The Importance of Children’s Literature as a Means of Public History
When children’s literature is mentioned what comes to mind? Colorful pictures and warm happy endings, a moral lesson or two? What about children’s literature as an arena for controversial and societal defining debates? This aspect of children’s literature — its reflective quality, by capturing and addressing current trends and debates in the society in which it is produced often goes forgotten or unrealized by many. Children’s literature is often an interesting piece of public history and an invaluable mechanism that adults within a society use to mold the youth — to predict and shape young minds as they grow up, and therefore influence how their society will be characterized. It is in this sense that children’s literature provides a window for historians to observe a society.
Despite the rare acknowledgement of these cultural battles occurring in Children’s literature they are ongoing. For example, twenty-first century British Children’s literature is speaking to the debate over British identity and the British imperial legacy. In specific, British Children’s historical fiction is working to deconstruct the imperial era British narratives of major historical events and share the point of view of the “other,” the colonized, during these major events. In her book Discourses of Postcolonialism in Contemporary British Children’s Literature, literary scholar Blanka Gryzegorczyk emphasizes trend in current British children’s historical fiction, saying: “the revisionist impulse of postcolonial historical fiction manifests itself in a decentering of colonial authority and an empowerment of the other.” Current historical scholarship on the British Empire rejects long held histories told by those in power, the elite leaders of the British Empire, in favor of complicating the history and legacy of the British Empire. This literature takes into account the perspective of the colonized, many whose ancestors moved to Britain and helped to comprise a multicultural Britain made up of people from a diverse group of ethnicities and backgrounds; and now consider themselves to be British in some form — some such historians include: Timothy Parsons, Philippa Levine, Shashi Tharoor, and David Olusoga. Current British children’s historical fiction parallels the current historiography on the British Empire. In this article, we will look at the current debate of the legacy of the British Empire — taking into account how the empire is remembered in children’s literature — as well as the debate over who is now considered a Briton and how British identity is defined. We will also look at this from the lense of 21st century British children’s historical fiction, which emerged in the second part of the 20th century with the development of a multicultural Britain.
The images above share the drastically different and conflicting narratives of the Indian Uprising of 1857. With the 1857 political cartoon, pictured on the left, depicting the Indians as savages via the tiger savagely attacking a woman and child and the British as heroes via the lion who is heroically intervening. Contrastingly, the 2002 children’s historical fiction book Indian Mutiny : Hanuman Singh, India, 1857-1858, by Pratima Mitchell, pictured on the right, rewrites the imperial era narrative depicted by the political cartoon, aligning with current histories — by discussing the plight of the Indians under the harsh British rule — and speaking to the society in which it was created, Britain in the 21st century, which is now a multicultural environment. A retelling of the Indian Mutiny for 21st century British children which obliterates the British narrative of the uprising constructed during the imperial era.
Background: The Indian Mutiny, As Told by The British Empire
0:00-2:17: Video of lecture by Professor Richard J. Evans of Gresham College. The video above highlights how the British chose to remember the Indian Rebellion during the imperial era.
One such historical event that has been reconsidered is the Indian Mutiny, or perhaps better referred to as the Indian Uprising of 1857, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or the First War for Independence. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was an uprising comprised of varying factions in the Northwestern Indian provinces – starting with the sepoys, Indian soldiers who were under British command, who believed cartridges for their rifles had been greased with pork and beef fat. The Rebellion grew to include civilians – including land owners, peasants, and nomadic peoples alike – and even a few members of royalty. The rebels did not unite behind specific causes – rather, what they mainly shared in common was their dissatisfaction with British rule in India. Many of the rebels were “demanding the reinstatement of pre-British ruling dynasties, most particularly the Mughals and the western Indian Marathas.”Though Britain was able to contain the rebellion it was still significant, it is significant in that it was used by the British crown to justify taking India away from the East India Company and henceforth the start of the British Raj, putting India under the direct rule of British crown. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 played a part in cementing the British’s goal of expanding their empire and gaining and exercising British power.
