Children dressed up at carnival, from Errol Lloyd's Nini at Carnival

Go deeper: Home, family and belonging in children's books

Where do you belong? Where, or who, is your home and family? Discover stories that explore belonging, and not belonging, and those that help children grapple with their identity.

Where do you belong?

This can feel like a very big question. Sometimes, we might answer with the country where we were born, such as Scotland or Pakistan or Sudan. Sometimes, it might be the country where our parents were born or even a mixture of both. If we’ve moved between countries, we might not feel sure if we belong in a country at all. Perhaps we feel we belong to a town, city or parish instead. Are you a Londoner? Or from St Ann’s Parish in Jamaica? Or Varsovian (from Warsaw, in Poland)?

Sometimes, the place where we feel we really do belong is in a family. But what is a family? For hundreds of years, since some of the very first books for children were created, authors and illustrators have been exploring this question in all kinds of different ways. Let’s take a look.

Errol’s Garden by Gillian Hibbs

Errol’s Garden by Gillian Hibbs

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Usage terms Errol’s Garden. Reproduced by kind permission of Child's Play (International) Ltd.
© 2018 Gillian Hibbs. First published 2018 by Child's Play.
All rights reserved. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

All families are different

Families have always come in different shapes and sizes. We often imagine that families in the past had lots of children, like the five siblings in Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It (1902), who go on many adventures together. But in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905), Sara lives with just her father. After her father dies, Sara has a very difficult time (this book is a real tearjerker!). There’s a happy ending, though: Sara becomes a ‘little princess’ again when she is adopted, showing that loving families don’t have to be related by blood.

Many recent books celebrate the fact that families can be very different. In Errol’s Garden (Gillian Hibbs, 2018), all the different types of families come together as one big family to create a garden on the roof of a tower block. There’s even a musician to sing to the people and plants! The queen in King & King (Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland, 2000) has been married twice but now rules by herself. She wants her son to find a princess to marry, but doesn’t mind when he finds the prince of his dreams instead.

Errol’s Garden by Gillian Hibbs

Errol’s Garden by Gillian Hibbs

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Usage terms Errol’s Garden. Reproduced by kind permission of Child's Play (International) Ltd.
© 2018 Gillian Hibbs. First published 2018 by Child's Play.
All rights reserved. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

King & King by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland

Pages 24-25 of 'King & King' by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland. Double page illustration. A wedding scene. Guests sit in pews to watch the two princes exchange their vows. A lady dances in the aisle. The Queen, cries with joy in the front row.

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Usage terms King & King by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland © 2000 Ideas and illustration Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland; www.koningenkoning.nl; You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Held by© 2000 Ideas and illustration Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland

The little girl in Wild (Emily Hughes, 2013) grew up in nature ‘where the whole forest took her as their own’. The creatures in the woods are her family and teachers. When she’s adopted by human creatures, she realises where she really belongs (and it’s not with the humans!).

Usage terms Wild by Emily Hughes © Flying Eye Books. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

When it’s hard to find a place where you belong

Children’s books can help us think about what it’s like when you don’t belong. The stories can make us laugh, like Wild, or sometimes they make us feel angry or upset for the characters. Tracy Beaker is the tough, funny hero of three books and 120 TV episodes. We first meet her in The Story of Tracy Beaker (1991), when she lives in a children’s home and dreams about a perfect life with her glamorous mum. We know that Tracy doesn’t always tell the truth, especially about her mum, but we want her to find her perfect family. It comes in the shape of Cam, who certainly wasn’t the family that Tracy had imagined herself. Writer Jacqueline Wilson said that she spent a lot of time when she was little imagining different types of families – and when she grew up she wrote books about many of them.

Starring Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharratt: rough illustrations, unfinished artwork and printed book

Starring Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharratt: rough illustrations and unfinished artwork

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Usage terms Illustrations copyright © Nick Sharratt. Text © Jacqueline Wilson. Printed book extract from STARRING TRACY BEAKER by Jacqueline Wilson published by Doubleday. Reproduced by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Floella Benjamin, in her story, Coming to England (1995), does know where she belongs. It’s with her mum and family when they all get together on Sundays in Trinidad. This all changes when her parents move to England and leave Floella behind. She’s looked after by family members who don’t really want her there. When her mum sends for her she’s excited that the family will be together again. Sadly, England is a cold and hostile country.

