Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Green Knowe Books & Multiculturalism in Children's Literature

Recently while listening to WNYC, I heard a segment about the lack of diversity in children's literature. While the US's population is becoming more diverse, it is apparently not reflected in children's books. Lucy Maria Boston was a head of the curve since four of the Green Knowe books could be regarded as multicultural since they contain not only Asian and African main characters but also a physically disabled character and deal with the issues of slavery and exile due to war.

Ping, a young refugee from Burma, is the main human character in A Stranger at Greene Knowe and a supporting character in The River at Green Knowe and An Enemy at Green Knowe. Ping has spent most of his life in a hostel for displaced children and goes to stay at Green Knowe during his summer holiday. He is eventually asked by Mrs. Oldknow to live with her and Tolly at Green Knowe. His experiences as a homeless child trapped in the grey world of the London home cause him to appreciate not only the natural world around the house but also to empathize with the escaped gorilla, Hanno. Boston wanted to dedicate Stranger to a gorilla keeper that she knew but was forbidden to do so by the zoo since it portrayed captivity for animals as cruel and harmful to the animal. When Green Knowe is under siege from evil in Enemy, Ping calls back Hanno with a traditional prayer to help save the house.

Jacob, in Treasure at Green Knowe, is bought as a child in a slave auction by Captain Oldknowe as a companion for the Captain's blind daughter, Susan. Susan's mother is uninterested in Susan since she views her as an unmarriageable burden. Susan's blindness puts her outside of the normal constraints for an upper-class girl so she can spend her time climbing trees with Jacob and learning how to write with him and their tutor Jonathan. Susan's brother Sefton views Jacob as less than human, buying him clothes patterned on those of an organ-grinder's monkey. Both Jacob and Susan rely on each other to navigate the rules of a society that views them as worthless because of their respective race and disability. They work together to educate themselves and lead successful adult lives despite their differences in race, sex, and station.

Despite the fifty or so years since they were written, the books still hold up due to the quality of the writing, the strong characterizations, and the universal themes. They are well-worth being placed on any reading list, multicultural or not. Good children's books should be read whether or not they are written by US authors.