Here are 8 amazing books to read this Black History Month

Published on: 03 October 2016 Author: Catherine Johnson

Author Catherine Johnson reminds us why we need Black History Month more than ever - and how books play such a vital role for children making sense of the past.

Catherine Johnson

October! Black History Month!

Oh, I know what you're thinking - and believe me, I am too. We shouldn't need it; not in the 21st century. And, anyway, Black History is British History.

I'm British, a Londoner born and bred - and like a lot of Londoners, my parents came from somewhere else. Two different 'somewhere elses', which meant that I have only ever seen this country as my home. This is it.

And because it seems like everything's gone all 1970s (being told to go home - where exactly? - is now a thing again), I think our country's past is a topic that needs to be urgently re-addressed.

Country of movement

British history has always been one of movement, and we would do well to be reminded of this: from the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (Libyan by birth) who ended his days in York in AD211, to the sizeable black population of Georgian England, the UK's past looks less like a UKIP conference and more like present-day Oxford Circus.

All right, I'll admit that's an exaggeration, but the important fact is that we were here.

Hidden histories

I grew up on a diet of BBC Sunday afternoon family dramas - often Leon Garfield adaptations and family films like The Amazing Mr Blunden. How I longed to see someone like me wearing those frocks!

It really was mostly frocks rather than battles that got me hooked - that and reading Peter Fryer's incomparable work Staying Power nearly 20 years ago. I was researching a man called John Ystumllyn (look him up!) Although he's never made it into my books, I've taken it as something of a mission to write novels uncovering other, hidden, histories.

In novels like The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, A Nest of Vipers and Sawbones, I've put protagonists of colour - often based on truth - into exciting and entertaining (I hope) stories.

Tomorrow's citizens

Books for young readers that address a different British past are actually quite hard to find. I'd recommend Letterbox Library as an excellent place to start looking.

In my latest, Blade and Bone, Ezra McAdam young surgeon anatomist is searching for his friends on the run in revolutionary France. Of course he runs into another hero of mine, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (the inspiration for more than one of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) who deserves several books of his own. It's an adventure, a romp - with a nod to medical history thrown in. 'Nod' being the word - there are heads.

But why does it matter whether modern readers know they belong here? Well, those readers are tomorrow's citizens.

We all have a stake in the future, and knowing that we've had a stake in the past is vital - and not only to minority readers. As I said at the beginning, this stuff is all our history.

Eight Black History reads

Books to read during Black History Month

These are my Lucky Eight Black History Reads. I've been pretty strict, and I'm going with UK History all the way. I just wish there was more of it...

  1. Staying Power by Peter Fryer. An inspiring history of black and Asian people in Britain since Roman times. For adults, but readable and accessible by teens.
  2. For younger readers, teacher Dan Lyndon's non-fiction Black History series - notably Resistance and Abolition - are great reads for 10-14s.
  3. Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman is a rip-roaring smuggling adventure set in Devon for readers over 12.
  4. Respect by Michaela Morgan: the true story of Walter Tull - Barnardo's Boy, Spurs footballer and officer in the First World War. Michaela also wrote Walter Tull's Scrapbook, a very accessible introduction suitable for children aged 7+.
  5. Hooray for Mary Seacole by Trish Cooke: a story book about an incredible woman, accessible for readers aged 5+.
  6. Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin is a prize-winning novel for readers over 12; one of the main characters, Toby, is the son of a slave in mid-18th-century Britain.
  7. Coming To England by Floella Benjamin is the warm and very moving autobiographical story of her journey from Trinidad to England in the 1960s ­- it was first published in 1988 but counts as history now. Floella's family were part of a whole generation of West Indians who were encouraged to move to Britain to help rebuild the country after the Second World War, but they faced discrimination and racism when they arrived. A must read.
  8. The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre publish a series of non-fiction books produced in Manchester by authors and local schoolchildren. These are biographies of Black Britons, including writers Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano, and composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor.

Catherine Johnson's latest novel, Blade and Bone, is out now, published by Walker Books.

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