Coming to England by Floella Benjamin, illustrated by Michael Frith

Coming to England by Floella Benjamin, illustrated by Michael Frith

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Usage terms Coming to England. Text © Floella Benjamin. Illustrations by © Michael Frith 2016. With permission of Macmillan Publishers International Limited. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Held by© Floella Benjamin. Illustrations by Michael Frith.

Azzi, in Azzi in Between (Sarah Garland, 2013), must also leave the country she knows as home when her family flee from war. They are forced to seek refuge in a place where everything is so different from what she has known, but slowly she finds ways to belong. Azzi brings her favourite beans from her own country and shows her new schoolmates how to grow them. The stories about another famous immigrant, Paddington Bear, also show how new people can enrich families and communities. When Paddington arrives in London in search of a new home, he is adopted by the Brown family and befriended by Mr Gruber and many others. Their kindness is important to Paddington – and their own lives are much more interesting because of him!

Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland: sketches, research, dummy book and original artwork

Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland: sketches, research, dummy book and original artwork

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Usage terms Azzi in Between, by Sarah Garland © Sarah Garland. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Held by© Sarah Garland

What about grandparents?

Grandparents pop up in many books. Azzi doesn’t want to leave her grandmother. Ellie, in Ellie and the Cat (Malorie Blackman, 2005), doesn’t want to go to her grandma’s. She lives with her dad who’s always jetting off round the world. She feels like ‘an unwanted parcel’ and, like Tracy Beaker, sometimes behaves in ways that put people off. She annoys her grandmother so much that she gets turned into a cat! The abuela in Julián is a Mermaid (Jessica Love, 2018) also changes her grandchild, but it’s a change he chooses. The book shows that helping each other through change is one way families can make each other happy.

Ellie and the Cat by Malorie Blackman, illustrated by Matt Robertson

Ellie and the Cat

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Usage terms Text © 1994 Oneta Malorie Blackman
Illustrations © 2019 Matt Robertson
Reproduced by permission of Barrington Stoke Ltd, Edinburgh, EH3 7LP
www.barringtonstoke.co.uk
You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Held by© Text © 1994 Oneta Malorie Blackman. Illustrations © 2019 Matt Robertson

Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Images from 'Julián is a Mermaid' by Jessica Love. On the left, Julian, who is wearing curtains as a sarong and flowers as a headdress, is being handed a bead necklace by his Abuela. Abuela is dress in a blue and red patterned headscarf, hoop earings, a blue dress and orange sandals. In the right hand image Julian (now wearing the necklace) and Abuela (carrying a red parasol) walk down the front steps of their home, hand in hand.

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Usage terms Copyright ©2018 Jessica Love
JULIAN IS A MERMAID by Jessica Love
Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ
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Often grandparents in books are part of a wider family. Sometimes they live with their children and grandchildren. Who can forget Grandpa Joe, Grandma Josephine, Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina? They’re all bedbound until Grandpa Jo wobbles out of bed to accompany his grandson with the Golden Ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl, 1964). Clarice Bean has a loud, unruly and big family in Lauren Child’s books. She even has to share a room with her brother. Her grandad lives with them, too. Sometimes he’s asleep in his favourite chair, with a cat on his head. Sometimes he pours pea soup on his cereal instead of milk. Is he confused or doing it on purpose?

Behaving and misbehaving!

Books like this help us think about why families behave in the ways they do – and how they should behave! Adults as well as children can find this useful. In the 19th century, books about families often contained advice for parents. A famous book called The History of the Fairchild Family (Mary Martha Sherwood, 1818) was full of terrible stories about naughty children who came to a sticky end. The book told children that they should behave, but parents didn’t get let off the hook either! Parents were shown that they also had to teach their children the right way to behave. More modern books often help parents think about what it’s like to be a child. Clarice Bean is sometimes quite naughty, but in Clarice Bean, That’s Me (Lauren Child, 1999) we can see that this is because she needs her own space in her noisy family.

What Planet Are You From, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child

What Planet Are You From, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child

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Coming together

Other stories show us families coming together. Leo lives with his parents and grandpa in Toad Attack (Patrice Lawrence, 2019). His grandparents used to own an umbrella factory, but now Leo’s mum works with his granddad in the backroom of a shoe shop to try and make the tiny business grow again. Will a plague of flying toads help? Nannie and Gran-Gran don’t live with their baby grandchild in So Much (Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, 1994). They turn up with other family members to help Dad enjoy his surprise birthday party. The book was published in 1994 and is a rare, joyous story about a Caribbean family in the UK. It’s also a wonderful reminder of black style at that time. The tramlines hairstyle! The sportswear! The desert boots! So many people with Caribbean heritage must have seen their own family in those pictures. This is one important way that books can help us feel that we belong: everyone enjoys seeing their own homes and families in the stories they read.

