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What is on our Bookshelves - an opinion piece by author Miriam Halahmy

Posted By Jacob Hope, 18 September 2018
Updated: 18 September 2018

 

At the Youth Libraries Group Conference, Miriam Halahmy will be speaking on a panel with Candy Gourlay in discussion with Chloe Germaine Buckley from Manchester Metropolitan University talking about unconscious bias, cultural appropriation and colonial influences in children's literature and collections of these.  Here Miriam talks about her time as Head of Special Needs at a school in Camden.

 

In 1981 I was Head of Special Needs in a Camden secondary school and The Rampton Report on the education of children from ethnic minorities was published. The recommendations of that report had a huge impact. Our school had many children of Asian and African Caribbean descent as well as many other cultural backgrounds. As a staff we were concerned to promote a multicultural society and the classroom as a microcosm of that society.

 

One of Rampton’s recommendations was that teachers review all books and materials and assess them for appropriateness in today’s multicultural society. I remember so well the day I went back to my classroom, looked through my tiny library and threw away those books which presented a negative view of children from a different culture.  It was a painful process as we had no money to replace them but there was no way I would have left such books on my shelves anymore.

 

A recent report stated that only 1% of children’s books have a BAME main character and only 4% have any BAME characters. Is that because we threw our books away 30 years ago?

 

No, of course not.

 

But our work embracing the multicultural society – valuing each child and the cultural background they brought with them, displaying world maps to showing where everyone came from, etc,  – often feels today as though it is being ridiculed. There are claims that the multicultural concept of society has undermined our Britishness.

 

Rubbish! is my answer. We were the bedrock of creating a more tolerant society and it seems the job has hardly begun in the world of children’s books. I would urge anyone providing books to children and young people to scan carefully through your collections as we did and literally throw out the less enlightened books and materials.

 

Meanwhile my job as a writer is to ensure that all characters in my books represent the multicultural world I come from, have lived in and worked in all my life. But then I have always found that quite a natural part of my writing.

 

Miriam Halahmy

www.miriamhalahmy.com

Tags:  collections  conference  Diversity  libraries  reading  representation 

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The Back Story of Riding a Donkey Backwards

Posted By Jacob Hope, 14 September 2018

Children’s author Sean Taylor will be appearing, with Eleanor Martin of Khayaal Theatre, at the YLG Conference in September. Here he introduces RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS – wise and foolish tales of Mulla Nasruddin, a collection of traditional Islamic tales, full of riddles, humour and wisdom.

 

You’ll have to excuse me. This is a story that is likely to offend you…

 

At a wedding, a few months ago, I got into a conversation with a young man who sees the world very differently to me. His hero is Jacob Rees-Mogg. The young man said, “Do you want to know what I think about burqas? People are surprised that I have nothing against Muslim women wearing them. In fact, I’m all in favour of burqas…for ugly people. Do you agree with that?”

 

I told him I didn’t agree. The young man was slightly apologetic for his arrogant ‘joke’. “Sorry. I’m just being facetious…” he told me. But I didn’t leave it at that. I asked, “What’s behind what you’ve just said? What do you actually think about Muslims and their beliefs?” He said, “I’m really not bothered by them. But Islam, as a religion, always takes itself far too seriously. And I can’t stand people who can’t laugh at themselves.” I asked, “Have you ever heard of Mulla Nasruddin?”

 

Nasruddin is the hero of our book, RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS. It was a collaborative writing project, with Khayaal Theatre, several years in the making. And it came about as a direct result of a terror attack. (You can find the full story here: http://www.minervareads.com/riding-a-donkey-backwards/ )

 

In the introduction to our book, we say: He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh… If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!

 

That last sentence feels key to what’s special about Nasruddin stories, and also key to what made us want to put together a collection of these stories for young readers. Human beings love having their thinking ‘spun around’. It’s one of the commonest forms of humour . (A boy tells his father, “Dad, there’s an invisible man at the door.” His father says, “Tell him I can’t see him at the moment.”) The 21 Nasruddin tales we retell will get you laughing because they spin your thoughts around. But we wrote them down because we’d like to go beyond that.

 

Islamophobia is a growing problem in the UK and beyond. People are often persuaded that Muslims are aggressive, fanatical and narrow-minded. Co-authors, Khayaal Theatre, have long worked to remind people of the traditions of poetry, wisdom, questioning and humour in Muslim cultures. RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS is a part of that work. We hope that the book itself will do some ‘spinning around’ of people’s thinking. We’d like it to show readers that Islam is not, to quote the young man mentioned above, “a religion, that always takes itself far too seriously.”

 

I sent him a copy, for starters.

Tags:  children's books  dconference  diversity  reading  representation 

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