Kim Reynolds

Kim Reynolds

Kimberley Reynolds is the Professor of Children’s Literature in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University in the UK. Recent publications include Children’s Literature in the Oxford University series of Very Short Introductions (2012) and Left Out: The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Publishing for Children in Britain, 1910-1949 (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Culture for All: Why Children's Literature Matters
Sunday, 10 April 2022 09:21

Culture for All: Why Children's Literature Matters

Published in Fiction

As part of the Culture for All series we're proud to present a short film about children's literature by Kim Reynolds, followed by the text of her talk

Why Children’s Literature Matters

People often ask me why I study children’s literature. The question comes from the misconception that children’s books are merely a stepping stone to ‘real’ books. In fact, they provide the platform through which most children enter culture and learn to think about the world. What I find particularly exciting is the way that children’s literature, whether in the form of told stories, printed material or performances, contribute to the social, political and aesthetic transformation of culture.

One way they do this is by encouraging young readers to challenge received opinion and approaching ideas, issues, people, problems and places from new perspectives as when the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ speaks truth to power. Such stories help children and young people to recognise the fallibility of those in power and that the way the world is organised is not inevitable, meaning it can be changed.

As well as offering new perspectives, children’s writers and illustrators frequently reimagine the world as it is, was and might be. Think, for instance, of how many folk and fairy tales show the weak and marginalised in society triumphing over the rich and powerful. In the interwar years children’s writers such as Geoffrey Trease championed workers over masters and told of injustices endured by ordinary people in many parts of the world.

Such stories have come to be known as ‘radical children’s literature’, a body of writing with a clear set of characteristics and ambitions. These are to

- encourage social change
- introduce new visions of society
- assume the young are socially aware, competent and interested in improving society
- give readers the skills, ideas, and information necessary to effect change
- aim for a stable, fair and equal society
- feature all kinds of children, and
- value youthful opinions.

The potential for resistance and transformation

In other words, radical children’s literature sees both children and children’s literature as important in themselves and as replete with transformational potential.

Radical writing has existed from the beginnings of children’s literature, contributing to cultural revolutions and campaigns of resistance. Some of the earliest children’s books looked to the rising generation to help eradicate forms of injustice such as slavery. Thomas Day’s bestselling novel, Sandford and Merton, published in instalments in the 1780s, rails against the corrupting influence of the slave trade on British life. In it, Tommy Merton, who began life in Jamaica as the pampered son of a British plantation owner, is introduced to a former slave now living in England. Learning how this man grew up, was captured, abused, and became free, makes Tommy question the very system that provides his wealth. By influencing young British readers, Day’s book helped to prepare the way for the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.

Slavery and racism have not disappeared, of course, meaning radical children’s literature must continue to inform each generation of its pernicious effects in their own time. 

A notable example is Journey to Jo’burg (1985), by the South African-born writer, Beverly Naidoo. This tale of two black children living under apartheid graphically illustrates of the realities of the brutal injustices of that regime. Banned in Naidoo’s native country, the book was published to acclaim in Britain.

Today, radical children’s literature informs readers of the many ways BAME people have and continue to contribute to British life and culture over time, from Catherine Johnson’s books about people of colour who have been erased from history to Dean Atta’s Black Flamingo (2019), an upbeat verse novel about a mixed race drag artist. It also highlights the prejudices and obstacles encountered by migrants and refugees who have come to the UK to find safety and a better way of life.

Addressing classism and celebrating working-class culture

As the example of slavery shows, from its inception, radical children’s literature has combatted discrimination of all kinds, at home and in other countries. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a particular focus on the way the British class system blighted lives and divided families. An important strategy for addressing classism in children’s books was to celebrate working-class lives and culture, as in Alan Garner’s Stone Book Quartet (1976-8) and the Nippers reading scheme conceived by Leila Berg and launched in 1968.  One Nippers author, Jacqueline Wilson, is one of the most popular children’s writers of recent years. She grew up on a council estate and regularly writes books that explore and validate the lives of children and families affected by economic deprivation.  

Other issues regularly featured in radical writing today include prejudice based on biological sex, sexual orientation, religion and age. Some of the most effective ways of bringing about change come from works that appreciate and celebrate difference. That said, the ambit of radical writers and illustrators is wide. Other significant topics regularly addressed in radical children’s literature include pacifism, access to health, education and opportunities, living conditions, children’s rights, size, disability and caring for the planet.

Radical children’s books have been highlighting environmental issues and encouraging children to care for nature for decades. In the last century, when the impact of industrialisation, over-population and excessive consumption was beginning to be understood, books about animals and the environment became popular. Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax (1971) warned against environmental destruction, while Colin Dann’s bestselling series, The Animals of Farthing Wood (1979), showed humans’ impact on animals’ lives. These themes live on, for instance, in the award winning novels of Gill Lewis, vet and wildlife activist.

