Slavery in picture books

I’ve read recently about two picture books that have raised controversy by depicting slavery in what might be interpreted as a positive light. They both show African American children smiling  as they go about jobs in the company of their enslaved parents.

It’s a tricky one. We should obviously acquaint kids with the less savoury aspects of our shared  history, slavery included. But if they are still at picture book stage, they can hardly be shown the full horror of physical and sexual abuse.

It’s true that there were probably snatched moments of joy in the lives of some slaves – times when parents and their children could delight in one another’s company or take pride in their accomplishments. Why not depict that in a book? Happiness in the face of unbearable circumstances is one of literature’s stalwart themes.  Yet if pictures of beaming slaves are seen in isolation, without the context that would be evident in a wordier book for adults, it is very hard for it not to look like an insulting distortion of historical reality.

I have seen some of history’s worst atrocities treated with great sensitivity in children’s books. I first confronted the reality of the Holocaust through reading “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit”. But this was a book aimed at children from the age of eight upwards. I’m not sure that you can really approach subjects like this with kids at a younger age. Not through picture books, at any rate.

I’ve included links to the stories below. Do you know of any picture books that get the balance right on this?



Santa and the origins of Naughtiness

Out with my four-year-old son a few days ago, we were playing skittles in a very unkempt garden under a soggy, blotting paper sky. About to take his turn to bowl, he looked up at the roof of the house.

“So Santa comes down the chimney?”he asked

“Yep” I confirmed

“Why does he do that?”

“Because the doors and windows are locked. He can’t get in any other way.”

“But what if there isn’t a chimney?”

I took a breath and tried to look nonchalant. Time to honour the tradition of telling festive porkies to young children about the Man in Red.

‘Santa has a special magic key he uses to let himself in” I explained. “It can open any lock in the world.”

“Oh.” My son knocked down four skittles and ran to get the ball. On his return, he screwed up his cute little features at me.

“But then why would he ever go down a chimney in the first place?”

After a few more evasive contortions of logic, I took my little rationalist in for dinner. I thought that we had finished with Santa, but after a couple of mouthfuls of pasta, he put his fork down.

“Why are some people naughty?” he asked.

“Well…they might do naughty things…” I faltered. “But I’m not sure that anybody is intrinsically naughty.”

“But why are Bruce and Robbie trinzikly naughty?”

I have to excuse myself at this point to have a quick chuckle in the kitchen. Bruce and Robbie are two boys at nursery (names changed for fairly obvious reasons) whom my son considers gloriously, unrepentantly and enviably naughty.

When I come back in, the munchkin had resumed eating, but had not finished his Socratic dialogue with me yet.

“So, why are people naughty then?” He persisted.

“I don’t think very many people are naughty. Most of us do naughty things sometimes. It might be because we’re angry or upset, or ir could be because we want people to pay more attention to us.”

Where to go from here? Tell him about moral absolutism, universalism and relativism?

“So how does Santa tell whether people are naughty or nice?” He asked in a final flourish of logic.

How much longer will I be able to keep this up?

I’m not generally one for telling children stuff that cannot be backed up by evidence. My husband is a staunch atheist, and I’m clinging to my agnosticism by the very stubby tips of my sceptical fingernails, so I have not introduced my son to any talk of God or religious thought.

Recently, I’ve had would-be proselytisers from the local evangelical church on my doorstep. They handed me leaflets listing Carol services, while eyeing up the tricycle and scooter in my porch.

“I see that you have children” purred one of the elderly ladies.”They would be very welcome too. We have a special Chrissingle service where they can…”

“Actually,” I cut in cheerily. “I’d really rather that he didn’t attend any religious services until he’s old enough to challenge what is being said.”

She took a sharp inwards breath, then eyed the tricycle sadly.

“He won’t learn about the gospel, then” she murmured.

Well, actually, he almost certainly will. Only a fortnight ago he was in a Nativity play, swaying in a foil crown and floor length Cape to the strains of ‘Away in a Manger”. And  that’s fine with me. Although religion plays no profound part in my life, it has shaped our culture, our language and the architecture of our cities. My son needs to learn about the Ibrahimic religions, and others, to fully understand the place he comes from.

And should he decide to go against the family grain and adopt a religion later in life, I will be fine with that too, providing he takes up a tolerant and compassionate version of whichever faith he opts for. I have met religious people whose bigotry reflects less on their deity than their own egotism and spite, but I’ve come across others who have been inspired to help others and contribute to their communities. And, really, what is there to object to in that?

