- Getting REIYL:International Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in Youth Literature
We began organizing under the banner of Researchers Exploring Inclusive Youth Literature1 (REIYL) in January of 2018 when two parts of our editorial team for this special issue, B.J. McDaniel and Josh Simpson, joined in conversation about their budding research on justice and equity-focused themes in youth literature. At the time of REIYL's founding, and the publishing of this special issue, B.J. and Josh were doctoral students seeking to collaborate with early career researchers with similar interests at other UK institutions. Those researchers, the eventual community members that helped shape the REIYL conference in August 2019, were scholars similarly situated in programs at universities but the community grew to include librarians, authors, parents, booksellers, and teachers. In those early conversations, the initial action of just connecting with each other, of finding the solidarity and community needed to complete our research, became the impetus for us striving to find a space to share with others and started our journey to build a network that will nurture those potential connections.
At the same time, a concurrent emphasis on increasing ethnic and racial diversity in UK children's literature was building and being championed by emerging voices in publishing and literacy education and context for the historical landscape of publishing in the UK is important to understand the shaping of that movement. The UK has a shorter history of research examining representations of race and ethnicity in youth literature than the United States, as most academic spaces in the UK have only recently begun to openly acknowledge their problems with racism, despite it being woven throughout the history of the UK with its brutal colonial past (see Gilroy, There Ain't no Black, and Hirsch to see how little things have changed in the last thirty years). Racism, in the UK, is often shrouded in a polite mask, manifesting in covert and insidious ways (Hirsch, Eddo-Lodge). However, [End Page v] this is not to say that racism in the UK is indirect: recent YouGov data found, for example, that two-thirds of Black Britons have had a racial slur directed at them and over half of Black Britons said their race/ethnicity had affected their career development (Younge, 2020). In fact, the current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has made a number of racist comments before and during his time as PM, without any repercussions (Bergman, 2020). Clearly, then, prejudice, racism, and discrimination are deeply embedded in British society (Heath and Richards, 2020).
During the British Empire,2 British children's literature began to flourish and be imported across the globe; these books were directed at a white reading audience and often featured, as Chetty and Sands-O'Connor ("Beyond the Secret Garden") note, a plot in which the "white, middle-class Briton gains money/power/status by reclaiming the land." Many of these books, some now considered classics, were replete with stereotypes, racism, and cultural biases (Chetty and Sands-O'Connor, "Classic Literature"). Chetty and Sands-O'Connor continue, "many representations of BAME [Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic] children written by white British authors have been shaped by, and shaped, racial stereotypes" ("Beyond the Secret Garden"), giving high-profile examples such as Enid Blyton and Rudyard Kipling. This type of hegemonic nostalgia is still an important driver of children's books. For example, Enid Blyton's books (despite the racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the original versions)3 are being republished, and fostered across different media, for modern audiences while "best children's books" lists, by prominent authors and commentators, often feature racist books such as Peter Pan and The Jungle Book (Jordan, Rundell).
Attempts to introduce a counter-narrative in British youth literature are relatively recent and were stimulated by the growth in migrant communities and turbulent race relations in the UK. A boom in post-WWII migration from the Britain's Caribbean colonies4 to the UK expanded the need for more representative children's books, which were often produced by the migrants themselves (Serroukh and Sands-O'Connor, "Reflecting"). The 1960s...