paolo put the kettle on

My three year old is aching to read and as the time fast approaches I’ve been worried, rather than pleased. Below is an extract from an article I wrote last year for a parenting rag which fairly describes my anxiety:

As a young child I was always highly suspicious of fairy-tales. Not because I knew they were fantasy but because I realised, at least on some level, that the outcomes and insinuations of many of them had negative implications for me. I was the child of a Jamaican-born father and Guyanese mother, and fairy-tale heroines had golden locks and skin as white as snow. I didn’t look like Snow-white or Cinderella, but didn’t consider myself an Ugly Duckling, and certainly wasn’t about to go through a hundred year slumber waiting for my prince or pucker up anywhere near a toad. And never in a million years would I have stood for being loaned to a beast in order to repay family debt, or being forced into slavery by an evil step-mother.

I could never understand (and still don’t), why the little Mermaid changed who she was for ‘love’. It seemed to me that in fairy-tale land, in order to finally live happily ever after, young women must first be preyed upon by witches and wolves, sit biding their time until a young man got his act together enough to organize a rescue party or be forced into servitude by the mistakes, sins or failures of their parents and trust in fate for a happy and speedy resolution.

…In the way of role models for my son, there was Georgie Porgie (Pudding and Pie), who in the adult world, beyond the age of criminal responsibility, would almost certainly have been charged with sexual assault. And not only were his advances unsolicited and traumatic (the girls cried when he kissed them), but he was also too much of a coward to accept the consequences of his actions (he ran away). Next there was Peter (Pumpkin Eater), who was not only expected to ‘keep’ his wife but in the end put her in a pumpkin shell’ in order to do so, which smacked of false detainment.

…I listened, mortified, as my son was introduced to animal cruelty (the four and twenty blackbirds were baked alive in a pie and not only were the three mice too blind to see where they were running, but they were also savagely butchered for it), and gender stereotypes (Polly is the one who puts the kettle on and little Miss Muffet is frightened of spiders). I began to wonder about the Grand old Duke of York, who marched his army of ten thousand men up and down aimlessly, presumably passing time until a war broke out, instead of disbanding them to go and spend time with their families or do something else constructive…

My concern about nursery rhymes reinforcing outdated societal prejudices was re-ignited several months later, when a family friend innocently gave my son the present of a beautiful designer bib with the words ‘eeenie, meenie, miney , mo’ embroidered beautifully around the edges over and over (the second line of the original nursery rhyme being ‘catch a nigger by the toe’)…I cringed almost audibly as the present was fastened around his neck and admired by all.

It’s with great joy that I’ve now managed to stock up my library of ‘ethnically diverse’ children’s books, including:

Goldilocks & The Three Bears

Illustrated by John Kurtz
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books For Children 2004

This Goldilocks is a cutesy little African American girl with shiny gold beads on the end of her corn-row braids who runs into strife for capitalising on her cuteness and running away from her chores. “Goldilocks had the face of an angel but she was also a rascal. She often misbehaved, but because she was so cute, people always forgave her…”

Jack & The Beanstalk

Illustrated by John Kurtz
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books For Children, 2004

The writing in this is at times jarred, and possibly a pitch above the audience, but the illustrations by far compensate for this. Jack is a good-for-nothing, but handsome-as-Denzel dreadlocked rasta boy from a single parent household who, of course, comes good in the end.

Up Home

Artwork by Susan Tooke, Written by Shauntay Grant
Nimbus Publishing 2008

“…long hot days of summer layin’ on grass suckin on freezies… I remember Mom tellin’ me ‘bout when she was young and how they had licorice and penny candy and how she was the fastest tree-climber down the street and couldn’t nobody touch her!” This beautiful book is by a poet friend of mine from Halifax. It’s a poem of hers aptly turned into a rhythmic children’s tale, with some interesting facts about black migration to Canada in the back. Tooke’s illustrations of the Black Canadian community at church, at market, picking blueberries and hard at everyday life are amazing.

So Much

Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, Written By Trish Cooke
Walker Books 1994

A cheeky tale of urban Afro-Caribbean home-life unravels as baby and his Mama wait for the whole family to arrive for Dadda’s birthday party. Illustrator Helen Oxenbury has once again turned her hand to a challenge and perfected a bouncy, happy tale with her stunning illustrations.“Nannie and Gran Gran came inside with their handbags cock up to one side and their brolly hook up their sleeve. ‘Yoooohoooo! Yoooo hoooo!’ they said”

El Nino Gigante (The Giant Child)

Illustrated by Carme Sole
Jacaranda Press 1978

How lucky I was to stumble on a falling-apart copy of this book in a second hand store in Fitzroy. The book, with awesome ’70’s illustrations, is from a series based on the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. A lost giant child stumbles into a village. The villagers feed him and he eats so much that, not believing him when he says he is only a child, they put him to work in the fields. The village children start helping him with his work every day and soon they are so tired and ill they can’t concentrate on school work and have no time to play…track the book down for the ending.

Now we’re off to learn some more letters…first El Nino Gigante, then Overland.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

More by Maxine Beneba Clarke ›

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  1. I just stumbled across a friend of El Nino Gigante — El Serpento Gigante.

    “Fossils from northeastern Colombia reveal the biggest snake ever discovered: a behemoth that stretched 42 to 45 feet long, reaching more than 2,500 pounds.

    “This thing weighs more than a bison and is longer than a city bus,” enthused snake expert Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was familiar with the find.

    “It could easily eat something the size of a cow. A human would just be toast immediately.”

    But I’ve got a serious question, too. A while back, I linked ( to a NYT review of a book on the history of left-wing children’s literature. One of the things it showed was how seriously the American Left had taken the issue. But, as well as the many interesting books they discussed, there was a fair smattering of pure didacticism — stories that might have had the correct political line but were, one imagines, entirely unreadable.
    Anyway, it made me wonder about how exactly the question of kids reading should be approached. For instance, in the Dawkins atheist book, he’s got a whole argument about why teaching kids religion is a form of child abuse, basically cos you’re foisting ideas upon them that about which they’re not equipped to make their own judgements. I can see that up to a point, I suppose, but I’m not sure how far I’d want to apply it, since kids are gonna pick up ideas from somewhere — you can’t exactly keep them a blank slate.
    Anyway, this is a bit of mad ramble but I owndered what you thought.

  2. I reckon the ‘forcing them to make a judgement’ is the issue. Teaching kids ABOUT ‘religion’ is different from teaching kids RELIGION. The former doesn’t have to be about asking them to make a choice. For example, my son knows that some people believe in God, some in Buddha, some are Rastafarians and some just believe in cultivating and harnessing the inherent ‘goodness’ of human beings, but has not been given terrifying specifics or asked to ‘choose’ what he believes. He’s volunteered that he believes in ‘lollies, library time and pasting things’ but that might change with time (and of course, when he is old enough, he can use his own good judgement to choose between ‘getting religion’ and me disowning him).

    But seriously, I reckon reading is the same. The problem is that exposure only to mainstream ‘Western’ kids reading doesn’t give varied information which encourages kids to make their own varying conclusions. For example. By reading Goldilocks, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel or those ‘Angelina Ballerina’ mouse books, the conclusion to be made is that girls like pretty dresses and pink, have long hair and get to do things like picking pretty flowers, dancing at balls and cleaning up after dwarfs or beasts. Stepmothers, meanwhile, are old evil hags out to kill you, while your Dad is admirable and noble, even as he sells you out into slavery or sends you out into the deep dark woods.

    When asked ‘Which Goldilocks would you like to read today?’ (the traditional version or the one listed in my blog entryabove), his choice varies, but he now knows there IS a choice, and that one of them validates his own reality.

    You’re right though, ONLY left literature (or only black literature for that matter) could have exactly the same impact I guess.

    And of course, if your’e like me, you can go crazy with all this stuff. There are some great books about non-traditional families available at

    Interestingly enough, parents go insane with complaints about non-traditional literature. When I published my article in a mainstream national parenting paper the letters section became very busy indeed…

    I’m going to get off this box now, the soap is getting slippery…

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