The British — obviously unhappy with the uprising and with the attack on the British population, in particular on women and children — falsified a narrative that painted the mutineers as monstrous. This is exemplified by the “lurid but untrue stories” spread by British press “that [white] female victims were raped before they were killed” by mutineers. British contempt for the mutineers was further displayed by the excessively cruel deaths mutineers were subjected to by some British officers, such as “forcing Muslims to eat pork before they were cremated and Hindus to eat beef before they were buried.” There was little regard for the massive –in comparison to the British loss of life in the rebellion — loss of life of Indian soldiers and civilians. Depiction of the Indian Mutiny during the British imperial age was one of degradant, cowardly, and cruel mutineers who were rightfully suppressed and executed by the mighty British – the British purposely finessed a narrative which completely omitted the call for Indian independence from Britain. Imperial propaganda was a major tool for the British Empire in maintaining and spreading the ideologies of empire amongst British citizens and this narrative of the mutineers as unprovoked savages who were killing white women and children was so potent and well circulated amongst the British that “it caused street demonstrations in England.” The ideas about India that came to fruition after the uprising were emphasized in British children’s literature for many decades to come.
Imperial Era British Children’s Literature
British children’s literature proliferated at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries – and a large majority of these books were reflective of the British’s pro-imperial agenda. The emphasis of empire in British children’s books is not divergent from what was typical in British life at the time, as author of Empire’s Children: Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children’s Books, M. Daphne Kutzer, emphasizes how “empire was everywhere in British culture of the period playing an important role in everything from Christmas pantomimes to music hall songs to children’s periodicals to advertising.”
The Jungle Book
One author whose work is extremely well-know today and whose impact is still reverberating is Rudyard Kipling. Kipling wrote the Jungle Books, The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, which were originally published in 1894 and 1895. Rudyard Kipling’s relationship with India was a multifaceted one – he had a love for India but also a love for imperialism, and both these parts of him play out in his writings, including novels, poems, journalism work and such.
English Professor Supriya Goswami, author of Colonial India in Children’s Literature, emphasizes how the Jungle Books, in particular the popular stories of Mowgli, emphasize law and order – which was a strict establishment in India post-Mutiny. Furthermore, Kipling emphasizes the use of force and punishment to ensure laws are followed — this parallels the perspective taken by some Anglo-Indian administrators in post-Indian Mutiny India. In the same vein, Daphne Kutzer emphasizes how themes in Kipling’s works emphasize imperialism and its ideologies which were cemented in the establishment of the British Raj – such as “themes of invasion, of the importance of hierarchy and fairness both, of the dangers and necessities of empire, of the interplay between colonized and colonizer, and of the need for creative insubordination.” Ultimately works such as the Jungle Books, worked to emphasize imperialism and excite young children about Britain’s exotic imperial holdings – such as India, where they could one day have adventures as officers and colonial leaders. The positive narrative of imperialism, of its importance and greatness, that Kipling held and shared in his work was solidified post-Indian Mutiny and was fed to everyone throughout the empire by the press.
Britain in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century
However, despite the British’s love for their empire, which was in large part manufactured via literature, newspapers, and other forms of media, by post-World War II, the sun had begun to set on the British Empire. 1947 saw the Partition of India. After WWII immigration to Britain from people of formerly colonized countries increased as they hoped to escape violence and economic woes – often a result of the British’s exploitation of the country and/or the sloppy end to imperial rule – in their own countries. Though these immigrants were not always met with open arms in Britain — rather, they were often met with racism – the immigrants established strong and flourishing communities in Britain over the second half of the twentieth century.
British historian Philippa Levine describes how immigration to Britain is a defining feature in the narrative of decolonization and a resulting issue in post-empire Britain is “about the status of those whose histories were linked to Britain’s imperial expansion, and who among them could truly be regarded – and why – as British.” A defining feature of late twentieth and twenty-first century Britain is this inability to define who is British – no longer can white Britons define being British by race and superiority over their subjects in their colonies. So how is the British identity characterized in a world where the descendants of the colonizers and the colonized live and work together? This has been an ongoing debate in contemporary Britain – with Britains multicultural society, defining British identity based on race seems unfathomable, yet to many it still a defining fact of British identity.
With the second part of the twentieth century came the idea that identity has been self-constructed — the idea that national identities are not inherent but rather are “imagined communities” that humans create. The realization that categories which European imperialists had used to define their people, such as race, were created to play a part in likewise fabricated stories of national origin which then was utilized to back imperialism, left people in a state of confusion over their history and their identity. How could they define their national identity or their history without using these Eurocentric invented categories?
Revisionist History and British Children’s Literature; Adopting the Point of View of the Other
In current works of public history, the way the British Empire is being remembered differs greatly from how it was considered a century ago by Kipling. An example of public history which is re-assessing the British Empire is literature, in specific historical fiction. Historical fiction as a genre has been important in allowing people to access the past in ways that they are often not able to in academic historical work – by taking on such a personal perspective through characters, people are submerged in a different time period and world. Furthermore, recent works of historical fiction have helped to debate the question of British identity by giving voice to those whose voices have been omitted in history. This question of who is British and whether or not race plays a factor in defining a Briton is being grappled with in twenty-first century British children’s historical fiction.