On Christmas Eve, I and my husband went out with our son, stood in the front garden and peered up at the sky. We were waiting for Santa and the reindeer to appear. (Or the International Space Station for the older and less romantic of you.) Eventually it came into view, a tiny steady light, dwarfed by the huge, nearly full moon and the glare of the street lamps. But our son was enchanted.

As he was gambolling about on the lawn afterwards, distributing the contents of a bag of reindeer feed, my husband leaned over and whispered into my ear. “I feel really uncomfortable lying to him like this.”

Shortly afterwards, the little one skipped over to us and handed me the empty bag.

“If the reindeer eat any more of that seed,” he piped,  “they’ll be so fat they’ll come crashing down here…and then we can have ALL the presents to ourselves.”

(Kids, even little kids, are better critical thinkers than any of us, religious or otherwise, are willing to give them credit for.)

Happy New Year!

Syria. Is uncertainty allowed?

So we’re bombing Raqqa.

My newsfeed is buzzing with outrage. About three-quarters of my friends are furious and aghast, certain we’re about to replay Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest are gleefully contemplating the imminent demise of IS or Da’esh or whatever we’re supposed to call the preening, murderous goons now. The problem is, I’m really not sure what should be done this time, and that’s quite unusual for me. There seems to me to be some pretty over-blown and simplistic rhetoric on both sides. I’m going to sum the arguments up, if only to get things clear in my own head.


Doing this will help protect us from Da’esh. 

No, sorry. Just because you take out bases in Raqqa, it does not mean you eliminate radicalised terror cells or crazed loners back home. The fact is,  it is likely that national security will slip one day, and an attack will happen in London. It freezes my blood to say this. I live in London, and so do many of my friends and family, but we cannot let foreign policy be dictated by our fear of atrocities. Those who went through the Blitz suffered far worse chances of survival than we do.

We’ll be able to take out Da’esh, and that will clear the way for Assad to hold free and democratic elections soon afterwards

Really? I don’t think that Assad and his cronies, after barrel bombing and gassing civilian neighbourhoods and torturing masses of protestors and dissidents, are just going to throw their hands up and say “Election? Why didn’t you say so in the first place? I’ll run off and get the ballot papers right this instant. Can I lend you a pencil?” Syria is now a mess of factions, many of which run Da’esh a pretty close second in terms of brutality and intolerance. The re-building of Syria will take time, money and energy. Can the West and its allies really stick it out? It’s not what happened after the third Gulf War, which I bitterly opposed.

We need to go and take those bastards out. I hate these fluffies who want freedom but are too cowardly to fight for it. 

This is a pretty close copy of a comment I saw recently. Unless you are in the armed forces, and you face the prospect of going out there to risk your life, bravery or lack of it simply does not figure in the equation. You want other people to go to war for you. Fine, but don’t start throwing accusations of cowardice around. You may not agree with pacifism, but it’s an intellectually coherent, and often very brave, stance. Grow up, in short.


If we do this we’ll be attacked by Da’esh

See answer to the first point above.

If you support this, you are red Tory scum and you want to rain death and destruction on the people of Syria

This kind of comment is likely to appear with lots of capitals and a traffic jam of expletives. Frankly, either get a civil tongue in your digital mouth, or quit Twitter. Those who support airstrikes may be misguided, but for the most part, they do not want to impose more suffering on exhausted Syrians. They think the strikes will make things better for them in the long run.  The debate will be saner if both sides assume a little good faith and refrain from showering abuse on each other.

So, where to go from here?

The airstrikes will lead to the loss of innocent lives. There will be dead babies. Hospitals will be overwhelmed.  There will be more refugees.

But Da’esh has signalled its aim to expand, and if it is not stopped, there will be more beheadings, crucifixions and sickening mass rapes. They will not be negotiated with.

Is there a good way to deal with this? One that will at least lead to fewer deaths than all the other scenarios? God, I hope so. I’m not feeling any more certain than I was when I started writing this, but my opinion is hardly of consequence anyway. Rather than agonise,  I suppose the most compassionate and useful thing I can do is donate some money to help.

Here’s to hope, however fragile, and to the Syrians, who truly deserve something better than the least bad outcome.







