Reluctant Witness: Kids Books, History, and Whiteness

For many years I have thought of reflecting upon and examining certain conjunctures and countries where I have had the opportunity to spend some time. Unlike many of my middle-class peers in Canada, my experiences of studying, researching and living abroad were often shaped by both overt and covert racism and sometimes homophobia and sexism. Instead, I have been focussing on where I make my home, rather than other places in which I have been fortunate to spend time.

As a young student before the #MeToo era, I was vulnerable in a male-dominated academic field at the time. As a “mature” graduate student, I experienced sexual harrassment again. But my experiences gave me the input and analysis to make links between the varied ways in which people of colour can experience our lives in differing contexts and the sometimes contradictory ways in which we can be called up or dismissed as the occasion warrants.

Growing up in Canada, I experienced overt racism at both the primary and middle school level. While hurtful and exclusionary, overt racism pushed me into the world of books, a world which I inhabited as a largely disembodied being, in which the bothersome nature of my skin and increasingly sexualized body were left behind. I suspect that I was not alone in disassociating as both survival and resistance. I was a voracious and quick reader, blocking out the sounds, sights and smells of a bewildering childhood, where the “leave it to Beaver” ideology of Canadian primary schools in the 1970s seemed to have nothing to do with my own life and experiences.

While I made a sense of my own experiences and observations through stories, I also revelled in the popular children’s fiction of the time—again, an act of deconstruction and self-erasure. But it was the very alien nature of what I read that made it a fiction— whether about an animal or a person! Thus, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, The Saturdays, Ballet Shoes, or any one of the beloved books of childhood became a complicit act of whitening myself, an escape to a no-trouble zone. A development of a desireable schizophrenia encouraged by all levels of the education system throughout Canada, in particular at the post-secondary level!

Thanks, in large part to my father, I recieved books from all over the world, an opening and flowering of the richness of language and experience from non-hegemonic viewpoints from Andrew Salkey’s Jamaican children’s books, George Lamming’s incomparable In the Castle of My Skin, the stories of the Salish and west coast Dene, of Australia’s colonial outback and natural disasters, of Farley Mowat’s experiences in the Canadian bush or James Kruss’ Happy Islands Behind the Winds. Magnificently illustrated folk and fairy tales and Bengali ghost stories, biographies of artists and scientists and stories of the Underground Railroad and anti-fascist kids’ books such as The Diary of Anne Frank, developed a sense of solidarity in me. The realm of poetry also opened up an exciting and emotionally powerful world.

By the time I started to see the world on my own, I had already developed these multiple and simultaneous positions of non-white/white, male/female and later gay/straight. I read the world through a complex set of filters of self-erasure and began to develop a consciousness about the nature of longing and belonging. Much of the poetry I wrote and was drawn to, explored those themes, siting them as points or moments of resistance in a complex and cotidian struggle.

Over the last few years, I have started re-reading many of the books I loved as a child, viewing them with the lens of accumulated struggles, victories and defeats that are both personal to me and part of the world in which I inhabit, like all of us. Recently, watching the deplorables on the U.S’s Capitol Hill, I asked myself where does so much dispossesion and entitlement come from? Rather than reading essays and newsmedia op eds, I turned to kids’ books.

Not only the obviously ideological Little House on the Prairie Series of my public school, that extolled the libertarian contradictions of a settler class that relied on the government to displace and murder Indians for their westward expansion, while glorifying their individualist “pioneer” spirit, but also other books that were widely available in schools when I was little.

Lois Lenski’s books on the (mainly) white working-class children of America, written in a post-world war two moment of euphoria and nation-building, plagued by Jim Crow and segregation, provide some clues.

While in these books, benevolence and tolerance of Afro-descended or Indigenous people is conveyed, whiteness is the currency of last resort. The children in these books may be dirt poor, but their whiteness gives them a pinch of superiority over any child of colour. In the current context, rereading these incredibly descriptive and honest accounts of numerous childhoods of sharecroppers, travelling migrant workers, coal producers, and cotton-pickers depict how recently public education and public health took effect in the world’s most grandiose country.

When I took time to reread England’s Enid Blyton as a comparator, the upper-class world of Blyton’s child detectives is plagued with class, colour, and ethnic references constructed around racism and the innate superiority of white people.
So, while describing entirely differing worlds of whiteness and childhood- an ocean apart- the books had one glaring commonality— the currency of whiteness in a society of commodification.

This little foray of mine into understanding some aspects of the white supremacy movement on display during the Trump presidency, must be complemented by understanding the ways in which becoming “American” since the inception of the country, is also becoming, white.

No where is this more telling than in some of the ethnic language newspapers which welcomed European immigrants into their new homes, often in urban centers. For many, who had never met or interacted with Afro-descended peoples or other people of colour, nor spoke English yet, these newspapers covered the growing use of lynchings and active racism in the 1900-1930s era as a mechanism for anti-Black violence and socio-political control. The ways in which these crimes were described and the ways in which their victims were discussed, gave recent immigrants a fast track to “Americanness”, by providing them clues on appropriate “white” behaviour with regards to a post-slavery multiracial society.

This converges with a time in which the great migration of Afro-Americans from South to North was occurring, and labour, dominated by urban white working class agendas, had to accomodate Black workers. Unfortunately, these accomodations have barely been succesful and continue to be contested in various ways even now.

So looking back at the varied roots of the current entanglement we in the U.S and Canada are witnessing, children’s literature can provide much insight into why our society’s hierarchies perpetuate and mutate into groups hell-bent on holding on to social power, by, dare I say it, the skin of their teeth!

Late Night Haiku

Many people living with chronic illness, worry, and pain, experience insomnia. In fact, even children can experience it. It is a very insidious problem, and with the current state of affairs, I suspect that more people are staying awake than before. Paradoxically, even those with chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia, may be unable to sleep, although they feel exhausted. Sometimes, after exertion, whether cleaning or shopping or laundry or even walks for pleasure, pain and fatigue hit like a ton of bricks. But at night, sleep can be elusive. Since I was a reader long before the internet, I often enjoyed reading at night. I still do. There is something magical about immersions in other worlds, while the world outside of oneself is sleeping and relaxed.

Reading, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

In Mexico and Cuba, the nights would be punctuated by rogue roosters, all of who seemed to suffer from insomnia, and never waited for dawn to start their proclamations! In fact, I began to wonder if the rooster- crowing- at- dawn trope was actually a myth. Or was it that ages ago, cities and countrysides were not as lit up throughout the nights, encouraging roosters to sleep?

Rooster, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2018
Insomnia, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

Reading however is a great escape, if one can concentrate enough to enjoy it! I continue reading at night especially when I can’t sleep. With the closure of bookstores and my aversion to online shopping, the high-price of new novels, I have found online resources at the public library to be a great resource. I first realized that online reading was helpful in travelling, as so much weight was taken up by my books. But with the pandemic, I have resorted to online mysteries, biographies and children’s literature. Sadly, the last category is the weakest and a lot of stuff online for kids is really repetitive and badly written. Illustrated books for younger kids show a total reliance on cartoon culture and a lack of visual imagination.

The other night, while waiting for sleep, I went back to the haiku, a favourite form of poetry. After reading a few contemporary ones, I decided to try my hand at some after a long time. Here, they are.

Insomnia

  1. Late at night, breath’s sound

replaces the city’s corrosive hum

cat turning, finds core.

Cat, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

2. Insomnia is

a star, gleaming digital

more know her name than Capella’s.

3. Middlenight, riddle 

sleep. the sky holds her secrets

behind a veiled cloud.

 4. Insomnia’s leaves

are bookmarks, half-faded slumber

poems echo dream- like.

5. Insomnia, silent 

as that cat that crept in on

fog’s feet or vice versa.

6. Fog footed, insomnia’s 

friend to cat, bat, and the night

blooming jasmine.

The Reading Hour, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

What’s Your Superpower? Children’s Books in a Pandemic World

Mine is reading. For many years, I have escaped or disappeared into texts. Writers have made the visible world invisible and the invisible world, visible. They have shown us downward plummets and paths toward happiness. They take us on journeys into the core of the earth or the heart of the sky. When the world is going to hell, whether it be through bullying and racism in school or work, at university, relaxing on a holiday, books have been a constant and life-saving companion.

I can’t stress enough the importance of building up some personal resources against the bleak winter and under these pandemic conditions. Debates are raging on about the wisdom of taking sanitary precautions like masking and hand sanitizing, versus, “business as usual”. Poverty— as well as covid19, is growing, in response to haphazard and unsupported lockdown measures that have made living a terror for millions of people in the developing world and in the wealthier countries, like Canada, U.S, and the U.K., where Black and other people of colour, make up increasing numbers of an underemployed and badly educated working-class, in holding pens, that pass for schools.

Yet, in the months since the media has let us in on the existence of this new coronavirus, we have not witnessed governments come up with life-affirming measures of public safety. But while millions lose jobs, day labourers go hungry, families are evicted, medical debt is a huge thing across the world, hospitals and seniors’ homes are understaffed and underfunded, mental health crises are rising, and economically non-productive people and working people are devalued and dehumanized, there are some who are doing their utmost to profit from this uncertainty and mixed messaging.

That’s why it is important to be able to read about different stories than those that characterize our time— one of vast indifference and apathy in which millions are languishing in misery, fear and hunger.

I want to share a couple of kids’ books which I believe are under-rated and under-represented in the world of post-world war 2 children’s literature. The first, is The Happy Islands Behind the Winds, by James Kruss.

This book, written during the end of that war, offers a possibility of a more humane world, through the stories of the Happy Islands, a fantastical land where animals, birds, fish, insects, and vegetation, are as much citizens— with corresponding rights and obligations— as humans. The beauty of the islands is in their straightforward belief that hope, kindness and beauty are cornerstones of “good” living, that power ought to be distributed equally among beings in society and that we are all capable of learning from our mistakes and worthy of trust and redemption. The author manages to do all this with a great deal of imagination and humour, conveying a sense of wonder at the variety of stories the world could offer. Animals, insects and people share stories and poems that open up a world of astonishingly progressive ideas about crime and punishment and belonging and rejection!

I believe this book to be one of the most lovely examples of books for kids. It is the first part of a trilogy comprised of Return to the Happy Islands, and The Lighthouse on the Lobster Cliffs, where we meet the characters of the Captain, the four seagulls, poltergeists, lighthouse keepers, and so many more. In these books, trees talk, insects reason, people respond to kindness and understanding, and change is good. They also encourage imagination and story-telling, important tools for feeling like we are a part of the world!

These books are now out of print, but were published by Atheneum Press in 1960s in English translations. The Happy Islands Behind the Winds can be found at https://openlibrary.org/books/OL24763459M/The_happy_islands_behind_the_winds if you are interested in browsing. It can also be ordered through inter-library loan through the public library.

The second book that made a big impression on me while growing up, was the British historian Rhoda Power’s novel about the 14th century life of Redcap, a blacksmith’s son in medieval England. This book, like the one above, shares the device of stories within stories, much like the idea of a 1001 Nights. It centers outcastes and the powerless of feudal society at the time— children, “witches”, minstrels, and the like, celebrating tricksters, jugglers, acrobats and all the entertainment of that long-ago age.

Redcap Runs Away (1953), is a captivating book about a runaway boy who falls in with a group of minstrels and travels England in the Middle Ages. While it draws on religious and other influences of the time, it’s still a fascinating and imaginative book, which allows us to expererience life in another time and place. Fantasy writing does not have to be confined to Utopic or otherwordly scenarios. Historians turned storytellers are often adept at blending fantasy and history together! Rhoda Power crafts an interesting story, that lends itself to researching some of the daily conditions of life in medieval Britain. It’s hard to imagine a time when entertainment was not a click or tap away, but had to be conjured up by real people with talents and skill, in real time! (Cuba is perhaps the only place I’ve stayed in, in recent years, where I was exposed to amazingly talented young people who shared their talents on the streets and parks and patios, instead of staring at their cellphones or TVs.) But getting back to this children’s book which allows us to imagine a different way of life; it shows us that Redcap’s view of the world and the questions that challenge him are as much a product of his time and circumstances as are ours. And that’s a good departure point for learning about history!

While many of us are more confined to the home during this time, libraries in much of North America have gone online. Although it’s not the most complete selection of books, nor the most diverse, libraries are a great online resource at this time, as are sources like Open Library, for harder to find books.

In times when we feel confined, books are a way of taking to the seas or the open road, allowing all of us, adults and children, a chance to remove ourselves from the humdrum concerns of every day life! Over the next while I’ll be sharing some lesser known books for kids, including Jamaican Andrew Salkey’s stories on natural disasters for children!