Sunday, 5 June 2016

The colour blind generation says good bye to Jill and John




Back in the mists of time, when I were a young 'un, children's reading books where peopled by characters who were whiter and starchier than a loaf of Mother's Pride. Names like Peter and Jane proliferated, as did the wearing of smart frocks and neatly pressed shorts. While the ethnic diversity might have matched up to my primary school (when a single black girl joined towards the end of my time there the headmaster held a special assembly to tell us all to be kind to her, even though she looked 'different' to us) that was about the only thing that seemed familiar.

My home life was a whole lot more chaotic than Jill and John's. For starters, rather than living in a jam-scented fug in the kitchen, churning out lashings of sandwiches and ginger beer, my mum was a feminist hippy, who spent most of her time hefting pine furniture out of a makeshift caustic soda tank in the garden. A little explanation is required here, my parents ran many businesses together during my childhood, but the most memorable was restoring pine furniture. The smell of drying, soggy pine, the chemical tang of paint remover and the rich perfume of thick beeswax were the smells of my childhood.

Mum wandered around in plaits, dungarees and very dubious sandals, legs defiantly (or perhaps just absent-mindedly) hairy and opinions ranging way beyond the best way to turn out a Victoria sponge cake. While I suppose I should have valued this challenging role model, actually I rather longed for those apron-wearing, floury-handed mums who inhabited the pages of my reading books. I wanted something different from what happened at home. Hankered for a simple family where mummy baked, daddy went to work with a briefcase and a bowler hat and my wardrobe was entirely filled with perfectly ironed pastel pinafores.

The life portrayed in my own children's reading books is perhaps a little closer to the real thing. Rather than stumbling over long and complicated words, my boys have struggled most to get their English tongues around the many foreign names that appear on the pages. While they breeze through the basics, when they hit a Rajesh or Ranjana, a Jabari or and Ebele, they generally came to a grinding stop waiting for me to work out how best to pronounce these unfamiliar names.

It is the perfect preparation for children who are growing up in multicultural London. My sons have heard multiple languages spoken and experienced many cultures during their years at a state primary school in what the Daily Mail would call a 'leafy, north London suburb'.  I remember when the Olympic parade took place, my then seven-year-old pointing out all the nationalities he had in his class as their home countries walked onto the screen. I think he had close to a full house.

As a white woman, I might think that the balance is tipping towards a more accurate portrayal of the wider world in children's books, but I am prepared to stand corrected by another mother who knows far more about what it is like to grow up looking different from everyone else.

Michaela Alexander's daughter was fed up with everyone in her books looking nothing like her. Why did princesses all have silky golden hair, rather than a proud Afro? Why indeed? Michaela decided to set things straight by publishing her own book: Miles & Mia A to Z. The title characters are black, their friends are all shades from blonde to brown.

The aim of this book is to make Michaela's children and others like them, feel comfortable with the characters on the pages of their bedtime story. I cannot comment on whether this will work or not, as while my little boys (for this is a younger children's book) enjoyed the story, they didn't even notice that few of the characters looked like them. After years of sharing classrooms with children from every corner of the world, perhaps this generation will be the first to grow up genuinely colour blind and Miles and Mia will become the Charlie and Lola of the multicultural age.

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