When an FB friend shares a nasty post…

I think most of us know the the feeling. You scroll down your newsfeed and there is some grossly racist or sexist post, shared by a person you thought you knew quite well. What to do? You can adopt a zero-tolerance approach. “Anybody posting Britain First shit on their Timeline will be summarily unfriended” stormed one of my FB friends recently. (Britain First, for anybody who is not from the UK, is more or less an online Fascist front.)

I do admire this resolute approach, but I’m afraid I myself am more likely to shudder and scroll down quickly without comment. No doubt this is partly down to my own timorousness. But I think it’s also an awareness of the throwaway nature of so many Internet memes. We’ve all been a bit trigger-happy with the mouse.and posted something ‘funny’ on a whim, only to regret it later. And some of the Britain First posts don’t actually look offensive at first sight. They show pictures of proud looking veterans, chests ablaze with medals. “Share if your  Granddad fought in the war and you’re proud as hell.” You can see how unwary users get sucked in.

There is only one of my FB friends who regularly posts stuff that troubles me. Occasionally, it’s Britain First posts. Sometimes it’s mugshots of young people who have been convicted of animal cruelty offences. I am often disgusted by what they have done, but attempting to distribute their images against court orders is more or less inviting vigilantism. And yet…and yet, I have not confronted her. She has had a hard life, beset by illness and financial hardship, but I know the courageous thing to do would be to call her out.

I was rather taken by the approach suggested by a friend of a friend on FB, Matt Wingett (who wanted to be credited). He was disappointed to see that a friend had shared a post listing terrorist atrocities, each one done “by Muslims”. Rather than getting drawn into an online pissing contest, he suggested the following riposte:

“Surgery was invented by Muslims

Coffee was first used by Muslims

The first flying machine was invented by a Muslim

Universities were invented by Muslims

Algebra was invented by Muslims

The science of optics was invented by Muslims

The lute (which led to the guitar) was invented by Muslims

Modern musical scales were invented by MuslimS

The toothbrush was invented by Muslims

The crank (which is used in bikes, cars and countless technologies          across the world) was invented by Muslims

Hospitals were invented by Muslims”

The logic, as he explained, was to balance out the bitterness and negativity of the original post. And I think that might be the way forward. Rather than directly picking an argument with the individual, send a blanket post to all your friends, seeking to gently or humorously counter the hatred or thoughtlessness.

Unfriending is a last resort, but if you do this too often, you’re in danger of making your social media an ‘echo chamber’, populated solely by people who broadly share your view of the world. Personally, I’ve come to treasure the friends who post cantankerous (if not abusive) comments below some of my more opinionated pieces.

And if it all gets a bit much, I can always scuttle off to my blog and post a surly rant here instead 🙂

















Distressing images on Facebook

I’ll keep this brief, because I don’t want this blog to turn into an unending rant about social media.

Facebook’s policy on images is a little peculiar. It takes down photographs of breast cancer survivors who choose to show their scars, for example. And it won’t let charities show their campaign videos unless they are ‘positive’. Broadly, I’m against censorship.

Today, though, I was just scanning my newsfeed when I saw a horrible photo, which I’m not going to describe in detail. It appears to show two very young boys being tortured, perhaps even executed. There are no details about the where, when or why. Just this: “Facebook will take this down in a few hours, but who will raise a voice for these children? Nobody cares because they are not French.”

In the name of all that is good, of course we should be raising our voices for these poor children. But how can we do that if there is no information about who they are or where this happened? I’m not a precious snowflake, and I think we have a duty not to ignore harrowing news stories. Moreover, I think that there are some circumstances which justify showing pictures of the dead or dying. (I thought that the decision to publish the photographs of little Aylan Kurdi was the right one.)

But to show pictures of children possibly dying and in agony, without even granting them the dignity of names or individual stories, is futile and wrong. Those pictures should be removed. But I hope, hope and hope some more that somebody helped those boys.


Amander Palmer TED talk Review


The season of giving is upon us. Most of us love the feeling of warmth that generosity brings. Asking for stuff, on the other hand, is a tricky business. I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done very, very badly.

Let’s start off with the ‘badly’ camp.

I and my mum decided to check out a famous cathedral about a decade ago. In the UK, it’s quite normal for old churches to have little collection boxes posted around the building, asking for donations for maintenance and general upkeep. The government does not fund repairs to heritage buildings, so this money is often badly needed.

