Race and Representation in Children's Books

A Mirror to Society


'there ought to be one fairy for every boy and girl,' (Peter Pan)


The past few weeks have been fuelled by a racial consciousness and uprising after George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minnesota at the end of May. Protests have been held all over the globe and a collective anger and pain has pervaded social media and the news. #BlackLivesMatter has been the central message. The struggle is not a new one. But let's hope real change can come about due to this moment in history.


I myself was angry about various issues to do with race and even filmed a short video for WeRNotVirus a theatre project set up to counteract anti-Chinese sentiments. For many writers of colour, we cannot simply write stories to make children happy, there is always more to it. 


How is this related to my writing life and the fellowship I’m undertaking? What does it have to do with children's literature? A lot. 


Race and representation are at the heart of what I do. I studied race at University here and in the US. I enrolled in Ethnic Studies courses, African American courses and Asian American courses when I attended UC Berkeley. I did so because I was interested in the subject. But also because they gave me the language and framework to untangle my own complex identity. I’ve always read books by writers of colour. Racism is not a new thing. It’s as old as time. When Peter Pan said, in the quote above, that all boys and girls ought to have a fairy, he meant boys and girls who looked like the Darlings. Not boys and girls who look like Tiger Lily. 


One of the wonderful things about being the writing fellow at Moat Brae is that I am in many ways the opposite to J.M. Barrie (although we do have some things in common about using our pain in our stories). I am a British Chinese woman writer who does not write about wealthy upper-class children going  to hang out with ‘savages’ or ‘spoilt boys’. And yet, I am a writer - just like J.M. Barrie. My work in some ways makes visible and centres the people that Barrie and many authors of his time, ridicule or push to the margins. I feel blessed to be a children's author and I do see it as a opportunity to increase the visibility of children of colour on book covers and in my books. I was particularly happy this week to see the cover of a new reading book (Amy Wants a Pet) I have coming out with Rising Stars (Hachette) in August. I love the cover and feel proud that Amy, a Chinese girl, is centre stage and the lead in her own story. 


Last week I watched The Aristocrats on Disney + and before the film started there was a disclaimer about cultural issues. I couldn’t remember exactly what would be the offending item and then I saw it. The ‘Siamese’ Cat with protruding buck teeth and slanted eyes, playing the drums with chopsticks. I felt a sinking feeling – the recognition of racism. Similarly, the Disney version of Peter Pan also has warnings about cultural representations. Why does this matter? It matters because children of colour need to see that they exist and that they are equal in narratives. The omission of characters of colour is damaging to one own self-image and permeates your life if you are of colour - you feel “not good enough” or invisible.


Barrie was a man of his era and I knew before beginning the fellowship that some of his characters were problematic. Use of words such as 'Indian' (now known as Native Americans) and 'Piccannies' - you can read more about this here. I've done lots of reading around the OTHERING of ethnic cultures and especially 'Orientalism' in my academic work as a student. People of colour are often fetishized or exoticized and this further compounds the notion that we are not as good as you, or something different. That is why my work often features working working class tropes, and "every day" situations - because we are actually just like you. We bleed, we feel and we have stories to tell too. When people see me, they don't see a children's author, they see a carer or a 'foreign student'. Being the fellow is helping to change that idea. There are many types of children's author and sometimes they look like me! Click here to read the CLPE Reflecting Realities reports that discuss the representation of ethnic minorities in UK children's publishing. 


I’ve done very little writing work this past two weeks.


I’ve been too angry or tired.


Plus, we’re still in lockdown and it’s not always conducive to creativity. Instead I attended a talk by Pendemicus (hosted by writers Peter Kalu and Tariq Mehmood) - this week they talked about Black Lives Matter and how writers can respond. For me, the way I can respond is to create work. That means, creating work that represents what I stand for and what I am interested in. Make the stories, write content. 


This week I also attended an Arvon workshop with Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love and The Manual For Heartache about 'Excavating the Self'. I actually began writing so I could write my memoir back in 2006, but that never happened but one day I want to get back into it and so I am gearing up for doing more non-fiction and memoir writing in the coming years, as well as screenwriting.


Learning the craft takes years and so I am happy to start small now whilst I have other commissions and children’s writing that I am doing. Next week I am attending a talk by Adam Kay about writing non-fiction and later in the month I have signed up for emails from Colin Grant who is hosting free creative writing prompts through Spread the Word.


As I mentioned in my previous post. Lockdown has been in some ways great for attending online courses and talks that I would never have made in person, for that I am thankful. Time to write continues to be a challenge. One of my children has had sleeping issues for around six weeks and so it affects the whole family. Writing is both organic but also requires discipline. My head had been filled with so much over the past few weeks, global injustice, anti-Chinese sentiment, racial bias in all facets of life as well as in publishing (#publishingpaidme) – I needed a mental break before I begin writing work again. 


A decompression has been needed. 


I have been sent some wonderful images of the Neverland Discovery Garden and have had ideas for new magical stories. I just need to start typing! Perhaps I need my own fairy to help me?