't see very many children's books from overseas authors on our bookshop shelves.
This link is interesting: Diversity in Literature.

As I began to read adult fiction, I found more diversity - but I had to look for it - and that still tends to be the case. I'll be writing more on this in part II.