We were quite happy to drop some coins in a box, but instead we were greeted by a large desk that looked like a cash till, with several glowering attendants. Above them was a large sign, listing ‘Suggested Voluntary Contributions’, with recommended ‘donations’ listed for Adults, Pensioners and Children. Feeling a little odd, we paid our contribution and walked on through.

We then spent half an hour or so admiring the building, before an announcement came over a loudspeaker, requesting that everybody lower their heads and stand still in prayer for a minute. Neither my mother nor I are even remotely religious. Still, feeling really awkward, we stood still as instructed, and left the cathedral pretty soon afterwards.

Later, we had a chat about why this had made us feel so uncomfortable. The cash till and the large sign were a clear acknowledgement that a large proportion of the folks passing through the cathedral’s doors were not worshippers, but heritage visitors, who had come to admire the architecture and learn about the history of the building. In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting these people to cough up some cash for the upkeep of this very old and venerable building. But by more or less demanding a ‘donation’, the cathedral were blurring the lines between its function as a place of worship and an important heritage building. Surely it is best to keep the two completely separate? So, when a service is underway, make it clear that only worshippers should enter. When there are no services, charge people in exactly the way a museum or a stately home would do. And please do not start instructing people to pray when you have no idea about their religious proclivities. This way, everyone knows where they are.

So what has this got to do with Amanda Palmer? Amanda Palmer is a founding member of a band, The Dresden Dolls, and in this 2013 TED talk, she talks about how she has made money from her music by passing a hat round during performances and asking fans for money. Rather than booking hotels, she would use Twitter to ask fans for temporary accommodation (effectively, coach surfing).

Let me say straight off, I enjoyed the talk immensely. Amanda is a compelling and funny speaker, and many of the stories she tells about  her interactions with her fans are very moving. I particularly liked the story about the family she stayed with, who did not have official leave to be in the US. I have no doubt that her relationship with her fans is one of open generosity on both sides. However, I am not sure that the lessons she has taken from her own experience in the music industry are more broadly applicable. For a start, it is clear that Amanda and her band had built up a following and a reputation before they started asking for board and lodgings. So the fans who donated stuff knew that they were helping artists whose work they had heard and enjoyed. I am not sure that this would work for a less well-established act.

Amanda is clearly an assured and extrovert person, and I think you need these characteristics to be able to operate in this way. She mentions that some of her supporting artists have been unwilling to pass the hat around in the same way. She attributes this to the feeling of vulnerability which ‘asking’ brings with it, but couldn’t it also just be the case that the performer is shy and would really rather not lower their boundaries in this way? That does not necessarily make them less of a musician, or less deserving of finanacial support.

Amanda points out that, in the days before recorded music, artists would need to create a ‘connection’ with their audiences during their live performances in order to get paid. This is very true, but the costs of touring are now far, far higher than they used to be. Professional musicians work hard for our entertainment. They are entitled to renumeration, without feeling they have to flutter their eyelashes for it.

The talk is entitled “The Art of Asking”. I gave an example of bad asking at the beginning, now here’s a good one. A favourite podcast of mine ‘This American Life’ started with a short segment in which the presenter, Ira Glass, told listeners that the show needed a financial boost. He explained that sponsorship covered some, but not all, of their costs. He outlined some of the costs entailed in creating a high-quality radio program, and what they are hoping to use the money for. He also promised that there would be no more requests for help from listeners for the rest of the year.

So, no begging and no wheedling. Just a straightforward request. That’s the way to do it. Something to bear in mind when you’re writing those ‘Dear Santa’ letters. 🙂


Free Pretty Girl Giving Present Stock Image - 8782461

(Image credit:









In defence of French flags on Facebook

I saw a post on Facebook yesterday that made me very angry, although I do not disagree with all the points it makes. The post was made public. I do not know the writer, however, and I am not going to publish his/her name here. Personal attacks and slagging matches are not my thing.

The questions the person posted are in bold, and I have written my answers below each one.

Exercise in critical thinking.

Are the people changing their profile pictures to a French flag picture the same who changed their profile picture to a Pride flag a few months ago? Interesting how the profile filter is used for both celebration and mourning.

I did not, as it happens, change my filter to the French flag today, although I did write a brief post expressing my shock and horror over what had happened, along with a picture from Le Monde that I found moving and appropriate.

If you have changed your profile picture, what is the meaning of the French flag filter for you?

