'What? The Real Jane Ray in our house?'
Published on: 27 Ebrill 2015 Author: Sita Brahmachari
One of the wonderful things about this Book Trust Blog is that I get an excuse to meet and talk to some of the artists I admire so much. When I told my 10 year old daughter that I would be doing an interview with author/illustrator Jane Ray in our home this was her response!
'What? The real Jane Ray? In our house.' She looked around at the messy breakfast table and began clearing up herself! 'She's amazing. You're so lucky.'
My daughter had been lucky enough to have Jane come and talk to her in her school about storytelling. Jane's beautiful illustrations have been the source of much shared delight in our family for many years as my children grew up (my oldest children are now 16 and 18).
Jane Ray's diverse fairy tales
As a young mother I noticed that Jane's fairy tale characters and representations reflected something of the identity of my children. My children fell in love with what I have always thought of as Jane Ray's magical gift to children - a treasury of diverse fairy tales. So... I can understand my daughter's amazement that Jane Ray was to step through our door. Like a fairy tale coming true. It was a hard task to persuade her to go to school that morning!
From Apple Pip Princess Published by Orchard 2007
In a recent school visit I chatted to a young English teacher who said she had started making a book shelf for her future children. I love this 'forward planning' idea so much. In sorting through books as my children get older I have begun my own 'Grandmother shelf!' these are books for keeps across the generations and Jane Ray's books feature large on these shelves!
I first met Jane when we were both commissioned by the Pop Up Festival. One day we shared a car journey. I have to admit to being as excited at the prospect of meeting Jane as my daughter was. Almost a year on and we are now planning a joint project at a refugee project focusing on storytelling and the patchwork material out of which all lives are formed.
Promoting diversity and inclusion in children's books
Jane was recently an artist facilitator invited by Alex Strick and Beth Cox to 'A Place at The Table' (along with Ken Wilson-Max, Pippa Goodhart and James Dawson). This event was an opportunity to discuss and promote real diversity and inclusion in children's books and contributed to the Inclusive Minds charter.
The event was based on a model from the US, where people from all aspects of the children's book world - teachers, librarians, publishers, editors, marketing and publicity departments - gathered around tables to make a consolidated effort to bring about changes in the industry to include every child, whatever their ethnicity, disability or sexuality.
For me what is of such great appeal in Jane Ray's work is its quiet compassion and beauty. Here are some of her images juxtaposed with quotes from our conversations about diverse representations in her books.
I have divided the images and comments by Jane into sections... a little like a blog gallery tour.
Jane Ray on inclusive and diverse children's book illustrations
Representing a diverse audience
'The children I meet are ethnically diverse, and I would frankly, be embarrassed if my "audience" wasn't represented in the books I am making for them. So, from the beginning of my career I have included characters of different ethnicities, and I have particularly enjoyed bringing those differences to the traditional "flaxen haired" European traditions of Grimm , Perrault and Andersen.
'In Fairy Tales, a selection of 10 classic fairy tales, retold by Berlie Doherty, which I illustrated for Walker Books in 2000, I "played around" with different ethnicities - the prince in Cinderella was Black, as was Beauty, in Beauty and the Beast, and the princess in The Frog Prince was Asian.'
Stories outside of Europe
'I have also written some contemporary fairy tales such as The Apple Pip Princess (Orchard) and Ahmed and the Feather Girl (Frances Lincoln) where the entire story steps outside a Eurocentric setting.
'In addition, if I hadn't become an author/illustrator I would have been a teacher, like my mum before me. I was always particularly interested in areas of special educational need. For a long time I wanted to be a teacher of deaf children, and I am still very interested in this.'
A deaf prince
'I was lucky enough to do some work with Joyce Dunbar at Meridian Primary School, in Woolwich. The school has a unit for deaf and partially hearing children, run by a wonderful teacher called Nati White. Following on our sessions about the need for fantasy, myth and fairy tale in books for deaf children as opposed to "issue" books, Joyce wrote and I illustrated Moonbird - a fairy tale about a deaf prince. (Published by Random House)
'The response by the children at Meridian was very moving - many of them said they had never thought that a child who was deaf or partially hearing, like them, could be the hero in a picture book. It made them very proud.'
How illustrations affect people
'People do write and tell me that certain illustrations have been important to them. I had an email just last week from a young girl in America about the Fairy Tales I did with Berlie Doherty:'
'I read that book cover to cover dozens of times and visually associated every illustration with those timeless stories. What stuck with me the most was the fact that I could see myself in those drawings as a brown girl. Even as a young child, I recognized how important it was to see myself in a children's book. I never realized how much these beautiful pictures influenced the way that I drew myself until I took a look back at some of my old artwork.'
There is a long way to go
'When working in a primary class room, I sometimes ask children to draw themselves as a fairy tale character.
'Invariably all the princesses will be white with golden hair, no matter what the ethnicity of the young artist. This stuff is so deeply engrained and there is a long, long way to go.'
Illustrations and self esteem
'A poignant example of this was the response by a primary class in Tottenham, where the majority of the children were black.
'Several of the children were adamant that the black prince, in my version of Cinderella, kneeling at Cinderella's feet to try on the glass slipper, was the servant. That shocked me and convinces me that the work we do as authors and illustrators is vital to children's self esteem.'
'The crutch, leg brace or 'invalid carriage' of yester year was not an object of liberation and can appear sinister and negative, which is the exact opposite of how I want to portray disability. For modern children, there are brightly coloured hearing aids, fluorescent leg splints, extremely cool wheelchairs and all manner of other useful and attractive equipment which can be incorporated into an illustration in a positive way, but these would be in-appropriate in an 18th Century setting, for example.
'It can also be challenging to depict the subtleties of learning disability. The particular features of a child with Downs Syndrome, or getting across aspects of Autism or Asperger's - these things are often difficult to get right.'
We must maintain momentum
'I think we simply have to keep on trying! Practical help is vital. A few years back, I was involved with In The Picture, a lottery funded project that aimed to include more images of disability in children's' books (and from which Inclusive Minds grew). Amongst other things, we developed an image bank for illustrators, to give access to all sorts of help with depicting different aspects of disability. We also mounted an exhibition of inclusive illustration which was a great focus for discussion, and encouraged other illustrators.
'Society is changing, slowly. The Paralympics effect was huge, and I think has made a lasting change, though the momentum must be maintained.'
A message for aspiring author/illustrators from Jane Ray
Seize diversity and embrace it for the rich gift that it is.
To reach new audiences who are hungry for your work is inspiring and exciting.
To enable a child to see themselves in a book, to see an aspect of their story being told, is a powerful and liberating gift.
And to get those children writing and illustrating, becoming the authors and illustrators of tomorrow, is the way forward
Check out Sita's book
More from Sita's time as Writer in Residence.