Radical writers have for long warned about the consequences of human action on the planet. The turn of the millennium saw a great many stories in which the future is shown as difficult and unfair because resources are scare on a depleted and damaged planet. Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles (2001-6) are set in the far-distant future after the world we know was blasted with weapons that have permanently blighted it.

Such devastating critiques of humans’ actions can lead to feelings of hopelessness, but radical children’s literature as a body of work strives to balance such warnings with the belief that situations can be improved. Some books focus on collective action and political solutions. For instance, Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (1991) combines informative history with magical realist adventures to tell the story of American labour unions and the underground railroad. Other books feature child characters helping to stop pollution, caring for endangered species, standing up to bullies, speaking out about abuse, and generally preparing themselves to help bring about a more socially just and sustainable world.

Given the many very real threats to the planet, peace, global economics and health, there is a great need for radical writing that will prepare, sustain and encourage young readers to become young activists.

As the links below show, there are a great many resources that provide lists and descriptions of books that promote progressive change. Some good places to start are:

The Little Rebels Book Award

Liverpool Learning Partnership Diversity 

The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education 

Booktrust provides lists on various topics including Black Lives Matter

The journal Books for Keeps runs a regular feature on BAME representation in children’s books

And here are some other useful links, on classism, diversity and activism 

Radical, subversive circus and cultural change
Monday, 08 February 2021 09:28

Radical, subversive circus and cultural change

Published in Cultural Commentary

Kimberley Reynolds describes how radical and transgressive circuses in twentieth-century children’s literature make the case for social and personal transformation. Above image: Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, 1905

The circus has been a consistently popular setting, theme, metaphor and space in publishing for children from at least the nineteenth century, and writers, illustrators and readers are attracted to it for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that the circus world is exotic, international, polyglot, excessive and carnivalesque. They combine animals from distant lands (in line with concerns about animal welfare, few circuses now have animal acts), astonishing illusions, gravity-defying aerialists and acrobats, the antic behaviour of adults in the roles of clowns, and sideshows featuring what were traditionally known as ‘freaks’. These features are all related to the identification of the circus by the first wave of modernist and avant-garde artists and authors as a quintessentially radical aesthetic space: a space where themes and ideas are explored with a view to challenging and changing how the everyday world is perceived and organised.

A sense of the radical appeal of the circus can be established with a few examples. For instance, during his Rose or ‘circus’ period, Pablo Picasso used images of circus performers as metaphors for the socially and economically precarious position of artists. Like circus performers, he suggests, innovative, challenging artists in early twentieth-century Europe and America were regarded as unimportant outliers by those in positions of power. Henri Matisse had a life-long interest in circuses and what they said about movement, freedom and creativity. This interest is documented in his book Jazz (1947), which was originally titled The Circus. More than half of the images it contains are of circus performances. Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall were fascinated by the way circuses liberated bodies and minds from convention. Their paintings often focus on the way circus acts create a sense of mental and physical liberation from the constraints of everyday life.

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The Acrobat and His Partner by Fernand Léger

Circuses also offered artists new perspectives (from above and below) and celebrated speed, flight and simultaneity, as when multiple acts are taking place on the ground and in the air at the same moment. Circus rings and the contorted body shapes made by acrobats and aerialists lent themselves well to abstraction, while the transitions from acts featuring spangled, gravity-defying artists to lumbering elephants, ferocious big cats, bizarre clowns and the exceptional bodies found in circus sideshows gave a surreal, dreamlike quality to the circus experience. Perhaps most importantly, the inter-artistic nature of circus acts spoke to avant-garde interests in ‘Total Art’, meaning the combining of words, music, lighting, movement, and the plastic arts to provoke new sensations and perceptions.

Mikhail Bakhtin has shown how, by inducing new outlooks on the world, carnival, of which circus is one form, feeds cultural change. This understanding points to the subversive potential of circuses. In Ant-Nazi Modernism, Mia Spiro points to the way that the decades which witnessed the rise of fascism and Nazism saw the deliberate use of circuses to challenge the world view they promulgated. This deployment works well since circus life and circus acts stood for everything such regimes sought to suppress. They were ethnically, socially, and sexually diverse; they mixed levels of discourse; they displayed fluidity, eroticism, exoticism, and hybridity. The peripatetic nature of circuses means they were also free from geographical and nationalistic boundaries. This was as true on the page as under the Big Top or on the canvas. For instance, in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (1936), the circus is the only place where lesbian, transgender and other characters who struggle to fit into life in 1930s Paris and America can be at ease. Barnes makes the circus a space where, ‘no one is “alien” because everyone realizes that social positions, race, [and] sexuality are performances’ (Spiro 73).

