Sunday, 19 February 2017

World Book Day Again

I've written about World Book Day before and about children's literature more broadly in The Good Immigrant and here but a text from a colleague asking for ideas for Black characters from children's books reminded me it's coming up again.

I replied to the text as follows (I posted this on twitter but have now corrected the typos) :

I think the dressing up thing is played out. Focus on books - reading them, writing them, discussing them, reviewing them.

Hold a book competition where they need to rate the top ten kids' books - get them to justify their selections referring to what makes it a compelling story. 

If you want to bring in critical perspectives, introduce categories; themes, protagonists, authors to see who and what is represented and who and what is not. 

Ultimately, extend their horizons and deepen their engagement with the written word in all its forms. 

I wonder if any of this is controversial.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

TES feature written with Karen Sands O'Connor

This appeared as a feature in the TES last term. The TES chose the headline:

Why diversity should start at story time

Teachers need to introduce their classes to a rich and varied diet of literature to avoid denying children key knowledge about themselves, their cultural heritage and the wider world, argues Darren Chetty

A few years ago, I was teaching a Year 2 class in East London. We had been working on writing stories. When it came to sharing what they had written, one boy, who had recently arrived from Nigeria, was eager to read his work to the class.
As he read out his protagonist's name - I had suggested that children might use the names of people in their family - another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him.
"You can't do that! Stories have to be about white people," he said. This is not an isolated incident.
More than 25 years ago, Verna Wilkins founded Tamarind Press because her child believed that characters had to be white "to be in a book". And the award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recalls her childhood in Nigeria where, "because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify".
Many primary school children have encountered only books with white human characters. Often when they do encounter characters racialised as other than white, it is tied in with the celebration of a holiday such as Diwali, or in connection with Black History Month.
Yet it seems reasonable to wish that children see people of all backgrounds as an ordinary part of everyday literature.
If children do not encounter a rich diet of literature at school, they are being denied key knowledge about themselves and the world. If children are not taught that they can draw on first-hand experiences when they write fiction, then they are being denied key knowledge about what it means to be a writer.
We should teach and read and interact with the living cultural heritage of the young people who make up Britain today - not to the exclusion of "classic" literature, but rather as part of the process of opening up of the world of literature for children. Stories often deal with universal themes but it is the writer's ability to capture the particularities of a story that brings it to life and makes it resonate with readers. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James calls this "solidity of specification", adding that it is "the supreme virtue of a novel".
Writers of colour have been publishing in Britain for British audiences for more than 50 years now, but often these books have gone out of print, with publishers citing lack of audience.
But the audience is there, because all children are (or should be) the audience for good literature. The problem is getting those books into children's hands, especially when the few physical book shops left in any given town often don't stock a wide variety (if any) books by or about people of colour.
Teachers and other adults involved with children have to seek books out, often through internet-based booksellers, and the time this takes - not to mention the difficulty of evaluating a book's appropriateness without being able to page through it - can seem like one burden too many for already-overtaxed teachers.
However, there are resources that can help: Letterbox Library has been providing multicultural books to schools for more than 30 years, and they allow teachers to order books "on approval", so they have time to evaluate them. There are several blogs written by experts in the field, which offer their own suggestions for teachers who don't know where to start.
The effort is worth it, because when kids start seeing themselves and their classmates in books, they learn that they all have a role to play - in the classroom, in books and in Britain's literary heritage.
This role can extend children's own writing. After reflecting on my experience with my Year 2 class, the following year, while teaching Year 5, I was emboldened to experiment. What would happen if, for just one lesson, I encouraged them to write about a character from a similar ethnic, religious and linguistic background to their own - just as I sometimes insist that they try to include a fronted adverbial, a moral dilemma or a tricolon?
Having collected a range of passages where authors describe a character, we discussed ourselves in terms of various attributes: language, family migration, physical appearance including skin and hair, religion, hobbies and clothes. Then I asked the children to write a character who was similar in some but not necessarily all of these aspects.
