Who’s in a name?

I recently saw a reference to Joseph Lancaster and remembered that there used to be a Southwark primary school named after him. I realised that I did not know who he was although I was aware that the school no longer exists as, in an amalgamation with Geoffrey Chaucer secondary school, it was subsumed into what is now Globe Academy.

So, who was Joseph Lancaster and what was his local connection? He was born in Southwark in 1778. In 1801 he founded an elementary school for the poor. As it was free to attend he found it difficult to pay teachers and used a monitorial system where older children, trained by a teacher, taught younger ones. There doesn’t appear to be a full biography but the British Schools Museum has this interesting information about him and his beliefs https://britishschoolsmuseum.org.uk/discover/joseph-lancaster/. He was clearly responsible for many children receiving an education who would not otherwise have done so.

Joseph Lancaster was not the only Southwark primary school named after a significant local individual where this recognition has been lost due to educational and political changes. There used to be an Eveline Lowe Primary School near the Old Kent Road. It’s now the Phoenix School, an appropriate name in one respect as it was ‘fresh-started’ in 2012, but also sad as few Southwark schools have been named after women. When it still had its previous name, I once asked a teacher there if he knew who Eveline Lowe was and he had no idea. At that time neither did I and, upon investigation, she turned out to be someone who deserves to be better known. Eveline Lowe was the first woman chair of London County Council 1939-1940. She was born in Rotherhithe, trained and worked as a teacher in Cambridge, moving back to Southwark when her husband joined the Bermondsey medical practice run by Alfred Salter. Along with Ada and Alfred Salter she founded the Bermondsey branch of the Independent Labour Party and represented Bermondsey West on the LCC and chaired the council’s education committee 1934-37. Alfred Salter is remembered in the name of a school founded in Rotherhithe in 1995. It’s clear from the school’s website https://www.alfredsalter.com/339/latest-blogs/post/152/alfred-salters-birthday that pupils are made aware of who he and his wife Ada were. There is public recognition of their achievements, including the riverside statues of them and their daughter (and their cat!), the Ada Salter Garden that graces Southwark Park, Graham Taylor’s biography Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism and a play by Lynn Morris Red Flag Over Bermondsey

There are several Southwark primary schools named after people, with writers especially to the fore: Robert Browning, Oliver Goldsmith, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, John Donne, John Keats. Robert Browning was born in Camberwell in 1812. The school named after him first opened as King and Queen Street School in Walworth in 1883, before changing its name in 1933. Art critic and philosopher John Ruskin lived at 163 Denmark Hill, Camberwell, for a large portion of his life in the mid nineteenth century. Charles Dickens’ connections with Southwark are too many to expand on here but one is that he took lodgings in Lant Street, the location until recently (and still close by) of the primary school named after him, while his father was in Marshalsea Prison. While John Donne was born in London and Oliver Goldsmith lived his later life there, I haven’t yet found that either of them had any specific connection to anywhere in what is now the borough of Southwark or more particularly to Peckham where there are schools named after them. The same does not apply to John Keats who is commemorated in the name of a new school opened in Rotherhithe in 2018. Keats was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital where there is a statue of him.

Staying with science, Michael Faraday Primary School, which underwent an award-winning redesign and rebuild in 2010, is named for the pioneering scientist who was largely self-educated and was born in nearby Newington Butts in 1791. 

There are two schools named after women. Charlotte Sharman was born in Southwark in 1832 and ran orphanages for girls, one of which was in West Square where the school is located. Judith Kerr, much loved author and illustrator of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the Mog stories and the trilogy that began with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, based on her own experiences as a World War 2 refugee from Germany, was the patron of the bilingual school named after her in Herne Hill that opened in 2013. Judith lived in Barnes but the naming of the school is clearly connected to her bilingualism rather than her having a local connection.

It seems that it’s mainly primary schools that get named after individuals although in my memory there were secondary schools in Southwark named after Geoffrey Chaucer, William Penn and Scott Lidgett which have closed or were reinvented under new names.

I’ve found it fascinating finding out about this aspect of the history of Southwark’s education and I plan to dig deeper.

Currently reading:

Square Haunting. Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

The Chequer-Board by Sybil Marshall

Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Musical Truth. A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs by Jeffrey Boakye

Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland by Lisa Schneidau

Jacqueline Woodson – why are her books not available to children in the UK?

Last year I wrote a blogpost for the IBBY UK website https://www.ibby.org.uk/jacqueline-woodson/ expressing astonishment that children’s books by African American author Jacqueline Woodson are not published in the UK. She had just won the Hans Christian Andersen Author Medal and had previously received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – the two most prestigious international awards for children’s literature. I was especially concerned that a UK edition of her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming had been cancelled and, having looked into this again, according to the Waterstones website, it has been ‘abandoned’. The publisher’s own website still states a publication date of April 2020 – a year ago.