Understanding the performative nature of all aspects of social life – not least in political displays – undermines the kind of mass spectacles by which totalitarianism asserts its power. So, for instance, performance theories relating to audience response compare the different effects on spectators of circuses and the huge, highly choreographed rallies favoured by Nazi propagandists. These mass spectacles were a deliberately hypnotic, homogenising and coercive kind of event. Their effect was to make most participants and observers unquestioning and conformist. Circuses, by contrast, are energising and individualistic; performances are not designed to lull audiences, but to provoke them. Their astonishing and often dangerous acts make audiences ask, ‘how do they do that?’ In this way, spectators are encouraged to recognise that they are watching tricks and illusions and to think about and deconstruct them – exactly the opposite effect of the Nazi rallies.

Circuses offered abundant metaphoric potential for celebrating freedom of thought, movement and interaction at a time when all of these were under threat. This made them valuable subjects for those artists and writers who were opposed to the divisive, hierarchical, nationalistic, and militaristic politics of the far right. In their hands, the circus was simultaneously offered as a site of intellectual and cultural provocation and a place of delight that appealed not just to a cultural elite but to large and mixed audiences. Children have always been part of the circus audience, and in circus stories, children are present as both performers and spectators. This does not mean that circuses are good places for the young. The experiences of real child circus performers have often been brutally abusive, and many of the first circus stories for children concentrated on this aspect of circus life. Stories about the sufferings of young circus performers make up a complete subgenre, but here my focus is on the way the circus setting was used by children’s writers and illustrators to introduce to their readers some of the artistic experiments and political critiques found in arts and letters from the first half of the last century.

Transformation and transgression in juvenile circus stories

Soviet writer Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men (1928) overtly uses the circus to criticise oppressive rule and to celebrate imagination, creativity and intellectual freedom. This is a story about revolution: in it the oppressed people in an unnamed town rise up against the ‘Three Fat Men’ who rule their land and literally consume all its resources. Though it is not geographically or chronologically anchored in a particular time or place, because its author was living in the new Soviet republic and the story was completed just one year after the series of revolutions that saw the old imperial Russian rule replaced by the world’s first communist society, it is difficult not to link the book to those events. The revolution is led by members of a circus. One of these is Tibbulus the Tightrope walker and the other Suok, the girl acrobat, but even before they begin to take control of the events, a circus act has been encouraging the people to disrespect their three fat leaders. For instance, the three are represented on a stage by a trio of fat, hairy apes while a clown sings:

Like three great sacks of wheat,
The Three Fat Men abed!
For all they do is eat
And watch their bellies spread!
Hey you Fat Men, beware:
Your final days are here! (17)                      

The clown is right. The surreal plot, which includes separated twins, kangaroo trials and arbitrary sentences, a living doll, a talking parrot with a beard and a great many extravagant banquets, culminates in the overthrow of the Three Fat Men. The people are inspired  to liberate themselves by those with courage, creativity, education and morals. All of the provocateurs are connected to the circus.

The Three Fat Men is aimed at able readers, and Olesha’s use of the circus is deliberately political. But books for younger readers also celebrate the internationalism, category mixing, simultaneity and Total Art found in modernist painting and writing. One of these is Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s The Circus (1925). This belongs to the outpouring of much-admired books produced in the first decades of Soviet rule, often by avant-garde writers and artists who hoped that they were helping to build society anew. For its original readers the book’s internationalism mirrored the drive to unite the many countries and peoples, with their different languages, eye shapes, skin tones, hair colours and fashions, that made up the new Soviet Union. It also supports the work of transforming an illiterate peasant culture into one which was both literate and ready to welcome, rather than fear or resent, modern technology.

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Cover of The Circus and Other Stories, by Lebedev

The Circus begins with a poster based not on the highly decorated traditional fairground graphics usually favoured by circuses but on modern advertisements, as seen it its use of clean lines, sharp typography and white spaces. Huge, repeated exclamation points convey that very modernist quality of energy, while the text promises eclecticism in the form of ‘A rider from Rio,/An aerial trio/…. Jacko, the famous clown… all the way from Paris.’ Inside, a black tightrope walker is used to familiarise the workings of a telephone message, showing modern technology as thrilling but unthreatening, while a green musician is introduced as the wife of a Soviet clown. In line with the modernist appreciation of speed and dynamism, many images show figures in motion, zooming this way, galloping that, balancing precariously and defying gravity.

In the British-produced The Circus Book (1935), by Wyndham Payne with illustrations by Eileen Mayo, Japanese acrobats practise on one page while a man in evening dress is shown working alongside clowns and performing horses ridden by a bear and a lion on another. All are very familiar circus images, but when considering the significance of representing the way categories were mingled under the Big Top in these books, it is important not to forget the extent to which in interwar Europe, racial and national origins, sexuality, and physical development could determine a person’s fate. From policies in Nazi Germany to fascist demonstrations in London, Jews, Romani (a group closely associated with circuses) and others deemed inferior by those in authority were vilified and often attacked. The Circus Book makes much of the internationalism and inclusiveness of circuses. It asks children to admire the ability of circus performers to speak many languages so they can work together: ‘… circuses engage artists of every nationality so you can imagine the babel of tongues behind the scenes. Some of the directors can give orders in half a dozen different languages, nearly all the artists can speak at least two or three besides their own, and a well-known clown was able to do his act in twelve languages’ (8). This short information book is not overtly provocative or revolutionary; nevertheless, readers of the book are invited to admire what elsewhere in society was being presented as suspect.