As I modelled this process for them, I realised that previously I, too, often defaulted to "traditional" English names and white characters when writing in class. Now, I tried to draw on my own experience, creating composite characters from family members and applying some of the writing techniques we'd noted in our class reading.
Then they wrote. Clearly, many of them enjoyed the lesson and many produced their best piece of writing to date.
Here's one example by a pupil called Nabila: "Maryam Patel was a 12-year-old girl, whose parents were Indian, but she was born in Britain. She was a fairly religious person. However, Maryam thought, one does not have to wear a headscarf to be religious. She loved her red, straight hair. Her hair was as red as blood. She had decided to dye her hair as she hated her dark brown hair. She loved football and the club she supported was Liverpool. One day I'll play for the Liverpool women, she thought."
I want to avoid making huge claims here. However, I do sense the beginnings of an authorial voice in Nabila's character description. Her character is not a stereotype of Muslim girls - in recognising her life experience as a valuable resource for fiction, she is developing the "solidity of specification" and avoiding what Adichie terms "the danger of the single story". There is some genuine characterisation and insight in the paragraph rather than the short list of features that I often encounter in children's writing.
I think this is precisely because she is using her own life as inspiration for her creativity while drawing on her reading of fiction. Her descriptive paragraph comes after a lesson looking closely at descriptions by a range of children's authors, which is where the idea of including a protagonist's thought, as well as a simple physical description, emerged. As well as writing a better story - richer in detail, and combining her knowledge gained from reading with knowledge gained from experience, Nabila was demonstrating an understanding that people from her background can indeed be main characters rather than minor characters.
Nabila told me that she had never written about an Indian heritage or Muslim character before. Nobody had ever told her she shouldn't but, at the same time, nobody had ever explicitly given her permission. Subsequently, she wrote two further full stories about her character Maryam Patel. In part three, Maryam visited India.
Trust me, it was a great read.
Darren Chetty taught in inner-London primary schools for almost 20 years. He is currently completing a PhD at the UCL Institute of Education. He is a contributor to Media Diversified and The Good Immigrant, a collection of 21 essays by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers, edited by Nikesh Shukla and published by Unbound. He tweets @rapclassroom
Suggested texts to help diversify your classroom literature
Karen Sands-O'Connor is a professor of children's literature specialising in black British children's literature. She recently completed a year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor, at Newcastle University and the Seven Stories National Centre for Children's Books.
While there, she researched British publishing efforts for diverse audiences. Here's her book list to get you started on diversifying your library of texts for students:
Picture Books for Babies and Toddlers
Wriggle Piggy Toes - John Agard
Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo - Valerie Bloom
So Much! - Trish Cooke
No, Baby, No! - Grace Nichols
Let's Feed the Ducks - Pamela Venus
Bring back into print:
Sean's Red Bike - Petronella Breinburg
Nini at Carnival - Errol Lloyd
Beginning readers
My Two Grannies - Floella Benjamin
Giant Hiccups - Jacqui Farley
Lucy's Rabbit - Jennifer Northway
Ramadan Moon - Na'ima Robert
Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market - Chitra Soundar
Dave and the Tooth Fairy - Verna Wilkins
J is for Jamaica - Benjamin Zephaniah
Bring back into print:
Mermaid Janine - Iolette Thomas
Shorter-chapter books
Pig-Heart Boy - Malorie Blackman
Blackberry Blue and Other Fairy Tales - Jamila Gavin
A Hen in the Wardrobe - Wendy Meddour
Liberté: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan - Jackie Ould (edited by)
Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed - Mahdvi Ramani
Don't Wear It On Your Head, Don't Stick It Down Your Pants - John Siddique
Bring back into print:
Kamla and Kate - Jamila Gavin
Birds in the Wilderness - Kate Elizabeth Ernest
Longer-chapter books
Tall Story - Candy Gourlay
The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo - Catherine Johnson
Dream On - Bali Rai
She Wore Red Trainers - Na'ima B Robert
Hurricane - Andrew Salkey
Crongton Knights - Alex Wheatle
Bring back into print:
East End at Your Feet - Farrukh Dhondy
Age 14-18 books
Chasing the Stars - Malorie Blackman
Travel Light, Travel Dark - John Agard
Midnight Robber - Nalo Hopkinson
Red Dust Road - Jackie Kay
(Un)arranged Marriage - Bali Rai
Refugee Boy - Benjamin Zephaniah
Bring back into print:
Touch Mi! Tell Mi! - Valerie Bloom
Karen's weekly blogs on issues of diversity in children's literature can be found at

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Good Immigrant

The Good Immigrant – Media Coverage

Here's a non-exhaustive overview of media coverage of The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla:

TV & Video





Wednesday, 30 December 2015


Martin Robinson writes in favour of ‘gatekeepers’.  I’ve written elsewhere of the need to recognise when communities of enquiry are operating as gated communities of enquiry and to be able to identify who is gatekeeping.

