- Writing to Feel Rooted:An Interview with British Children's Literature Innovator Catherine Johnson
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Catherine Johnson is a bestselling British author of books for children and young adults, and a writer for film, television, and radio. Born in London, in 1962, to a Welsh mother and Jamaican father, Catherine grew up in a time where mixed-heritage families were still uncommon, even in multicultural London. Her parents were clearly influential on Catherine's creative path: she describes them as "very good storytellers" (Johnson) and her primary school ambition was to become a writer. She hated secondary school, and while her ambitions shifted away from writing during that period, they eventually reemerged rather triumphantly later in her life. Her love of history was stimulated by television rather than books: as she explains in this interview, she spent many a Sunday afternoon in her childhood watching costume drama serials, such as adaptations of Leon Garfield's stories.1 Catherine is now one of the UK's most important chroniclers of underrepresented voices in history.
One of the reasons Catherine started to write historical novels was because there were no characters like her in the stories she read, and although her characters are fictional, they are based on true stories and people. For example, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (2015) is based on the true story of Mary Willcocks, an impoverished, young woman who posed as the fictional Princess Caraboo from Javasu, a nonexistent island, fooling an entire town for months in the nineteenth century. In Catherine's book, it is a local, wealthy family that mistakes the main character for a princess because they are fascinated by her otherness. The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo is an insightful exploration of exoticism, racism, and white privilege, and is a must read for everyone. It was nominated for the prestigious Carnegie Medal and the YA Book Prize in 2016.
In addition to writing Lady Caraboo, and being an accomplished screenwriter, Johnson has written many other books for children and young adults: Landlocked (1999); Stella (2002); The Dying Game (2007); A Nest of Vipers (2008); Con Men (2009); The Nightmare Card (2011); Brave New Girl (2011); Sawbones (2013), which won the Young Quills Award for Historical Fiction; Blade and Bone (2016); Race to the Frozen North (2018); and Freedom (2018). Johnson also works closely with schools and was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the London Institute, Writer in Residence at Holloway Prison, and Reader in Residence at the Royal Festival Hall's Imagine Children's Literature Festival. She also mentors African writers for the British Council and is currently working on an adaptation of Miranda Kaufmann's Black Tudors for Silverprint Pictures.
Johnson has been a prominent supporter of underrepresented authors and making the histories of socially marginalized people, particularly Black British history, more visible. It is, according to Johnson, particularly pertinent to reevaluate Britain's history today: in a time where the far right is on the [End Page 130] rise across the world and there is a hostile environment toward old and new immigrants. In the UK, what it means to be "British" is in constant flux and "Britishness" is contingent. We only need to look at the Windrush scandal—where members of the Windrush generation (many of whom were born British subjects), who were encouraged to come to the UK, post–WWII, from Commonwealth countries (particularly from the Caribbean) to help with shortages in the labor market, were wrongly detained, threatened with deportation, and (in eighty-three cases) deported in 2018—to see that national identity in the UK needs an overhaul (Rawlinson). Black people, and other people of color, have been in (and part of) the UK for centuries and the failure to acknowledge this, despite historical evidence, is, according to historian David Olusoga, "not just a symptom of racism, it is a form of racism. It is part of a rearguard and increasingly unsustainable defence of a fantasy monochrome version of British history."
As we know, the canon of fiction (both historic and contemporary) has traditionally been very one...