Listing The Horse and His Boy as one of the all-time best books for children under 10 sparked an interesting Twitter discussion on racism in C S Lewis’s work.
This got me thinking (never a bad thing). I’d chosen the book because it has all the elements of a great epic. A hero of mysterious parentage, brought up in poverty, needing to flee a fascinating, beautiful but cruel culture, joins forces with a group of companions, including a spirited heroine, to follow an exciting and difficult quest. That the Calormens, from whom Shasta and his friends are escaping, have dark skin has disturbing connotations for present day readers; but to condemn C S Lewis for racism is harsh. He was writing at a different time, with different sensibilities. And it’s significant that the book’s heroine, Aravis, is a Calormen, whose predicament is depicted in equal terms with Shasta’s (he flies from slavery; she, from an enforced marriage, the ‘noble’ equivalent to slavery), culminating in the two of them (*spoiler*, sorry) falling in love and marrying at the end. (For a more in-depth analysis of the race issue in the Chronicles of Narnia go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calormen.)
However things have moved on since the 1950s when C S Lewis was writing. We live in a far more ethnically diverse society and Malorie Blackman is right in arguing that children’s books should reflect this. As she said in an interview with Sky News in August 2014, “a very significant message… goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading.”
This doesn’t mean, in my view, that all children’s books should be about race, but rather that we should get to the point where a character’s skin colour is simply irrelevant. Characters from ethnic minorities should be able to be heroes, villains, mentors, jokey sidekicks – it doesn’t matter. I’m not convinced that the reason ‘there are too many white faces in children’s books’ http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/18/james-dawson-diversity-debate-young-adult-childrens-books is all down to a worry that diverse books don’t sell. Children want a good story, they don’t care what colour the characters are. I think it’s more a wariness on the writers’ side about which characters should be from a minority background; heroes, yes, increasingly, which is good – but villains? Won’t that look like racism?
Antonia, the heroine of my MG book Ante’s Inferno is black. She is bullied mercilessly by Florence, a blonde, blue-eyed white girl, but not for the reason you might think. Children can find all kinds of grounds to be nasty to each other, it doesn’t have to be racism. For Florence it’s a mix of jealousy and a long-held grudge. Moreover, one of Florence’s friends, who naturally backs her up, is black, and Ante longs to be cool like her.
This set-up felt natural to me. If I were writing in the 1950s, all these characters would have been white because that would have reflected children’s experience of the time. Now it’s diverse and that’s right too. People are people, whatever their ethnic background.