How are these ideas related? Are we using the same term to mean different things?

Martin’s example of the art gallery ‘gatekeeper’ sounds more like a curator to me. Certainly the people responsible for selecting which works of art are displayed in a gallery often go by this title. Perhaps this person, who appears to act as a tour guide is also a curator? By coincidence I’ve recently been reading a book, the title of which goes some way to describing its content – Curationism– How Curating Is Taking Over The Art World And Everything Else by DavidBalzer. The book takes particular aim at the rise of the celebrity curator and I mention it only because it may be of interest.

Denis Lawton’s description of the curriculum as ‘selections of a culture’ seems relevant to Martin’s post. I agree with Martin’s point that selections are not neutral. Selections imply omissions so perhaps ‘gatekeeper’ is apt. However I think not. And here are two reasons - aim and focus.

The gatekeeper’s role as I understand it is to maintain order by allowing entry only to that which is in keeping with what is already present. At the risk of being glib, the best-known gatekeeper in the Western world may be St Peter. His job is to ensure that only those who meet pre-ordained criteria are granted access – heaven is eternal, and I suggest, unchanging.

The curator’s aim is to provide rich content. That content will reflect or perhaps establish a tradition but gallery curators will also attempt to disrupt traditions and put works into conversation with each other. Taken as analogy for the curriculum, this comes close to a quote Martin and I both seem to like – Michael Oakshott’s ‘conversation of mankind’. But how do we establish a rich conversation and not simply what my good friend Jason Buckley (aka The Philosophy Man) terms ‘a distributed monologue’ where the same sentiments are expressed but from different mouths?

The gatekeeper is focused on the space he (for it usually is he) guards. He need not, in fact must not, venture too far but rather waits till approached and then makes his decision –to what extent does the would-be entrant resemble that which is already present. Kafka’s gate may well be open but curricula, conference spaces rarely are. (I was once told I was ‘pushing at an open door’ by a colleague. A year later, they conceded the door wasn’t quite as open as they had first perceived.) I associate gatekeeper with gated communities, which are established usually to keep the Barbarian’s at the gate. Actual gated communities have been described as ‘cognitive shelters’ which limit access to the unusual, the unfamiliar and the markedly different. My sense is that gated communities are actual and metaphorical ‘safe spaces’ – but that as they are established and maintained by the relatively powerful in society, they needn’t declare themselves as such.

The curator also has an eye on the space – assuming there is a space. (We can curate mixtapes and spotify lists, but I don’t think we can gatekeep them.) However the curator is required to be outward focusing and inquisitive for her role is actively seek inclusions not merely wait for them to present themselves for consideration.

I think Martin misunderstands ‘colonial epistemic injustices’ when he asks ‘should the colonial past be ignored?’ – I think what is at stake is not include or ignore but how the selections add to the conversation.  To take a well used example from my own university education, when we study Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ but are not made aware of Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’ we are initiated into an impoverished conversation.

I’m not sure the  ‘don’t complain about hearing jazz at a jazz club analogy’ holds up. My university, UCL describes itself as ‘London’s Global University’ not a ‘European Education University’. The analogy then would be of claiming to be a Music Venue and then only playing jazz, acting as if it was the only genre of music. But even then I’m not sure. A music venue is where I go to experience or perhaps consume music. But isn’t education about something far broader than that? A liberal education is about encountering a rich variety of ways of being and of developing autonomy to make educated choices isn’t it? Martin’s notion of Eurocentric education seems rather parochial by comparison and seems to be justified by a cultural relativism that I’m pretty sure he does not usually favour.

Martin ends by suggesting “set up alternative curricula, telling alternative stories and become a gatekeeper yourself.” I’m pretty sure he’s aware of the rich tradition of these very things in this country. But again, I would argue that whilst we can become curators ourselves, in order to become gatekeepers we must have authority over ‘a space’ of some kind. Which returns us to questions of who is gatekeeping which space and how does this relate to history and power.

'Gatekeeper' by Eska. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

My Notes from 'Reaching Out' 5

Thought I'd post my notes for the Listen Closely segment on the Reaching Out show I do with UK Hip-Hop legend Ty on Soho Radio.

Click here for a link to the show.

Listen Closely – Microphone Fiend, Eric B and Rakim

I’m going to focus mostly on Rakim.