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Undoubtedly the most famous circus story for children is Dumbo, as told through the 1941 Walt Disney animated feature film. The artwork in this circus story (which began life as a children’s book and generated many spin-off picturebooks) has a modernist edge that subtly comments on, for instance, the alienation of workers and the loss of identity in modernity as in the impressionistic depiction of the roustabouts who set up the Big Top in a storm, and crowds fleeing as the huge tent collapses when Dumbo knocks over the ‘Pyramid of Pachyderms’. Expressionistically-coloured scenery conveys mood, while Freudian-inflected experimental sequences such as ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ bring in other avant-garde interests around subjectivity, interiority and the psyche. The most pointed aspect of its radicalism focuses on racist policies in the United States at the time. This occurs in the section where Dumbo and Timothy meet Jim Crow and his gang. The name ‘Jim Crow’ refers to the laws that enforced segregation the in the US up to the 1960s. The crows dress and have the mannerisms of scat/jazz musicians: jazz clubs were places where whites and blacks often mixed. Dumbo and Timothy also mix with the crows in defiance of the segregationist agenda, and it is the crows who enable Dumbo to fly and become a hero. Their knowledge of psychology leads to the ‘magic’ feather that persuades Dumbo he can fly.              

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The Circus of Adventure, by Enid Blyton

There is nothing obviously radical about Enid Blyton’s The Circus of Adventure (1952); nevertheless, when the four adventurers, Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Jack, and the young central European prince who is in their charge seek refuge in a circus as they flee from a palace coup, behaviours that would have been suspect in other settings are valued. For instance, the young prince, Gustavus Aloysius, known as Gussy, gives a bravura performance as a girl, when soldiers ransack the circus, looking for the fugitives. The four British children have also been disguised with grease paint, circus costumes and an invented language. Because this is a circus and so outside what the soldiers consider to be the real world, they see insignificant itinerant performers rather than their prince and his middle-class British minders, and soon depart. The success of the children’s performances owes everything to the help of their circus friends. Their class background, age and nationality become unimportant, and the children are valued for their skills with animals and their willingness to join in the work of keeping the circus on the road.

As in the mythology that has grown up around circuses, all the members of the circus are portrayed as a big family, though they come from many countries and speak dozens of languages (‘Ma’ is Spanish, her husband is English, and their son seems to speak every language there is). Outside hierarchies are also of little consequence to the members of the circus. When the young prince objects to his treatment by, ‘Ma’, the woman who plays his grandmother, she responds, “Pah! ...You’re just a boy. I’ve no time for princes.” The narrator reinforces her statement by observing approvingly, ‘And she hadn’t’ (148). Such a celebration of classless internationalism is highly unusual for the broadly conservative Blyton.

The transformative effects of the circus on Gussy prove permanent. His time with the performers (and, of course, the four British children) has made him a stronger, better young man with a new, more respectful, attitude to his people and those who lack his social position. Gussy, it is implied, is on his way to becoming a modern ruler and a better ally for Britain. This is arguably a convenient than a radical conclusion from a British perspective, yet for much of the book even an author known for finding foreigners suspicious turns a circus full of ‘others’ into loyal, creative, heroic friends who use their circus skills to thwart a coup. The circus setting, then, shapes the book’s message and refashions the author’s ideological assumptions.

This brief sample gives a sense of how circus stories produced during the first half of the last century shared interests, agendas and modes with the experimental arts and letters produced by some of the best known modernist artists and writers. My growing collection of circus stories shows that for many writers and illustrators, the circus continues to provide an aesthetically and politically radical space, theme and metaphor that helps them make the case for social and personal transformation.

'Heed the truth/Spoken by the youth!' Stories of political activism by young people at the Battle of Cable Street
Tuesday, 07 May 2019 09:28

'Heed the truth/Spoken by the youth!' Stories of political activism by young people at the Battle of Cable Street

Published in Fiction

As young people take to the streets to protest about climate change, Kim Reynolds discusses the way political activism by young people at the Battle of Cable Street has been portrayed in radical children's literature, and urges us to 'heed the truth/Spoken by the youth'

What has come to be known as ‘The Battle of Cable Street’ was a working-class uprising that took place in the East End of London on the 4th of October, 1936. Over the decades, it has taken on legendary significance in the UK because it is credited with defining British opposition to fascism and so shaping Britain’s role in World War II. That claim is exaggerated; nevertheless, the events in Cable Street saw approximately 250,000 anti-fascist demonstrators from a great range of backgrounds converge to prevent Oswald Mosley and 3,000 members of his British Union of Fascists from marching through the largely Jewish East End of London.


