The importance of showing working-class lives in children’s books

Published on: 12 June 2024

Author Lanisha Butterfield explains why all kinds of representation are crucial.

As the biracial child of a white single mother growing up in a flat on a council estate, it was hard to find positive representation of my world and community. By contrast, negative representation flowed in all directions: tactless comments from teachers and adults who should have known better, lesser treatment from social landlords and rampant, ignorant stereotyping in the media. Public housing communities were presented as bleak, grimy spaces, where everyone was a potential criminal or victim, to be pitied and avoided at all costs. More than anything, what these communities were absolutely not, according to them, was happy. If you hear it enough over time, those negative messages chime into one single narrative: 'you're not good enough'.

I loved my home, family and community, and I couldn't understand why outsiders didn't see what I could – I still can't. 'We're just normal people, living our lives – like you. We have good times, bad times, sad times and JOYFUL times, just like you!', I would rant to myself.

My beloved books were my escape. Between those pages my life wasn't a punchline, or a cautionary tale, it just didn't exist, and I was fine with that. I understood that tigers only came knocking at your door if you were white and lived in a Mayfair townhouse, and that you only found gorgeous secret gardens if your white uncle's estate was big enough to hide one. I was in it for the story, and that was enough.

But then when I was six, my mum bought me Carry Go Bring Come, by Vyanne Samuels. It was the first book I ever read about a Black child, from a beautiful, blended family, and my whole perspective shifted. I think that was when I first realised that someone like me was worthy of story too. That my dreams could be magical too. Since then, a joyful, technicolour explosion of inclusive fiction titles has allowed more and more children's experiences to be heard, valued and celebrated. Stories for all ethnicities, genders, family types and even personality types. But, despite this glorious array of experience, I believe there is still work to be done. Positive representation of social housing and lower income communities feels like a story barrier that desperately needs to come down.

It is widely understood now that representation matters. That not seeing people like you reflected in the world around you can make or break a child's development and self-esteem. That seeing and reading about other people's lives has a direct impact on our empathy. But I would argue that representation should apply to 'normal, working-class life' too. Normal homes, with normal families, living normal lives, parents working normal jobs. Children with normal friends, facing and overcoming normal challenges. To break the cycle of young people believing that good things only happen to wealthy, successful people, we as creators have to write the stories that plant the seeds of hope that anything is possible.

There are books that do this, of course. Sharna Jackson's ground-breaking High Rise Mystery, for 9-12 year olds, for instance. Joseph Coelho and Richard Johnson's beautiful picture book Our Tower. In the brilliant forthcoming Maya and Marley: The Great Big Tidy Up, the wonderful Laura Henry-Allain MBE introduces the Street Sweeper Crew, who are a pivotal and joyous addition to the story. I can't wait until representation like that is the standard and not the exception.

But even in story, there remains a huge double standard between what is celebrated in wealthy spaces and demonised in others. For example, living on the top floor of a tower block and a luxury penthouse get very different responses and have very different benefits. In a luxury block, a roof-top garden is standard. In a tower block, it's a health and safety hazard. Why? I believe this needs to change, which is why in my new picture book, Flower Block, I ask: Why can't a magic garden grow on the roof of a tower block?

If fairytale and magic are truly for everyone and can be found anywhere, then every home is valuable, every family matters and every community deserves to be joyfully, unapologetically celebrated once in a while. That includes the residents of the tower block at the end of the road.

Flower Block by Lanisha Butterfield, illustrated by Giang Hoang, is out now.

Topics: Features

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