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)