Their permission to march was guaranteed by the Home Office despite the fact that it received a petition, organised by the Jewish People’s Council, carrying 100,000+ signatures against the march two days before it was scheduled. In line with that decision, while Mosley and his ‘Blackshirts’ may have been the reason for this huge and sometimes violent protest, the actual ‘battle’ was largely between the protesters and the 6,000 police – representatives of the State – who were protecting Mosley’s and his followers’ right to march. That fact combined with the multicultural nature of the protesters has become more prominent in recent accounts of the events.

This article focuses on books about The Battle of Cable Street because the subject is intrinsically radical and so serves as a bellwether for attitudes to left-wing activism. In the light of today's political activism by young people, I was specifically interested to see how far the Cable Street setting is used to help today’s readers understand themselves as activists and to believe that it matters what populations and individuals – whatever their age – do and do not do.

The political permutations of this confrontation are complicated: it was about fascism, but also about class, economics, migration and schisms within various political groupings. For the purposes of this discussion, my interest is in how the story has been told, by whom, and the fact that youth activism has to a very large extent been erased from the versions told to children. This absence is significant, since children and young people were certainly among those who opposed Mosley and their police guard. For instance, eyewitness reports and testimony from those who participated say children were encouraged to throw marbles under the hoofs of the mounted policemen’s horses.


This was evidently an effective strategy as the consequences are mentioned in many accounts, including this description given by a man who was a fifteen-year-old participant: “Suddenly, the horses’ hoofs were flying and the horses were falling down because young kids were throwing marbles.” Girls tell how they went out armed with pockets full of pepper dust to throw in the faces of the fascists. Children also climbed up lamp-posts to see over the crowds and direct the protesters to places where the police presence was weak. Two juveniles were among the 85 people arrested at the scene and a number of others had to be treated for injuries.

More than such involvement by individual children and young people, however, is the fact that a major anti-fascist rally that had been organised for the same day by the Young Communist League to raise money for the Republicans in Spain day was redirected from Trafalgar Square to the streets where the Blackshirts were scheduled to march. This means a huge youth contingent swelled the numbers present in and around Cable Street. (The YCL was the communist equivalent of groups such as the Scouts, the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades and the YMCA/YWCA.)     

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Leaflet and YCL logo. There wasn’t time to reprint leaflets so the existing ones were over-printed with instructions to rally near Cable Street.

This is far from the first time that children on the left of society had taken to the streets of Britain to demonstrate a political stance, but it was the most tumultuous. More usually their street activities took the form of pageants, tableaux, short plays and processions on political themes and subjects such as peace, internationalism and reforming the economy.


Such performances were often scripted, constituting a politically motivated subgenre of children’s literature and a form of activism. In the 1930s these were complemented by left-wing children’s publications that exhorted children to activism by celebrating the contributions of children to uprisings in the past, children’s bravery in opposing fascism at home and abroad, and encouraging them to prepare for the revolution they believed was soon to come.



Examples of radical children's stories, from Martin's Annual 1935 and elsewhere

The symbolic value of babies, children, and young people – whether as victims of neglect or the hope of the nation’s future – was fully exploited by protesters. In the weeks following the demonstrations around Cable Street, infants and children of all ages were very much in evidence in new demonstrations demanding improvements in the living conditions of the poor, such as orchestrated rent strikes in cities across the UK. These were a direct spin-off from the events in Cable Street, for the Left feared there were opportunities for the fascists in areas beset by the problems of poverty, not least of which was high rents for atrocious housing.

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Most of these activities and the texts supporting them are long forgotten, but since the 1990s, various accounts of the Battle of Cable Street written for children have been produced, and materials about the events feature in teaching materials, including those created outside the UK. For instance, FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES, a US-based organisation that aims to use education to prevent racism, bigotry, prejudice and intolerance and to explain how democracy works includes two units on the Battle of Cable Street. The compilers believe that ‘…by engaging with this history, students will think critically about the choices made by the East End community and its allies in 1936 and then consider choices available to them as agents of change in the face of prejudice and discrimination….’ In other words, The Battle of Cable Street is seen as useful to helping young people today understand themselves as implicated in the way events in the world around them play out.

The teaching units ask them to think about what they would have done then, and what they might do now. It is significant that FACING HISTORY is an independent organisation that offers materials for free and provides professional development outside the mainstream of educational systems. Since the days of student protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there has been considerable concern by governments in many countries to prevent classrooms from fostering youthful radicalism and to containing student activism (Woodman; Myers).

