Monday, 11 February 2019

Kick The Moon - Muhammad Khan

It's been a long time...

So my last blog was about World Book Day. I've never thought WBD itself is a problem but rather I've pointed out that the practice of dressing up as characters from children's books has the effect of making the lack of Black and Asian characters kids encounter very clear to anyone who is willing to look.

Muhammad Khan's new book, Kick The Moon starts with 'Year 5: World Book Day'. The chapter ends with Ilyas Mian deciding,

"I'm making my own superhero, and he's going to be AMAZING. He'll have light brown skin, love lamb biryani, and pray at the mosque every Friday. he's going to be British and Pakistani. His name will be... PakCore ."

When I met Muhammad last year, he told me that World Book Day idea came from my writing on the subject. This delighted me. I've not yet finished the book but I'm already getting the sense that Muhammad Khan is part of a new generation of Black and Asian heritage writers in the UK who are crafting stories that broaden the reading experience of young readers. Ilyas is bringing PakCore to life - thanks to Muhammad Khan for bringing Ilyas to life.

Below is an interview with Muhammad, conducted via email, about his debut book I Am Thunder.

1.     Did you have concerns about your first book being about religious extremism and terrorism?

Yes I did. I’d been working on a fantasy story featuring a Muslim protagonist when the sad news broke of 3 students from Bethnal Green who were radicalised by ISIS. I was baffled, shocked and hurt. Young people were being duped from all over the world. Islam is my faith and seeing it dragged through the mud was unbearable. I remember my students feeling frustrated because they wanted to discuss what was happening but the Muslim students were afraid they might be misinterpreted and end up in trouble or down at a police station (as some newspapers reported), and my non-Muslim students were afraid their questions would be viewed as insensitive or even racist.

Then came the spike in Islamophobia. It was bad enough having to face it myself but I couldn’t comprehend why random people on public transport would verbally abuse, spit at, or even in one case rip the hijab off one of my students. I felt compelled to speak out, to anonymously bring some of my students’ voices to the table. I hoped writing I Am Thunder might facilitate classroom debate across the country which many felt was stifled by the government’s Prevent Strategy. I always felt religious extremism and terrorism were being looked at as if they existed in a vacuum. Due consideration was not being given to the equally toxic rise of the Far Right and endemic Islamophobia.

2.     It felt to me that you were interested in exploring the idea of a generation gap. Muzna’s parents seem to think of themselves as Pakistani first and foremost, whereas for Muzna being Muslim becomes her point of identification. This seems to echo trends where people who perhaps once identified as ‘Asian’ or Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi often tend to identify in terms of religion. Do you have a view on this?

There was a time when I sought refuge in Islam as an escape from both Pakistani and British cultures. I felt neither one accepted me. My peers would tell me I wasn’t a true Brit unless I supported the wars in the Middle East or went ‘clubbing or pubbing’ with them. My Pakistani relatives would mock me for “acting like a gora” (white person) and thought I was only pretending not to be able to speak Urdu properly. When I went to the mosque, I would meet people from all walks of life and ethnicities, all of us trying to find our way. I found the environment to be incredibly supportive.

Now I’m older, I’m able to navigate and appreciate every aspect of being a British Pakistani Muslim. My identity is my own and I make no apologies for it.

3.     You describe a range of ways of being Muslim in the book. Was this something that you consciously worked at or did it just emerge out of the plot and characters? (On reflection, I’m not sure that that is a clear distinction!)

Right from the start I wanted Muzna to explore what it means to be a British Muslim and for her to encounter a rich tapestry of multiple and intersecting identities. I soon realised I’d given myself an impossible task! Religion is very personal and people have different interpretations and degrees of devotion. Factor in intersectionality and variables such as cultural background, social status and gender, and the task quickly becomes a tangled web. In the end I had to content myself with trying to convey to readers that Muslims are not a homogenous group and Islam does not promote extremism.

4.     I particularly enjoyed the classroom conversations. I felt there was a hopeful theme of solidarity, for instance, the solidarity shown by Muzna and the other students towards their teacher, Mr Dunthorpe, who is gay and out. Is this influenced by your experiences as a teacher or was this based more on how you hoped things would go in the UK?

I’ve always believed the default for children, no matter where they are from, is to be good and kind. I’m not trying to pretend racism, homophobia and Islamophobia don’t exist, but nine times out of ten a child with such views is simply emulating their parents as opposed to expressing a deeply held belief. At my school there was this general sense of camaraderie which I wanted to reflect in Muzna’s world. I am hopeful the next generation will do better. You have to ask yourself: how on earth did we allow such huge race and gender disparities to exist in the workplace in the first place in? It is inexcusable.

I was adamant that if a student in I Am Thunder was going to be unpleasant or bigoted, they should have a reason for it. It wasn’t about making excuses for them but too often I see teenagers in books being portrayed as evil for the sake of it. In my experience this is rarely the case. Tallulah, Sade and Gary all fall into the antagonist category but each one had a backstory for the way they acted. Occasionally even Muzna is shown to be unkind (when she gives Sarabi the proverbial cold shoulder) because none of us is perfect or right all the time. Sometimes I feel people of colour – particularly females - often get judged to a higher standard.

5.     You have written a main character who is female, Asian and Muslim and who fancies boys. Have you read other children’s books that depict a character that fits that description?

No, sadly not. In all honesty, I didn’t think Muslim teenagers dated. I certainly didn’t. But in the last few years I see things changing for some. I knew of four Muslim hijabi girls who had boyfriends: three of them kept it a secret from their parents, one of them was going to get married to him after her A Levels with her parents’ blessings. I definitely feel this is an underrepresented area in YA fiction.

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.