The Scholastic UK tween book series – My Story – which emerged at the start of the twenty-first century, is an example of how British culture is working to accept multiculturalism as a defining characteristic of its identity through reassessing the history of the British Empire by means of children’s historical fiction. This book series takes a look at different events in British history in each book and tells stories from the point of view of an older child who lived through the event — significantly, many of the books in the series give voices to those who would have been marginalized during his or her era, in this sense it is a book series of its time. This series aligns with more recent historical work, such as revisionist history which has taken a look at the colonized and had worked to incorporate their voices in the historical narrative, as well as the fact that its creation is reflective of a new British identity from what existed a century ago.
The Indian Rebellion of 1857, A 21st Century Perspective; Indian Mutiny: Hanuman Singh, India, 1857-1858
The recognition of the colonized and their plight under the British is center stage in the 2002 My Story series book Indian Mutiny: Hanuman Singh, India, 1857-1858 which takes quite a different stance on imperialism and British leadership in India than British children’s literature published a century prior. In this book the Indian Mutiny is told from the point of view of a young boy — Hanuman — who by the end of the book becomes a spy and soldier for the uprising – the work starts by laying out certain problems Indians faced under British rule such as famine and starvation due to poor management of Indian farm lands by British. This discussion of problems for Indian’s under British rule is a stark contrast to imperial rhetoric of the time. The British narrative would had the British civilians believe that the Indians were greatly benefitting from British rule and that the uprising was completely uncalled for and occurred out of maliciousness.
Likewise, when the question of whether or not to join the mutineers is discussed between Hanuman and Sewak, Sewak shares how he does not know what to do. He is conflicted because he loves being in the army but he “wants to show the English whom our land belongs to,” and he shares how he knows “there are good reasons for sepoys’ discontent.” For instance, the sepoys are underpaid, their royalty are poorly treated as they are “humiliated and dispossessed,” the British have taken all of their territory and claimed it as theirs to rule, and the land tax imposed on the Indians is “so rough and ready” it has “crippled” many Indians. This scene is an important one because it lays out all the reasons why the sepoys and Indian civilians are rebelling – and they are compelling reasons. As Sewak shares, the British have just come and decided that they had the right to rule the Indians and are exploring them and causing them harm by taking their land, abusing their labor, demanding taxes and more. This book makes it clear that British imperialism is not really benefiting anyone except the British, as many current historians have likewise emphasized; however, it is important to note that the legacy of empire in this sense, whether empire has done more harm than good and whether or not the colonized benefited at all from empire, is a source of continued debate. In Indian Mutiny the Indian Rebellion is depicted as a necessity and as a response to horrid treatment on the part of the British – not as some unprovoked, savage, killing spree as the British narrative of the time went.
How the British Empire is understood and remembered by the public is something that is constantly changing and is in motion. Public history is shaped by many different factors – and British children’s historical fiction of the twenty-first century is shaped by the British’s’ work to understand and accept their multicultural identity, like how British children’s literature of the late nineteenth century was shaped by the British’s understanding of themselves as an imperial power and as imperial leaders. Mitchell’s book Indian Mutiny immediately frames imperialism in a negative light and shows that the British Empire did much harm to the colonized and is not something to be proud of — whereas nineteenth century British children’s literature emphasized the greatness of imperialism. This different telling of the British Empire is a result of the fall of the empire and the changes that Britain experienced in the twentieth century, it is a legacy of empire. Moreover, Indian Mutiny is a very specific reading of the history of the British Empire which seeks to decolonize British culture and institutions.
Indian Mutiny’s stance on the Indian Mutiny is reflective of the changed and complex British identity. The piece is written by Pratima Mitchell who was born in to Indian parents in India but as an adult she has called Oxford home with her family. The fact that this work is written by an immigrant to England from the British’s former “jewel in the crown” colony – and that this work gives a perspective from the point of view of who in the imperial era would have been seen as the inferior ‘other’ for British children to sympathize with should not be brushed off. Indian Mutiny exemplifies the changes Britain has undergone in terms of who is considered British. People who would not have been in the running for claiming British identity during the imperial era, such as Indians, are now a major community in England and have had great influence on the country’s culture. This leaves Britain to answer the question – who is British? The British identity has gone through such an overhaul constantly throughout the twentieth century as the goal of defining a Briton continued to be elusive after the fall of the British Empire, with new immigrants to Britain and new narratives about British imperial history, that directly conflict with the old narratives of British racial superiority, being accepted.
