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Stereotypes in children’s picture books

Reflections on the representation of Africans, people of African descent and Africa

Brussels, Librairie Le Wolf, 18 December 2019

This post first appeared at WorldKidLit in January 2020

“Children’s books will always have an impact.”

Those were the opening words from illustrator and publisher Marie Wabbes at a workshop on stereotypes in children’s picture books held on 18 December 2019 at the Le Wolf children’s bookshop in the heart of Brussels. Educators, librarians, writers, booksellers, cultural associations, activists and one translator (me) gathered to explore, identify and deconstruct stereotypes used – and perpetuated - in many French-language picture books available to children in schools, libraries, bookshops and their own homes.

Véronique Francis, a lecturer at the INSPE teacher training college in Val de Loire, France, opened the first session with an overview of stereotypes and ethnic and racial discrimination. She noted the need to move away from colour blindness claims. It is often argued that stories do not mention a character’s ethic background. Illustrations, however, clearly show otherwise. Her research revealed that the majority of French-language books featuring black children addressed issues such as child-marriage, international adoption, modern slavery, political turmoil, armed conflict, racism or exile. Very few examples were experiences potentially shared by white children reading the books. The settings were also largely rural Africa, the jungle and the savannah and many were described as being inspired by traditional African stories. The black child was commonly exoticized – a carryover from colonialism - and portrayed as being close to nature, a friend of animals and almost always barefoot and (semi-)naked. She concluded by calling for an end to the illusion that no distinction is made between the way in which white and black characters are presented in picture books.

Mireille Tsheusi-Robert, President of BAMKO-CRAN, a women’s association promoting interculturalism, took the floor to talk about the psychological and social impact prejudices have on children. Childhood is the ideal time for learning when young minds are still malleable, it’s no surprise then that racist ideas absorbed in childhood manifest themselves later in life. She presented multiple examples of books and rhymes from the 1930s onwards in which black characters were belittled, objectified, compared to animals, exploited, given secondary roles, hyper-sexualised, ‘eaten’ (chocolate, banana), connected solely with Africa or rendered invisible (i.e. not included on covers or given names). She shared examples of the effect such stereotypes have on black children she works with, such as a girl who sat alone at lunch after reading a book where a character who wasn’t like the others, black in the illustrations, was always on their own, or the young boy who developed a skin condition as a psychosomatic reaction because other children had said his black skin was dirty. Her association works with parents and teachers to help them learn to identify and deconstruct prejudices, learn how to quickly select books (60-second per book exercise including additional stress factors such as physical obstacles in the room or recordings of children’s voices), analyse the intentions behind the representations, practice reading along with a child (played by other adult participants) and question or reconstruct the representations of Africans, Africa and people of African descent.

Vincent Yzerbyt from the Université Catholique de Louvain opened the second session on the psychological and social impact of stereotypes on behaviour by explaining how stereotypes (what one knows about certain groups) become prejudices (how one feels towards those groups) which then affect behaviour (towards those groups). He noted that we are socialised to learn certain things, and that the struggle to obtain resources, both physical and symbolic, is what leads groups to malign others.

The workshop concluded with a session led by various actors in the book sector. First up was Philippe Goff, President of the International Association of Francophone Booksellers (AILF), who talked about the difficulties African writers face getting published and the differences in expectations of what pictures books should look like: large hardback and therefore expensive in Europe v. smaller paperback, and therefore cheaper, in Africa.

Ophélie Boudimbou, PhD researcher in children’s literature and author of children’s African cookbook Kanika, shared her experience of self-publishing as a response to the stereotypes she encountered in the books she read as a child and still sees around her. She presented many positive examples of new writers and illustrators creating a new narrative in picture books such as Comme un million de papillons noirs by Laura Nsafou and Barbara Brun, Mama Tinga Tinga, Neïba Je-sais-tout by Madina Guissé and Lyly Blabla, KESHO by Maud-Salomé Ekila or Les aventures de Djibril by Makamoussou Traoré and Marta Anna Jollant. She concluded with a call to write, translate and illustrate for diversity.

Marie-Thérése Mondombo, children’s worker and guide in several Brussels libraries and museums, shared examples of her travel-themed workshops for children that focus on individual African countries. The workshops aim to present a positive image of Africa, without hiding the reality, highlight one or two key historical events and boost children’s confidence so they can either be proud of their roots or positively impressed by Africa. She shared two specific examples: Congo as depicted in Prince de la Rue by Dominique Mwankumi and Les rois de la sape by Christian Epanya; and Mali as depicted in La voix d’or de l’Afrique by Michel Piquemal and Justine Brax and Le voyage de l’empereur Kankou Moussa by Jean-Yves Loude and Christian Epanya. During the workshops she reads the books with the children before working on postcard-art or travelogues they can then take home as a record of their ‘trip’ to Africa, hopefully reinforcing positive and realistic new images in their minds.

It was an enriching and enlightening afternoon which provided much food for thought on the insidious nature of stereotypes and the need to actively be aware of what children may still be exposed to in some of the books they encounter. The speakers also highlighted the urgent need to deconstruct and reconstruct the narratives presented.

Left to right – Christelle Pandanzyla (Roots Events), Mireille Tsheusi-Robert (BAMKO-CRAN), Marie Wabbes, Ophélie Boudimbou

CEC ONG has been active in the Afro-Caribbean cultural sector for over 40 years and promotes literature in particular as means of intercultural dialogue and opportunity for every citizen to feel a sense of self-fulfillment. CEC raises awareness about prejudices and stereotypes that contribute to discrimination and racism.

Roots Events unlocks possibilities by (co-)hosting a wide range of events and concepts in Brussels.

Le Monde de Jahi (Jahi’s World) promotes and showcases creative content for children such as literature, TV series, cartoons, games and toys that are inclusive in terms of skin colour, culture, gender and disability. Le Monde de Jahi also raises awareness about prejudices and stereotypes and works to deconstruct stereotypes for children and adults in their environment (parents, teachers, librarians, games libraries etc.).

Librairie Le Wolf, also known as the House of Children’s Literature, is a bi-lingual bookshop in the heart of Brussels that hosts a range of readings, creative activities and workshops for both children and adults.

Johanna McCalmont is freelance translator and conference interpreter from Northern Ireland currently based in Brussels, Belgium. She works from French, German, Dutch and Italian into English. She was selected for the 2018 New Books in German Emerging Translators programme. Her work has also been featured in No Man’s Land. She enjoys discovering new children’s books from across the world and is currently looking for an English-language publisher for her translation of Plus fort que la hyène by Rwandan writer Joseph Ndwaniye. You can follow her on Twitter @jo_mccalmont


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