I would like to answer this on the behalf of my many Facebook friends who did change their pictures. There were a whole host of reasons behind that decision, some of which I am aware, and others of which I am not. Two have lived in Paris, and spent many anxious hours contacting friends to make sure they were OK. Quite a few are Muslims, and have been devastated to see their religion used by a small minority to excuse mass murder. Others, I imagine, heard the news yesterday and simply felt distraught and helpless. They cannot comfort those who have lost loved ones in person. But they wish to express their empathy and solidarity.

How do you think it makes other people perceive you?

You are implying, of course, that the people who changed their profile pictures were merely ‘virtue-signalling’, that modish phrase suggesting such online gestures have no real substance or feeling behind them, but are used to show the person in question is ‘right on’. We use social media to form digital identities, and many of us are guilty of posting pictures and messages merely to gain ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’ from our Followers or FB Friends. But when a huge number of people choose to display grief using a particular visual symbol, it will hardly have an impact on how they, as individuals, are perceived.

Now that we are on the subject of seeking approval, though, do you think you yourself might be entirely innocent of this very 21st century vice? As you posted your list of clever questions, I wonder if you experienced a little frisson, thinking about how ‘ahead of the curve’ you were, how intellectually superior to all these sheep-like FB users who had decided to show their outrage and sadness communally.

There is always an element of discomfort in using social media sites to comment on large-scale tragedies, simply because they are designed for self-promotion. But do we really want Facebook reserved for selfies and pictures of our desserts?

How do you negotiate the fact that Facebook only cares about European lives (it did not offer flags from non-European countries when such countries are victims of terrorist attacks)?

You are right. Eurocentrism reigns supreme in the media, both traditional and social, and that is wrong on so many levels. But why do you choose to express your anger about this by obliquely criticizing those who have shared their sorrow online? Would it not be better to raise awareness of terrorism and suffering in other parts of the world?

Would you have changed your profile picture to a Lebanon flag if it had been an option?

As stated previously, I did not choose to change my profile picture. I did post a story about the Lebanon bombing, as did many of my friends who did change their pictures. But, yes, Facebook needs to re-consider its approach on this.

What does it take for you to change your profile picture?
A celebration of an achievement (eg. marriage for all in the USA a few months ago)?

 I did change my filter to the Pride flag when the law in the US and Ireland changed. I have quite a few gay and bisexual friends, and I was elated on their behalf. 

Deaths? If so, how many deaths does it take? And the deaths of whom?

I choose not to change my profile picture in response to disaster or atrocities, because it does make me feel uneasy. But I would never dare to tell other people not to. Would you go to a funeral and openly sneer at a mourner who is wearing black for being ‘ostentatious’? If you saw a stranger wearing the Marie Curie daffodil, or a pink ribbon for breast cancer, would you scold them for not donating to a Malaria charity instead? I suspect not, mostly because we tend to shy away from face-to-face confrontation, but also because you have no idea why that person is wearing the ribbon or badge. They may have lost a child or a parent to the disease in question. You have no right to tell them what to feel sad about or how to express that sadness.

You ask about numbers of deaths, I assume, because disasters and atrocities in other parts of the world have claimed more lives.  Yes, racism plays a part in deciding which tragedies are covered in depth by the mainstream media. Do you think your post will do anything to draw attention to this injustice?

Did other people influence your choice of changing your profile picture (ie. friends and family who had done so)?

I suspect some of my friends did decide to change their pictures because they saw that others had done so. They saw an opportunity to express their horror and they acted on it.

Do you feel pressured to do it?


If so, what do you think would happen if you decided not to change it whilst many of your friends and family had changed it?

Nothing happened. Nobody commented on it.

And I do not believe, incidentally, that anybody changed their picture out of fear of opprobium.

Do you believe showing ‘solidarity’ on Facebook through the practice of changing profile pictures should achieve anything? If so, what should it achieve?
Do you think it will?

It will not raise the dead. It will not stop those crazed by ideology from killing again. It may, however, help some people to find comfort in fellow feeling at a time of great trouble and fear. And it does not prevent concerned people from taking real world action (going on demonstrations, donating to relevant charities, talking to those close to them about the issues, etc.) Indeed, it may act, in a small way, as a catalyst for activism

Incidentally, I do not think that questions  meant to steer respondents to your own way of thinking can be classed as an ‘Exercise in Critical Thinking’. By all means, do your best to expose the bias and racism of the mainstream media. But do not pour scorn on people who are trying to respond, in their own way, to the enormity of recent events.