I read somewhere recently that Australian parents don’t read to their children much any more. I don’t know if this is true. I guess it’s not surprising; the world has changed a lot since I was a child, when my mother read to me every night. Not only are there fewer stay-at-home parents, there is a lot of competition from technology. At the supermarket the other day I saw a toddler in a stroller watching cartoons on his i-pad.
AM was lucky to have lots of people read to him. Me, his Uncle Mark, my mum, friends who looked after him. For some reason Winnie the Pooh came up at work the other day and one of my work colleagues was astonished that I remembered the entire plot for the story we were talking about. “Well”, I said, “I’m a parent. I’ve read it over and over” ( the original not Disney version). Then I burst into verse from another of AM’s favourite picture books when he was tiny, just to prove the point that there are some things you never forget.
Reading to children — making the silly noises and funny voices, enjoying the rhythms of the language, can be a great pleasure for everyone involved, although even the best books can wear thin after dozens (hundreds?) of repetitions.
AM was also lucky to have his father tell him some traditional Ghanaian stories, because otherwise there wouldn’t have been a lot of African culture in the stories he heard, let alone any Black people. Finding books that reflect the lives of children of colour in any way at all was a challenge in the mid-90s when he was small, and it is still a challenge now.
Last week I did a quick browse through the children’s shelves of a couple of local bookstores (one a chain, the other independent), and — with the welcome exception of a couple of stories featuring Aboriginal children, and Anh Doh’s The Little Refugee — neither had any picture books with non-white main characters, although the independent store did have several which featured diverse groups of children (the backing chorus for the white characters).
Considering that people of Asian ancestry are now over 12% of the Australian population, it seems ludicrous, even shameful, that The Little Refugee was the only book with an Asian main character. And with over a quarter of Australians born overseas, and a further 20% with a parent from overseas, you’d think that generally, kids books would reflect that diversity. Well, obviously that’s wishful thinking.
I’ve written often on this blog about the importance of representation — of TV, film, books and toys that represent the diversity of our society — so that children can see their own stories, hear the voices of their own people, feel represented and included, have role models and inspirations.
I won’t go on about it any more here, take it as given. If you need convincing, read the story of this Latina blogger.
I think it’s also important that this diversity is represented as real and contemporary. Folklore is important, stories about traditional lifestyles can be interesting and valuable, but if that’s the only kind of book there is that features children of colour … well, it’s kind of weird. Imagine if all the stories about white children featured Akubra hats, barbecues and kangaroos … see what I mean?
Yes, Indian children might observe Diwali, and Chinese children set off firecrackers at new year, but they also play with their friends, have adventures and daydreams, love their families, fight with their siblings … all the ordinary things that are the stuff of stories that children really love to hear.
The best stories combine both culture and a great plot. AM’s favourite books when he was around 3-4 were Dick Roughsey and Percy Tresize’s retelling of Aboriginal dreamtime stories from Cape York. I suspect this was because monsters and giant goannas featured heavily. Here’s a sample.
I nearly called this post ‘books for brown babies’, but almost immediately changed my mind because it’s not just ‘brown’ babies who need their reality represented. It’s also important for white children to have black, brown and Asian dolls, and read books that feature Asian, Black, Muslim, Aboriginal children — like the children that they are friends with at pre-school, or play with in the park.
As a parent, you have to work quite hard to ensure your children have diverse books and toys — that’s why I’ve shared a few from our collection at left, to help other parents and carers fill the void.
It’s a bit easier now, than it was 17 years ago, because these days it’s easy to buy books online, and African Americans in particular have produced a lot of books that could be suitable for African Aussie babies.
I’m keen to check out I Love My Hair! and Please, Baby, Please (by film maker Spike Lee), although with no babies in our family right now, I may have to buy them for the toy & book resource kit that Australian African Network has just received funding to establish.
Have you some treasured picture books in your family that feature not just African heritage children, but children of all different backgrounds? I’d love to hear about them, so please add them in the comments below before you leave.