I recently dug out an article I wrote many years ago for the Booktrust website (I’ve worked out that I must have written it some time between 2004 and 2008) entitled ‘Reading Our World: Multicultural books’, in which I said the following:

‘in this modern business world, children’s books go out of print very quickly if they don’t immediately establish a market. It takes time for teachers and parents to get to know about a book. What is new to teachers is often last year’s news for publishers, with the current strong emphasis on promoting the frontlist to the detriment of some very strong backlists. This applies to most titles, but it often seems to me, as a librarian recommending books to and compiling booklists for teachers and parents, that books by black and ethnic minority authors seem to go out of print disproportionately quickly. 

This was brought home to me last year by the following example. (I won’t mention the name of the publisher as I don’t want to single them out for criticism. This is a problem shared by all the large corporate publishers.) A book by an African American author was admired by some of the advisory teachers I work with and they wanted to buy several copies to include in a project. We also wanted to add it to the updated edition of our published CLPE Core Booklist. The book had been available in its UK edition for less than a year. When I placed an order, I was astonished to discover that this book was already out of print, having had nowhere near sufficient opportunity to become known among potential readers. I contacted the publisher to express my dismay. They were apologetic but said that the book had not sold well enough.

Although I did not say this at the time – the author I was referring to was Jacqueline Woodson and the book was her verse novel Locomotion. I remain completely mystified as to why her children’s and YA books are not published in the UK as I’m certain that Brown Girl Dreaming in particular would find an audience with adults as well as children. 

Message in a plastic bottle

Concern about the environment and climate change has resulted in a burgeoning of children’s books relating to these. Are they all worth the paper they’re printed on? Many focus on individual responsibility and what can be done at a local level – clean up the beach; reduce, reuse, recycle etc but don’t necessarily tackle the wider political issues. There are some great picture books about how getting rid of plastic in the oceans and on the seashore demonstrate that everyone can play a part in protecting sea and shore and the wildlife that inhabits them. These include Clean Up! by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola and Fiona Lumbers’ Clem and Crab which put across the message ‘Lots of small actions added together can make a big difference.’ 

When Greta Thunberg says ‘No-one is too small to make a difference’ she’s talking about protest and ‘speaking truth to power’ not just about the differences that we can make in our lifestyles, important though these conscious actions are. Unless there is political change on a global scale, the small local actions won’t be enough to save the planet. Understanding who and what are causing climate change is vital. At what point do we make children aware of this in the literature created for their consumption? For children in many parts of the world – for example, where there there has been frequent severe flooding or forest fires, they will already be aware in their own lives. 

There are some recent books that raise awareness and take that further step of encouraging activism, for example Naomi Klein’s How to Change Everything. The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other in which she says: ‘kids are often taught about environmentalism not in terms of how whole industries and economic systems cause climate change but in terms of things individuals can do, such as recycling and riding a bike instead of driving a car. These actions are important, and we all need to do our part. But unless they are combined with bigger changes, they won’t really rock business’s boat – and therefore they won’t make a significant impact on climate change.’

It’s necessary to make children and young people feel empowered by gaining understanding and the wide-ranging subject of the environment in children’s literature is something I’m sure I’ll be returning to in future blogposts.

Currently reading:

The Gifts of Reading inspired by Robert Macfarlane, curated by Jennie Orchard

We Played with Fire by Catherine Barter

Step Sister by Jennifer Donnelly

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Antonia Lloyd-Jones

First post

Welcome to my blog in which I’ll mainly be exploring my slan(n)t on aspects of children’s books, making links between them and other things that interest me including history, politics, cultural diversity, the environment, film, feminism. I may go off at a tan(n)gent about other things too!

After around 40 years working as a librarian with children and their teachers and carers, most of that time at Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, I’m about to retire but the world of children’s books is an eternally fascinating one. There are many themes I’m looking forward to exploring so expect future blogs to be on topics such as: 

  • Books about the environment for children and activism
  • Feminist fairy tales
  • Chinese characters in current children’s fiction
  • The representation of Arabs in children’s literature (my MA dissertation subject 15 years ago in which there have been developments)
  • The women’s suffrage movement 

You can follow me on Twitter @annlazim

In one of life’s serendipitous moments, as I finished writing the above, the doorbell rang and outside was a package with a selection of pre-publication proofs from Macmillan Children’s Books, including some that look like they will relate to some of the topics I’ve mentioned. One of them was Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight, accompanied by a letter from the author which begins with a quote from Emily Dickinson ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’ which is a good reminder to me to say that it was another of her poems ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ that inspired the name for my blog. I like the fact that ‘telling it slant’ could have a variety of interpretations. Thanks to my son, Haroun, for the suggestion of incorporating my name into the title!

Currently reading:

Red Stars by Davide Morosinotto, translated from Italian by Denise Muir

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Sisterhood and After by Margaretta Jolly

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew

At the top of the waiting to be read pile:

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (graphic novel)