The FACING HISTORY units make use of historical records, including eyewitness testimony, memoirs, reportage and legal proceedings. Many of the same materials inform fictional accounts of the Battle of Cable Street for children and young people, but where the teaching materials encourage pupils to position themselves alongside the activists, in fictional accounts, the Cable Street setting is much more circumspect about portraying children as activists. Indeed, the two most recent novels about Cable Street suggest that even for those avowedly on the Left, a combination of ambivalence and constraint is affecting how far children’s books promote youthful activism.


The first of these is Alan Gibbons’s Street of Tall People. Published in 1995, it retells the events leading up to Cable Street half a century after they occurred. Gibbons is a self-proclaimed activist for the Left, so his decision to write about an incident that is claimed as a significant victory for both the Left and working people is unsurprising. What is surprising is the way this story treats the two boys at its centre as witnesses to history rather than participants. Jimmy lives in a bug-infested, run-down block of flats with his mother in a poor part of London’s East End while Benny comes from an Orthodox Jewish family a few streets away. Ordinarily Jews and Gentiles in the area don’t mix, but the boys encounter each other in the boxing ring and strike up a strong friendship. They meet each other in the days leading up to Mosley’s planned march through the East End, something of which Jimmy and the people he lives among are largely unaware. Listening to the talk among Benny’s family and friends, he picks up on their fear and also discovers that the hated rent collector, who has started dating his mother, is a Blackshirt.

The boys want to help ‘stop Mosley,’ but they arrive after the Blackshirts have retreated. This is in part because the story significantly underplays the extent of the Left’s preparations for the march. Although rumours abound, there is little evidence of an organised response beyond a woman handing out leaflets and a car with a placard urging all the locals to come out to ‘Bar the road to fascism’. At one point Benny’s older sister and her fiancée are seen manning a first aid station, but there is no mention of the Trafalgar Square demonstration or the role of young people in helping to orchestrate the resistance to the police and the fascists.

More importantly, for most of the story, Jimmy and Benny are seen as quite independent and capable. Jimmy is one of the best boxers at his club and Benny is clever and ambitious. When they finally get to the streets where the fighting is taking place, however, their youth and vulnerability become their defining features. Indeed, the book’s title contrasts their size with the real activists: ‘He saw the bearded Jews standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people who’d never seen the inside of a synagogue in their lives. There were no Jews or goyim, only people; a street of tall people.’ (105)

As with children at the time, the boys climb a lamp post where they can see what’s going on. In practical terms this allows Gibbons to have them describe the red flags and banner proclaiming ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ The lamp post, the banners and many other details in the book indicate that Gibbons did considerable research into the events and how young people were involved, but though Benny and Jimmy are indisputably on the side of the locals, they are not marble and pepper-dust throwers and they do not use their vantage point to direct the crowds. They do, however, follow the crowd as it moves on to defend Cable Street. There they see broken glass, overturned lorries, smashed furniture, and debris of all sorts and hear from another spectator that the fighting has not been with the Blackshirts but with the police because, ‘Mosley won’t do his own dirty work.’ (106)

Gibbons makes it clear that boys their age do not belong on the streets during times of political uproar. People tell them to go home because, ‘This is no place for children’ and, ‘This could turn nasty.’ (103) Ultimately, the boys are in the way rather than helping with the action. When the police make another charge and nearly trample Benny, the boys have to be rescued by a docker and returned to their families. Far from being disappointed, however, the boys are satisfied, because not only did they see the East End come together to prevent the fascists marching, but their escapade brings their families together. The Battle of Cable Street is used not to inspire activism but to promote the virtues of class unity, inclusion and multiculturalism, and Street of Tall People does this in a very traditional way: by having children show grow-ups the error of their ways and making friendships that ignore social barriers based on prejudice and ignorance. And this, rather than political activism, is the purpose of the story.


Joan Lingard’s Trouble on Cable Street (2014) is for a slightly older audience (teenagers rather than pre-teens) and it is much more invested in youth activism. As well as showing young people successfully resisting the efforts of the Blackshirts to commandeer support in the Cable Street area, it also features young men who join the International Brigades to fight in Spain. These two strands are intertwined in ways that celebrate youthful idealism, passion and commitment without suggesting that these qualities can guarantee success.

Lingard is, of course, no newbie when it comes to writing about conflicts and how young people are caught up in them. Her Kevin and Sadie novels from the 1970s are among the few to deal with the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Catholic Kevin and Protestant Sadie begin by being staunch supporters of their own communities but their encounters gradually shift from hostile to sympathetic and eventually romantic. Their activism is on a local and empathetic level, though especially in Across the Barricades (1972) it is also caught up in the marching season and the wider hostilities. They suffer for their relationship but they are morally and emotionally strong. By extension, these qualities and their unflagging resolution are projected onto youth as a category, but not in an easy, naïve or traditional way. As a stand-alone novel featuring less immediate conflicts, Trouble on Cable Street could never accomplish as much as the Kevin and Sadie books. Nevertheless, it paints an informed and empathetic picture of young people growing up in conflicted times and making a difference. Activism here is on an individual level. It means standing up for what you believe in; being informed and educated; and committing to your beliefs in the service of others, irrespective of age, sex, nationality, religion, or ethnicity.