Revisionist history is working hard to complicate the British’s long held narratives pertaining to imperialism and to reverse these ideas grounded in racism that are ever so persistent – and twenty-first century British children’s literature is paralleling recent historical work and therefore is helping to rewrite narratives formed by the British during the height of empire. Moreover, it is not just British children’s literature that is working to include those who are ancestors of the colonized as Britons, other forms of media are likewise telling inclusive narratives which incorporate multiculturalism into the British identity. For example, in corporation with the BBC, historian David Olusoga has worked to analyze the history and legacy of empire, looking at the changes in how empire is understood by the British and the development of a new British identity which is inclusive to those who were colonized or descend from colonized peoples.
His work “The British Empire: Heroes and Villains, A Timewatch Guide” looks at how the British Empire has been depicted on British television via the BBC channel since the second half of the twentieth century. Olugosa’s work emphasizes how history is constantly being depicted and remembered differently – whilst some BBC depictions were sympathetic to empire, others emphasized the destruction and harm empire has caused for mass amounts of people who were colonized. Olusoga’s “Black and British” series looks at the complex history of black Briton’s, which Olusoga emphasizes as having been forgotten, underscoring black Briton’s long history and giving his answer to the debate on who is British, as clearly demonstrated by the shows title, black people can be British and emphasizing their history as Briton’s cements their right to identify as British.
However, the challenge of overcoming the pride of empire is formidable – in particular when stories that originated in pro-imperial sentiment continue to be cherished by adults and remade and dispensed, on a larger platform than revisionist histories can access, in mass to new generations, such as The Jungle Book, which has been remade for the silver screen more than a couple times.
Disney’s The Jungle Book, 1967; based off of Rudyard Kipling’s book of the same name. Rudyard Kipling’s works and their legacy and popularity continues on today. The idea that empire was great for the world still permeates people’s thoughts on the British Empire – that Africa and India needed to be westernized and gee, thank God for the British who ushered them into modernity because without them where would they be?
The British are proud of the British Empire rather than ashamed, as in a recent YouGov.co.UK poll 59% of participants said they were proud of empire whilst only 19% said they were ashamed of empire. The pro-imperialist messages in the Jungle Books, such as those of law and order, deference to those in power via obedience of the law, which was supposedly best for everyone, punishment for disobedience, as well as the romantization of India as an exotic adventure land for the British help to ensure the longevity of this narrative and rhetoric.
Though current children’s literature is now working to emphasize multiculturalism, and children’s historical fiction is helping to give voice to “the other,” there are still many obstacles to these valiant efforts as ideas from the imperial era are unrelenting in people’s minds – in large part thanks to these idea’s early hold on people in childhood through works such as Kipling’s which helped to solidify a British identity based off of imperialism, white superiority, and pride in being world and imperial leaders. As the current question of the characterization of British identity is complicated and forming, many continue to grasp onto this older classification as nostalgia and amnesia are very real phenomenons in the postcolonial era.
However, though Kipling’s works still linger, the debate is ongoing and the existence of the My Story series is evidence of the change in how the British Empire is remembered and in how the British identity is characterized. Mitchell’s work is written for the British children population – which in the twenty-first century is a multicultural population – and it not only allows Anglo-British children to see a story that had often depicted the Indians as the “bad guys” in a light that isn’t falsified and propagated against Indians, it also allows Indian-British children to see a story that is sympathetic to the plight of their ancestors. Essentially, Mitchell’s book helps to mold British children into accepting good citizens of a multicultural society. Though there is an ongoing debate about who is British, this piece humanizes the former other and by doing so blurs the line between “us and them,” alluding to a British identity that is inclusive to the formerly colonized. In the twenty-first century, British children’s historical fiction is being used as a means of public history to teach British children about the British Empire and its faults – but also to reflect and speak to the ongoing debate concerning British identity, and works such as Mitchell’s are being used to assuage youth and future generations.
 (Gryzegorczyk, 58)
 (Parsons, 46)
 (Parsons, 46)
 (Levine, 88)
 (Kutzer, 14)
 (Goswami, 11)
 (Kutzer, xiv)
 (O’ Sullivan, 148)
 (Goswami, 114)
 (Kutzer, 45)
 (Levine, 228)
 (Mitchell, 24-28)
 (Levine, 226)
By Marie Quintana