Books: Other cultures, other stories

After the Lawrence case, black children need to be made more visible in children's books. Kevin Le Gendre reports
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The Independent Culture
A staple of the Caribbean diet, the yam comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are small and weedy, others big and fat. Those are the ones that usually end up on the dinner table with a plate of brown stewed chicken. So when a young boy named Jordan digs up the yam of his dreams while playing in his yard, he's overjoyed. But when he takes it down to the river Denzo to give it a wash, he loses it. All sorts of things happen then, and before we know it we've got a classic children's story.

In Jan Blake's brilliantly told Give Me My Yam (pounds 2.50), Jordan (named after the author's own son) tumbles through a series of light-hearted adventures in his quest for the perfect accompaniment for that plate of chicken. Complete with excellent illustrations by Peter Melnyczuk, the book is set in rural Jamaica and is one of several multi-cultural titles from Walker books, aimed at three- to five-year-olds. The series Reading Together was developed by Walker books in conjunction with the Centre for Language in Primary Education, a London-based, but internationally acclaimed, authority on literacy tuition.

"The idea behind the series was that these were books for parents and children to use at home," explains Walker's editor Caroline Royds. "We produced 23 picture books, all enormously different, with notes to parents inside them about reading."

At the beginning and end of each book there is a synopsis of the story to encourage re-reading. The text is accompanied by pictures of parents and children from diverse racial backgrounds. According to the commissioning editors, both images of "ethnic minorities" and stories set abroad are essential in primary education.

"It's important to have multicultural titles because of the nature of the population," explains Myra Barrs, director of the CLPE. " We're doing what we can, but there should be far more books available for the young that recognise children's experiences from all over the world. For kids from the Caribbean it's clearly very important for them to find themselves in books. After the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the recommendations are very strong to make black children more visible in educational material." Other titles in the series include The Old Lady And The Red Pumpkin, a Bengali story, and Handa's Surprise, set in Africa.

Other publishers are also concerned to fill the gap in the market. "We try to reflect life as it is in schools up and down the country today," says Fiona Kenshole, publishing director of children's books for Oxford University Press. "Most kids are brought up in a multicultural environment; even kids who live in rural areas are exposed to other cultures through TV. Anyway, it's important that kids get a sense of other cultures and, for some children, a sense of where they come from."

OUP, which has a history of publishing myths, legends and folk tales from around the world, is currently preparing a collection by Tobagonian storyteller Grace Halworth, as well as an anthology of stories from Ethiopia.

You can be more oblique, though. Publishing giant Random House celebrates diversity in more allegorical ways, judging by Joan Rankin's You're Somebody Special, Walliwiggs (Bodley Head pounds 9.99), a story about a chicken who's different from everybody else. Claire Hall-Craggs, publicity manager for the Children's Books department, says: "You publish for everybody, be they the ethnic community or whatever. Sometimes it's easier to get a message across with an animal story, but it's still very relevant to humans."

Jan Blake, a Mancunian of Jamaican descent, has a great deal of experience of working with children from all types of background. Not talking down to them is the key to writing for children.

"You just have to be emotionally truthful," she reasons. " When we lose our tempers as adults, we're just the same as kids. We can understand disappointment and loss just as Jordan does in the story. When he loses his yam, he loses everything. We all understand that, so it's just a question of maintaining the emotional equality."

A professional storyteller with firm roots in the Caribbean folk tradition of Anansi (a trickster character who crops up in most of the region's morality tales), Blake has been a favourite on the festival scene for many years now. As well as performing regularly in the UK, she's made numerous appearances at non-anglophone events, using the musicality of her speech to break down linguistic barriers. She knows all about the power of language.

When writing Give Me My Yam, Blake wanted to incorporate the circular rhythms and incantatory refrains that work so well on stage. " The story is a song, really," she emphasises. "And the song brings out new information. Each time another character takes away one of Jordan's gifts he just adds another line so it builds into a song that the reader is familiar with by the end of the story." Perfect for early learning.

Give Me My Yam is not the first Caribbean children's book to appear from Walker. Last year it published Grace Nichols's Asana and is already reprinting the paperback (pounds 5.99). Back in 1994, So Much (pounds 5.99) by former Playdays presenter Trish Cooke, a joyous celebration of a birth in a Caribbean household, won the prestigious Smarties Prize.

Perhaps the best-known of Walker's multi-cultural titles is the poetry collection Caribbean Dozen (pounds 12.99/pounds 9.99). It's been in print for five years, and has sold very well, mainly to educational outlets. Edited by John Agard and Grace Nichols, two expatriate Guyanese writers who came to prominence in the Eighties, the collection features well-known British- based Caribbean poets such as James Berry and Marc Matthews. "The book has lots of lovely sounds, lovely words," enthuses Caroline Royds. "Sometimes they are quite foreign to children here, but they sound so evocative, you kind of get the meaning anyway."

Exposing children of all backgrounds to stories from around the world is part and parcel of modern educational practice, but at the end of the day Walker, and other publishers, must operate on the premise that the majority audience is first-generation English, not second-generation Caribbean. The books have to combine accessibility with authenticity. They do so by striking a balance between form and content, retaining the musicality of Caribbean inflections without overloading on "difficult" words.

So most of the vocabulary used in Walker's Caribbean titles is standard English but the local vernacular asserts itself when appropriate. In Give Me My Yam, Jordan collects a calabash of goat's milk, and Asana, the heroine of Grace Nichols's book, sits on her sofa, eating peas and rice. And in Caribbean Dozen, James Berry's poem "Bye Now" appears in both standard English and Caribbean-inflected English.

"If the poem had arrived just in the Creole-ised form, we might well have carried it like that," comments John Agard. "But James wrote it in two versions precisely so children can see different registers of speech; they see English from different angles. The poem is like a language crystal."

"Give Me My Yam is set in the Caribbean and, yes, it's a heritage thing for some children," comments Myra Barrs of the CLPE. "But it works for all children because it sums up a rural idyll and because the folk pattern, the cumulative aspect, is recognisable. All folk stories are structured in that way. That's what makes them memorable."