The Battle of Cable Street occurs in the opening pages of the book. It is used to show how volatile the situation was locally and globally. The area around Cable Street is populated with migrants. We meet the central character, Isabella, whose mother is Spanish, her best friend is Irish, and Izzie works as a seamstress for a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Nearly 16, Izzie has been working since she was 14 – like all the young people in the area who can find work. Her 17-year-old brother Will is preparing to leave to fight in Spain at the start of the book – and he is cheered by the street when he leaves for the station. The family helps a Scottish boy who came to support the Cable Street opposition before going to Spain (but dies as a consequence of his injuries) and a wounded friend of Will’s who arrives from the fighting in Spain. Essentially all the action is done by young people.

The most important action is associated with the Battle of Cable Street. Another of Izzie’s brothers as well as a co-worker are among those seduced by the promises of the Blackshirts. Izzie is pursued by one of the Mosley’s entourage, but is not taken in by his smooth manners and polished arguments. She helps expose the Blackshirts’ political aims and violent tactics, thereby discrediting the movement among her friends and, more importantly, the readers.

Although Izzie is not an activist organiser, she participates in The Battle of Cable Street and crucially, she carries on its work of opposing Mosley and trying to improve life for the people in her area. Another significant factor in the book is that Izzie and her family are committed to education. She attends night school and is eventually able to move up from seamstress to stenographer – and she plans to continue to study and rise. Her father, too, continues with his education and at home enjoys reading the classics.

Both Izzie’s ability to act and to discriminate between causes are grounded in her well-trained and informed mind. For budding activists, this is arguably the most important lesson of all: the energy, passion and ideals of the young can be caught up in perverted causes if they lack the ability to interrogate arguments and the moral compass that distinguishes between right and wrong. Her less educated older brother becomes, for a time, a ‘useful idiot’ in the service of the Blackshirts, but he has the courage to disown them when he learns to see them clearly.


Heed the truth/ spoken by the youth

There are many books that offer this lesson, but fewer which do so in the kind of political context created by The Battle of Cable Street. Recently we have seen a resurgence of youthful activism around gun control in the USA and climate change in a great many countries. As well as reportage, it feels important that the rising generation has the chance to engage empathetically with well-informed fiction that takes them through the challenges, dilemmas, set-backs and particularly the importance of organised opposition to policies and practices that put the future – everybody’s future – at risk. 

Radical reading and radical writing: remaking children’s literature
Thursday, 12 May 2016 16:25

Radical reading and radical writing: remaking children’s literature

Published in Fiction

Professor Kim Reynolds introduces radical children's literature, and says the time has come when children can become radical writers as well as radical readers. 

Many people think of writing for children and young people as little more than a training ground for readers; something you pass through on the way to real literature. There are certainly children’s and Young Adult books that just entertain readers, but the best books are those that linger in the mind and grow with readers through life. Because it is one of the first ways in which we encounter stories and begin to explore other people, places, and ideas, children’s literature can play an important part in shaping how we understand and think about the world. This is especially true of what I call ‘radical children’s literature’. You won’t find a shelf of these in any bookstore or library, but radical writing has been around as long as children’s books have been published. In the past there have been children’s books that opposed slavery, children’s books that campaigned to stop children from being forced to clean chimneys and work long hours in factories, and children’s books that pointed to the degrading poverty and abuse suffered by many homeless children in Britain’s cities.

The tradition continues. Four years ago, the Little Rebels Book Award was created to celebrate radical children’s books. Despite its name, the Award, is not concerned with rebellious characters in children’s literature; it celebrates books that inspire readers to question the status quo and become socially and politically engaged. This is the essence of radical children’s literature: radical writers and illustrators help readers recognise that the way world is currently organised is not inevitable, and that even the youngest members of society can help to change it. They can also help bring about change by becoming radical writers.

Children’s literature is the only kind of writing to be named for its readers rather than its creators (think, for example, of women’s writing, black writing, Asian writing, and postcolonial writing). One reason for this is that in the past, children’s writers have not had the means to reach wide audiences. Digital technology, the Internet and the option to ‘print on demand’ are changing this. Whether in the form of traditional novels, such as the Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini, begun with the self-published volume, Eragon (2001), fan fiction, or stories written and circulated on mobile phones, young people are producing and circulating an unprecedented amount of fiction. But how much of this writing is radical writing for an audience of other young people? To qualify as radical children’s literature, writing needs to start from the assumption that children and young people are socially aware and interested in changing society. It will then do some – or all - of the following:


- new ideas about how society could work better

- offer new visions of how society is organised, managed, and sustained.


- readers acquire the skills, ideas and information they will need to bring about progressive change.

