Looking for diverse characters in children’s historical novels

by Julia Golding

Here’s a challenge for you: list the first five characters from the children’s historical fiction that come to mind. To qualify they have to be in a book about a period not in the lifetime of the author, so historical books that were contemporary to the writer don’t count, like the Little House on the Prairie or Oliver Twist

Done that? 

Here’s my list: Long John Silver from Treasure Island, Mr Tom from Goodnight Mr Tom, Liesel from The Book Thief, Marcus from Eagle of the Ninth, Coriander from I, Coriander.

OK, how many of your characters were girls? How many non-white?

My score is 2 out of 5 and zero.

Not a very scientific test, but it does show that the past has often been imagined as predominantly white and male in western culture. How do you imagine the past in the country where you live right now? If you are in Britain, you might think of it as a story of blue-painted people fighting off the Romans, or Anglo-Saxon farmers looking out to sea, fearing the arrival of Viking dragon ships, or the Norman Invasion told in tapestry form. These are the tales that previous generations were raised on – an ‘us’ against ‘them’ narrative that often excludes, or relegates to a secondary role, women and those from a non-white background.

This is, of course, nonsense. It does a great disservice to the truth. History is a story of continual change. There is no recorded starting point, or original inhabitants. All of our ancestors have been immigrants at one time as homo sapiens have moved out from Africa to cover the globe. The rate wasn’t uniform; people came in smaller events as well as large movements. There are records of Black Romans living in Britain in the 3rd century AD, as well as in Tudor England onwards. Asians came to England at least as early as the 17th century, thanks to trading links with India and elsewhere. Some from even more unusual places (for Britain) arrived in the 18th century thanks to Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, the most famous among them being Omai, pictured here by Reynolds in a robe that says more about the taste of the 18th century public than Omai’s origins. Others flew in under the radar as the result of trading, slavery, seafaring or marriage.

There are three main reasons why the children’s historical fiction was once so skewed to a preponderance of white male heroes. The first is that this was how history was taught in schools. On my shelf I have the works of one of the most famous Victorian commentators, Thomas Carlyle. A book that helped shape nineteenth century thought is called Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841). Carlyle looks at history as a progress from hero as divinity to hero as king. Guess what? There’s not a woman mentioned in the line-up and the only non-white men who get a chapter are those from antiquity.

University teaching moved away from the great men version during the 20th century but it always takes a while for the school curriculum to catch up. I went to school in the 1980s and, though we learned about different approaches (Marxism, Feminism etc.), I don’t recall any lesson on Black history or even much about the Suffragettes. History was the decisions of the powerful, and white men happened to be those in power. The only women allowed in were queens, lovers and the very occasional writer. This isn’t because my teachers were racist or sexist; diversity just didn’t make it into the text books and that was how we were taught in order to pass exams. This has now changed out of all recognition. The idea of what is our island story has been overhauled. No longer is it just invading Vikings and Henry VIII; it is also the Abolition Movement, the fight for women’s rights, and the Windrush generation. The younger generation are much more aware of how history is shaped by historians and that competing narratives exist. The subjects my children have been taught at school give me hope that the default dead white male version has joined the dinosaurs. 

(Indeed, outside the classroom, the big debate over statues as part of the Black Lives Matter movement is doing a great job of public education. I hadn’t even noticed the statue of Cecil Rhodes in my city of Oxford and I’ve lived here since 1995!)

A second (and more difficult to combat) reason for under-representation is the belief of commercially driven publishers that books featuring female or non-white heroes don’t attract a broad audience. I’ve heard this since the start of my career in the form that boys don’t read books with girls as the main character. Harriet Potter wouldn’t have made it off the shelves of ‘books for girls’ and would probably have been given a pink cover with sparkles. One series that seriously challenged this was The Hunger Games but I’m not sure we’ve got past this bias. Boys have to be extra brave to pick up a book with a girl on the cover, whereas girls are given social permission to be omnivores. There is an ingrained idea that a boy’s story is universal whereas a girl’s experience is specific. 

Versions of this argument can be found applied to non-white ethnicities. Looking at the bestselling children’s historical novels of today (Summer 2020), none appear to feature unambiguously black or Asian characters on the cover. Robin Steven’s historical detective series, Murder Most Unladylike, which appears high on the list, does have an Asian Watson figure, Harriet Wong, but the silhouette graphics don’t announce this. If you were looking for her, you’d have to dig a bit deeper to discover her existence.

The third reason is the diversity of the population is not represented in both publishers and among authors. In children’s publishing, women are very present (in fact, men are seriously under-represented) at editorial level but the same is not true of minorities. I can guess the reasons but I’ll leave it to a publisher to explain why this is so. Happily, I know people making a deliberate effort to nurture new writers from BAME backgrounds so I’m hopeful this will change.  Having more diversity on the acquisition side – senior editors and decision makers – would also help as we don’t know what we don’t know! Stories can be missing because they cannot be understood or imagined by those looking for the next book.

As a historical novelist since 2006, I’ve always aimed for diversity – in fact I rejoice in it and find it a wonderful source of inspiration. The Cat Royal series was where I started as a writer. Set in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1790, the main character is female and her best friend, Pedro, is originally from West Africa. Other important ethnically diverse characters in the series include a slave from Jamaica (Jenny), Native Americans (Kanawha, Little Turtle and Tecumseh), and the leaders of the slave revolt in Haiti – all met as equals and not as the ‘exotic’. That was another part of the plan for my series: to include Black history events that should be better known. The Haitian revolt in the 1790s was the only successful slave revolt in history. Did you know that? Read Black Heart of Jamaica to find out more.

I also seek out the unexpected diversity in the more distant past. The main character of Wolf Cry, a novel about Vikings of the 9th century, is Enno, a North African taken into the Viking world as a result of an historically accurate raid. Captives from the cultured world of the North African coast were brought to the barbarian north and sold as slaves. I came across a reference to this in a history book, along with the fact that black people were called ‘Blue men’ in Viking culture. The process of asking ‘why?’ began the story.

Now I’ve turned to the story of the British Empire in India. I am fascinated by the position of Anglo-Indian children who had a foot in both worlds through mixed parentage – British and Indian – and found no welcome from either culture. Sahira is based on the experience of real children, but her story is expanded to include that of the menagerie in the Tower of London. She is a strong, cultured and compassionate person. Called a savage and ostracised by her enemies, the real savages, of course, are the people who don’t appreciate her and act on their prejudice against ‘the other’.

The Tigers in the Tower is also about tigers, the Tower of London, the Duke of Wellington, early zoos, the East India Company, animal collectors, orphanages, a chest of dresses with a secret lock, and natural selection. With all these themes to choose from, I am delighted that the cover shows a clearly mixed-race girl in Indian clothes charging out of the Tower in the company of two wonderful tigers. So maybe when you next look for a diverse character in children’s historical fiction, she won’t be so hard to find?

The Tigers in the Tower is published by Lion Hudson and available to purchase from all good booksellers from 18th September 2020.

Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG.

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