Thursday, 17 August 2017

Children's Literature about Refugees : A Catalyst in the Classroom

Those who have read Mary Hoffman's The Colour of Home, illustrated by Karin Littlewood, may recognise the above image. It comes from a double page spread showing the terrifying night when soldiers arrive at young Hassan's house to take his uncle away and the family decide to flee. Any child who has read this book will probably remember Hassan being distraught at having to leave his cat Musa behind... as well as much else.

In her recently published Children's Literature about Refugees: A Catalyst in the Classroom, Dr Julia Hope explores ways in which teachers can engage children with profoundly important questions about refugees.  Her book is based on doctoral research which included observing The Colour of Home being shared in classrooms with 6-9 year olds and The Other Side of Truth  being shared with 10 year olds (the younger end of where the book is often read in schools).

As well as observing lessons, Julia spent time talking with children in small groups, analysing what they wrote, drew and dramatised. She interviewed their teachers and considered their planning. She also organised an author visit for me to speak with the Year 5 children and give them the opportunity to question me. The younger children spoke with Mary Hoffman via Skype. To research how the books came about, Julia separately interviewed Mary, Karen (also illustrator of Baba's Gift ) and myself.

It's obviously fascinating for me as a writer to gain insights into how my book is received.  Many years ago, I conducted doctoral research into white UK teenagers reading novels that challenged perceptions around 'race' and racism, which I published as Through Whose Eyes. Although my conclusions were sobering, I still believe that literature can make a difference and I continued to write fiction. I am my first reader and there is no better way for me to explore pressing matters in our world than to imagine myself as a young person caught up in the thick of things.

Children's Literature about Refugees highlights the importance of listening to children's voices in response to what they are reading. It highlights the importance of the teacher's role in creating the spaces that enable young people to respond, explore perspectives and deepen understanding of a global issue in which ordinary people's lives are disrupted in extraordinary ways. I admired examples of the teachers' ingenuity in incorporating national literacy objectives (often constricting) while engaging the children in creative responses and critical thinking.

By a happy coincidence, the biography of  Harry Rée - my professor of education at the University of York in the mid 1960s - has just been published by the same Institute of Education Press. Entitled Educator Most Extraordinary: The life and achievements of Harry Rée, 1914 - 1991, it's the dedicated work of Jonathan Daube who must have contacted at least a couple of hundred people whose lives were touched by this extraordinary educator. 

Harry, who fought with the French Resistance in the Second World War, was a humanitarian with deep respect for the importance of literature. I think that he would have thought highly of the approaches described by Julia Hope in Children's Literature about Refugees. 

Monday, 7 August 2017

'Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett' papers on their way to University of Sussex

It's a big day when your child leaves home. Of course it's not really the same with a book but the audiotape interviews (inside a shoebox) and some of the papers in assorted files, boxes, and bags stacked here on my sitting room table, have lived with me for 22 years. I should have pulled them out of their drawers, nooks and crannies five years ago when my biography of Neil Aggett, Death of an Idealist, was launched in South Africa. But I felt the book's journey wasn't finished and I wasn't ready to let go. 

However, at last, they are on their way to their new home at the Archive of Resistance Testimony at the University of Sussex.  For the vision that lies behind this relatively new archive, linked to a Centre of Resistance Studies, I am grateful to the vision of Professor Emeritus Rod Kedward and its director Dr Chris Warne. I photographed them today before they set off with my papers and tapes in the boot of Chris's car.

I'm excited that the archive is part of a department of history where, in the future, students as well as researchers may be encouraged to engage with the story of Neil Aggett and his activist comrades in their struggle for social justice. Resistance to injustice is an ongoing story, not just in South Africa. But, like Papa in my novel The Other Side of Truth, I believe in the ultimate power of words that aim to speak truth to power. 

Neil Aggett lost his life in John Vorster Square, police headquarters in Johannesburg early in 1982. Ten years earlier, the young teacher Ahmed Timol 'fell' to his death from the 10th floor of the same notorious building. After a campaign by his family, and a book by his nephew Imtiaz Cajee, the inquest into Timol's death was recently re-opened in Johannesburg, after 46 years. George Bizos, the wonderful human rights lawyer was there, having represented the Timol and Aggett families (as well as many political defendants, including his friend Nelson Mandela). I was extremely touched when I saw this photo of him in the courtroom on the first day of the re-opened Timol inquest. On the desk in front of him are two books: his own No One to Blame and my biography of Neil, for which he wrote the Foreword, beginning with Milan Kundera's words:

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Books continue to make journeys long after they are written. Even though I have finally let go of my papers for Death of an Idealist, this is a new beginning for them too, not an end.