Meaning they are

- dedicated to achieving a more stable, fair and equal society at levels of wealth, sex, class, sexuality, ethnicity and race.

They also

- feature all kinds of children and people, not just the dominant and most visible groups in society.

To achieve these aims, radical writers may use fiction, non-fiction, journalism, verse, graphic novels, picturebooks or any other genre or format, to raise concerns about injustice, inequality, or discrimination. This might be done through writing that promotes equality and peace, or discredits stereotypes, or encourages readers to become aware of the many challenges facing the health of the planet and the wellbeing of people in all parts of the world.

The winners of the Little Rebels Award provide a good sample of recent radical writing. The first Award went to Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between. This is a moving graphic novel, written and illustrated by the author. It tells the story of Azzi, a refugee girl who has to leave her country because of war. She and her family undergo a dangerous and exhausting journey to reach this country, but this is just one part of the refugee experience. They have to learn a new language and manage the systems and legal requirements of their new country. The family is not warmly welcomed by the community around them; things are no better for Azzi at school. But they persevere, and gradually begin to make progress and become accepted.

The Azzi family

Azzi’s story is the story of refugee children across the centuries; sadly it is as topical today as it was during crises such as the Great Depression and the Holocaust. Sarah Garland did not just write a story based on news reports, however. She did considerable research, interviewing adult and child refugees, reading memoirs, talking to teachers and others who work with refugee children. This is an important feature of radical writing: it must be based on reliable information and informed world views and told powerfully so that readers want to find out more. In this case, the comic-strip style illustrations help establish setting and convey the stress and alienation the characters feel without the need for too much description, meaning the book is able to be understood by readers of different ages.

In 2014 the Little Rebels winner was Gillian Cross’s After Tomorrow. This novel cleverly turns the familiar perspective of the refugee story on its head to give those who are lucky enough only to have been spectators of refugeedom some sense of what it might be like. The novel is set in a not-too-distant future in which all the banks have crashed and the UK has become chaotic. Food is desperately short, and bands of thieves raid homes, stealing whatever food there is. Violence is ubiquitous. After one such raid, Matt and his family decide to join the other refugees who are fleeing to France in the hope of finding a better life. Just as they are leaving their mother has to stay behind and this begins a series of separations and challenges that test the family in every possible way. The point of the book is not to create fear, but to make readers think about economics and ethics; about why we are so dependent on banks and how quickly a society can descend into lawlessness. It also asks readers to think how they would want to behave if they were similarly tested. It does this by requiring those of us who normally feel protected from the crises in other parts of the world to recognise that without addressing some fundamental aspects of culture, we too could be forced to seek refuge in another part of the world.

Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis was the 2015 winner. This radical text is concerned with mental illness, animal welfare and the plight of child carers and children in care. It tells the story of Scarlet, who looks after her mentally ill mother and a younger brother who loves birds but struggles with people. Eventually Scarlet is placed with a foster family who understand that she is still the lynchpin of her family. Birds weave the book’s multiple storylines together and provide a moving backdrop for a story that focuses attention on the courage, loyalty and competence of children. As Scarlet Ibis shows, some children are already changing their worlds.

A very different kind of book is the most recent winner of the Little Rebels Award. This is the picturebook, I am Henry Finch, written by Alexis Deacon and illustrated by Viviane Schwarz.

Henry Finch

Instead of focusing on politics or social issues, I am Henry Finch is a deceptively simple looking book that can be enjoyed by even tiny children even though it explores the relationship between thinking and identity in some very sophisticated philosophical ways. It asks questions about how we think and how we know we think and how we can change ourselves through thinking. Henry has been living his life as one of a mass of finches who all do the same things all things at the same time in the same way. Sometimes they disappear inside the belly of The Beast. And then Henry starts to think – and to become aware that he is thinking. With thinking comes responsibility. He takes on The Beast and for ever changes finch life as all the other finches discover they too are individuals with their own desires and aims.

Given the many serious problems that are currently affecting how we live: conflicts, global warming, unemployment and the instability of global finances, it has rarely been more important for the rising generation to be well-informed, to learn new skills, and to be prepared to help with the work of making the world safer, fairer and more sustainable. Each of the Little Rebels winners – like all radical children’s literature - assumes that readers want to be challenged intellectually, emotionally and politically. Creators of radical children’s literature recognise that young people are citizens with abilities, responsibilities, and problems, and they aspire to help them make the most of their potential. Logically, then, they also believe that children have something to say. The power of digital media means that children and young people can now have their say. The time has come when children and young people can be radical writers and illustrators as well as radical readers.


Readers - and children and young people they know - are invited to respond creatively to this article. Send in your stories and illustrations to us and we will publish the best ones.

 Azzi in Between is £6.99 and I am Henry Finch is £5.99 from Letterbox Library,, which also stocks many other fine books for little rebels. Letterbox Library also run the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children's Fiction on behalf of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB). You can keep up to date with all of the award news here: