Later that afternoon, join author and Lecturer in Creative Writing, Ann Coburn, for our creative writing workshop for adults, Undiscovered Land: Write Like David Almond. Start your own story incorporating elements of memory, history, magic and transformation. I can’t wait to see what our writers come up with!
On Sunday 18th November, come and take part in our Wavering Boundarieswalking tour, led by Dr Tom Schofield from Digital Cultures in Culture Lab. Magical realism, augmented reality and literary archives come together in this guided walk around the Ouseburn Valley, and you’ll be one of the very first to try out our Magical Reality app.
“My work explores the frontier between rationalism and superstition and the wavering boundary between the two.” David Almond
Seven Stories are also supporting Newcastle University’s final festival event, Songs from the Dam, with Kathryn Tickell, David Almond and Amy Thatcher. This special musical performance will present local songs and folk tales, and celebrates David Almond’s new book The Dam, beautifully illustrated by Levi Pinfold, which tells the story of the flooding of Kielder Water.
In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).
This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for Children’s Books, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant. During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Collections – archivists, curators, and librarians – that was both personal and professional. They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature. As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people. This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain5).
The Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature. This blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from the event, and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.
Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!” In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world. A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).
Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives. Collections and Exhibitions Director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.
Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I – like most of the Seven Stories staff – was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege. What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically side-lined? I did not want to replicate old histories. I suggested we bring some intellectuals – writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people – from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly. Sarah agreed – as did so many of the great names that we invited.
We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it reflected Seven Stories’ previous Diverse Voices initiatives and left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City 2017 project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr. The themes of Freedom City 2017 were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society. King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.
I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle MBE in our Into Crongton with Alex Wheatle event on Thursday 23rd November 2017, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues – from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”. All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them. As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”
Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium. Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”. SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”
Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s. And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period. This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.” And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”
There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled. Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”
Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them. Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing. The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit.
But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone. Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books. We must read differently – think differently – speak differently. We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.
In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:
“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).
It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard. When it goes wrong – as it will – we must keep on trying. This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books – for all kids.
On 13th November 1967, Dr King came to Newcastle to accept his award, and in a moving address spoke of “three urgent, and indeed, great, problems that we face not only in the United States of America, but all over the world, today. That is the problem of racism, the problem of poverty, and the problem of war.”
Half a century on, the Freedom City 2017 festival aims to focus on these three problems, bringing Dr King’s legacy to life for a new generation and stimulating debate.
Newcastle University and Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books are both getting involved in the commemorations, and the two organisations are collaborating to present a number of joint events.
Fickling Lecture on Developments in Children’s Literature
Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE on ‘Facing Adversity with a Smile’
Tuesday 3rd October 2017, 5.30 – 6.45pm, Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building, Newcastle University
Floella is also an actress, presenter (I have very early memories of seeing Floella on the BBC’s Play School and its successors), writer, independent producer, businesswoman and working peer. She has campaigned for 25 years on behalf of children and young people, and for diversity to be reflected in every aspect of our society.
Thursday 23rd November 2017, 6pm – 7pm, followed by a book signing, Percy Building, Newcastle University
Alex Wheatle MBE, winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 2016 and author of young adult novels Liccle Bit (2015), Crongton Knights (2016) and Straight Outta Crongton (2017), will be in conversation with Professor Karen Sands O’Connor (SUNY Buffalo State) in this free author event.
How do the Freedom City 2017 themes of war, poverty and racism play out in Crongton, where gangs rule the streets? We’ll find out…
This event is jointly hosted by Newcastle University’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics and Seven Stories.
Diverse Voices? Curating a National History of Children’s Books
Friday 24th November 2017, 9.30am – 6pm, Seven Stories
Seven Stories is the National Centre for Children’s Books – how are Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices represented in our national story of children’s literature?
In this one-day symposium, we’ll be exploring this question with speakers including Sita Brahmachari, Candy Gourlay, Jake Hope, Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence, SI Martin, Beverley Naidoo, SF Said, Professor Karen Sands O’Connor, Alex Wheatle OBE and Verna Wilkins.
In Conversation with Catherine Johnson and Patrice Lawrence
Friday 24th November 2017, 4.30 – 6pm, Seven Stories
We’re opening up the last session of the Diverse Voices symposium to a broader audience. Join us to hear authors Catherine Johnson and Patrice Lawrence talk about their work and reflect on issues around children’s literature and race.
I’ve just enjoyed reading Catherine’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (2015), and Patrice’s first book Orangeboy (2016) was a fantastic (and deservedly award-winning) debut. They’ll be chaired by teacher Darren Chetty, who contributed to the 2016 anthology The Good Immigrant.
This event is jointly hosted by Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal and Seven Stories.
Pecha Kuchas are short, visual presentations. As you talk, you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. Your slides change automatically. And they’re more than a little tricky to deliver…
The Vital North Partnership (+ 19 other ways Newcastle University and Seven Stories are collaborating) is exactly what the title suggests: a presentation about 20 current Partnership projects. And what are those projects? Well, watch the video and find out!
With thanks to Jeff Wilson from the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, who produced this video.
“The Michael Morpurgo exhibition was really visually pleasing. The person who took us around was really passionate and informative.”
Next, we headed up to the Attic, where the Seven Stories Collections Team and Dr Pearson facilitated a hands-on session with original material from Seven Stories’ Catherine Storr,David Almond and Judith Kerr collections.
Our visitors really appreciated the chance to explore this original material in detail:
“The chance to look at the objects / drawings from the collection / archive was great.”
Then, Seven Stories’ Storycatchers Jayne and Lawrence introduced us to the Rhyme Around the World gallery, where we had some self-led time to explore hopes and fears in nursery rhymes. And to have fun with the interactives… “I dressed up as a sheep!”
The evening closed with a drinks reception and quiz in the Attic, sponsored by Newcastle University’s Humanities Research Institute. My knowledge of hope and fear in children’s books was certainly tested, anyway!
Commenting on what they thought was most successful about Hope and Fear in Children’s Books, I was really pleased to see that a number of our visitors said they liked the opportunity to ‘chat to experts’. And I think this piece of feedback from a participant about the impact the event had on them sums the evening up for me, too:
“It’s made me think about how literature can help children (and adults!) cope with fear, and indeed hope.”