The way the experiences of children from across the world, including Africa and the Caribbean, are explored in books for children plays a crucial role in helping them to understand the reasons for the movement of people. With their considered and typically optimistic approach, these books can often be a strong antidote to some of the more aggressive media commentaries and the politics they reflect. From fiction, children are able to construct a long term picture of the history of black and immigrant children arriving in the UK and, as they do so, to get a sense of how society has moved on in overcoming prejudice.
In the eighteenth century, any black character in a children’s story would have arrived as a result of forced migration – slavery. Jamila Gavin’s deeply moving Coram Boy is set at this time, and in it a young black boy slave has a cameo role. Although he is not ill-treated (in fact he is rather pampered), the fact that he is not free is intended to shock young readers and, in Jamila Gavin’s capable hands, does so.
From the 1950s onwards the children who arrived in the – to their eyes – drab and dreary England with its colourless countryside and shabby housing were willing migrants. Floella Benjamin was herself a child who made the journey from her home in the Caribbean. In Coming to England, the first part of her memoirs, she gives a vivid first-hand account of making that enormous journey and of what it felt like to be an outsider in such an alien place. The fact that her family had chosen to come had little impact on the prejudice she faced and that she had left a very pleasant life behind made it harder to bear in many ways.
More recently in fiction, the black children who have arrived in the UK have done so to escape political discrimination and violence. Some, such as Femi and Sade in Beverley Naidoo’s excellent The Other Side of Truth, have already experienced violence. It is because they are witnesses to a shocking act of violence in reprisal for their father’s writings that they are sent away from their home in Nigeria. Travelling with a paid escort who abandons them at Victoria station, how the two children cope with the complex difficulties of being refugees without legitimate status depends greatly on how those around them – and especially children – respond to them. Beverley Naidoo’s own values of tolerance and understanding permeate the story and will inspire readers to feel the same.
Kaninda, the child soldier at the centre of Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier, becomes a school child in London after having been first a survivor of genocide and then a trained soldier in the rebel army. But Kaninda soon finds that life in a London school is also dominated by tribal warfare which may turn out to be almost as deadly. Little Soldier gives a moving insight into the initiation into violence and the politics behind it which young children may have experienced.
Christophe, the hero of Niki Cornwell’s Christophe’s Story, has come to the UK from Rwanda as a refugee. Christophe has to learn a new language and try to understand the different ways his new school friends behave, and he feels especially alone as his grandfather has been left behind in their home country. When a well-meaning teacher suggests he writes his story down so that he can share it with his friends, Christophe is faced with profound cultural confusion as, for him, to do so would cause it to lose its power.
Wherever refugee children have come and whatever they may have witnessed or experienced, they have a past that is an important part of them and a factual account such as Gervelie’s Journey: A Refugee Diaryby Anthony Robinson is an excellent and sympathetic way of understanding that.
13 October 2014
What are the best books on immigration and adapting to life in the UK?
Posted on October 14, 2014