In 2012, The Source ranked Rakim #1 on their list of the 'Top 50 Lyricists of All Time

In 1987 Rakim announced himself with Eric B for President. Three things about that record:

1.     Rakim’s flow – “I can swing on anything even the string of a harp”
Jazz – Theolonius Monk
2.     His delivery – Recorded sitting down, Marley Marl & Shan tried to persuade him to put more effort into it. (EPMD accused of biting his style)
3.     The break – Funky President and the start of a period in hip-hop where just about every song was based around a James Brown break. To quote DaddiO from Stetsasonic: “Tell the truth James Brown was old, till Eric & Ra came up with I got Soul”

On that song on the first album, Paid in Full,
The dismount of the first verse is one of the most quotable lyrics in Hip-hop:

I start to think and then I sink into the paper
Like I was ink,
When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the lines
I escape when I finish the rhyme
I got Soul

·      The writing/creative process
·      Contained & liberated by writing – (A theme in Microphone Fiend)
·      Mos Def & Talib Kweli quote this

First Mention of Rakim as a  ‘microphone fiend’ appears on this song:
The dismount of the 2nd verse:

I drip steam
Like a microphone fiend
Eager to MC is my theme
I get hype when I hear a drum roll
Rakim is on the mic
And you know I got soul.

Microphone fiend – My Melody verse 2
So what I’m a microphone fiend, addicted soon as I sing


Microphone Fiend - Eric B and Rakim
(Song covered by Rage Against the Machine and Fun Lovin Criminals)

Rappers rapping about drugs is not a particularly rare angle. Ice-T’s I’m Your Pusher, Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments are just 2 examples. But in both cases the MC is literally or metaphorically the dealer, pushing dope product whilst remaining in control of the situation – “Don’t Get High off Your Own Supply” as Biggie reminds us. Microphone Fiend is something very different – the MC has “gotta habit” and fiends “for a microphone like heroin”.

Musically the song is sparse. As was more common in 1988, the song barely has a hook. It’s made great by the rapping. The break comes from Dundee’s finest funk band, The Average White Band’s School Boy Crush, perhaps explains the opening bars?

“I was a fiend before I became a teen,
I melted microphones, Instead of cones of ice-cream
Music orientated so when Hip-Hop was originated
Fitted like pieces of puzzle –complicated.”

This combines a few of Rakim’s favourite themes – Firstly, his identity as an MC. We have the idea of being an MC as a calling, a craving, an addiction that has to be fed – and one that starts in childhood. Names for his MC identity include the microphonist, the microphone soloist. In his hand the mic becomes a musical instrument.

The “music orientated” presumably refers to the fact that Rakim came from a musical family, his aunt being singer Ruth Brown.. As he says “It’s inherited, it runs in the family.” So Hip-Hop’s emergence came at a perfect time for him.

But I think thatFitted like Pieces of puzzle, complicated”  might also refer to the writing process. Constructing a verse so all the pieces fit. Rakim is the best rapper rapping about rapping.

Even if driven by a craving, the MC is a craftsman, putting pieces together:
“I’m raging, ripping up the stage and
Don’t it sound amazing
Cause every rhyme is made and
Thought of, Cuz it’s sort of an addiction”

Rakim is the best rapper rapping about rapping. He wants to ‘move the crowd’ but he also wants the crowd to appreciate the effort and skill that has gone into the construction of the rhyme.

There’s an intensity to the music, to Rakim’s delivery and within the lyrics. For example,  'Cool cos I don’t get upset, I kick a hole in the speakers, pull the plug then I jet'. These always struck me as more intense, more unnerving than a lot of rappers shouting about what they do. As Rakim puts it “The thrill of suspense is intense you’re horrified, But this ain’t the cinema or “Tales of the Darkside”. In his stillness, his monotone delivery and his lyrical intensity, Rakim for me was always realer, (and even more threatening) than say NWA.

The sudden explosion from order to chaos – from cool to kicking a hole in the speaker. From chilling to needing to write, to needing to perform. And I’d say this an intensity well illustrated through the metaphor of addiction .

I think he’s names the shift in the status of the MC  (who at this point is still named after the DJ remember) when he says:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to see
A pastime hobby about to be to
Taken to the maximum…”

Rakim raised expectations of what an MC could do – and as he did so, he pointed out that was doing so.

Eric B and Rakim - Microphone Fiend