So Much by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

So Much

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Usage terms Text © 1994 Trish Cooke
Illustrations © 1994 Helen Oxenbury
From SO MUCH by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ
www.walker.co.uk

Different times and places

Books can also give us a snapshot of family life in different times and places. For readers today, So Much might be a picture of what life was like for their parents. Lucy and Tom’s Day (Shirley Hughes, 1960) takes us even further back in time: it was published nearly 60 years ago. There’s even a tin bath under the kitchen cabinet. Is it for washing clothes or bathing children? Or both? The young children’s mum stays at home to care for the children and little Lucy helps her with the shopping, cleaning and cooking. When Dad comes home from work, he spends time with his children before they go to bed. It’s a book about everyday life for the children, but in real life, it had only been 15 years since the end of World War Two. Food rationing had only ended six years before. Although this feels like a traditional British home, so much was changing.

Lucy and Tom's Day by Shirley Hughes: rough dummy book

Lucy and Tom's Day by Shirley Hughes: rough dummy book

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Usage terms © Shirley Hughes. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Held by© Shirley Hughes

Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was also written at a time of great change. The book was published in 1936. World War One ended in 1918. There were over three million casualties to British troops, mostly men. That includes nearly 900,000 deaths, as well as those wounded, taken prisoner or missing. Many of the men who did return were badly affected by the war. Family life changed.

The three sisters in the book, Pauline, Petrova and Posy are all adopted separately but choose ‘Fossil’ as their family name. In the past, orphans were often named after the place they were found. (According to parish records, in 1894 a child was registered as William Euston because he was found in a box in a railway carriage in Euston station). In Charles Dickens’ famous novel Oliver Twist (1837), Oliver’s name is chosen by Mr Bumble, the cruel beadle in charge of the workhouse. He gave the poor children names in alphabetical order. The Fossil sisters are lucky enough to choose their own names, and it’s an important way for them to show that they’ll stick together. Like lots of other families at this time, their household is all women, and they show that girls can earn money and look after themselves.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: pencil illustrations by Ruth Gervis

Ballet Shoes pencil illustrations by Ruth Gervis

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Money is a big concern in Ballet Shoes, but the Fossil sisters do still have a cook, a housemaid and a nurse. For a long time, working-class families were less likely to appear in children’s books. Wealthy families like the one depicted in The Paignon (c. 1830), who have a large, grand kitchen with a kitchen maid, were more likely to be able to buy books.

The Paignion, a book with movable figures

The Paignion, a book with movable figures

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Usage terms Public Domain. Image © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The year after Ballet Shoes was published, a very different type of family appeared in Eve Garnett’s A Family From One-End Street (1937). Instead of having someone to help her, Mrs Ruggles helps in other people’s homes, by taking in their washing. She is helped – and hindered! – by her seven children, who have all sorts of adventures. They are a close and loving family. This book also shows how life was changing at this time: Mr and Mrs Ruggles left school when they were very young, but their daughter Kate gets the chance of a better education when she wins a scholarship to grammar school. After World War Two, lots more working-class children had this opportunity thanks to changes introduced by the government – but as Kate discovers, it could be complicated being the first one in your family to do something new.

Chi Ming and the Lion Dance (Josephine Marquand, illustrated by Pearl Binder, 1969) takes us to a working-class family in late 1960s Hong Kong. It is written and illustrated by white European artists at a time when Hong Kong was a British colony. Perhaps now, a picture book about a Hong Kong Chinese family would be written and illustrated by people from that background. Chi Ming’s family are mainly traders. They are part of a close knit community that support each other through life’s challenges. It is very surprising, though, to see people smoking in children’s books!

Chi Ming and the Lion Dance: preparatory book created by Pearl Binder

Chi Ming and the Lion Dance: preparatory book created by Pearl Binder

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Usage terms Second story of Stories from Ladder Street: Preparatory layouts for 'Chi Ming and the Lion Dance' story by Josephine Marquand, illustrations by Pearl Binder. Commissioned for BBC TV Jackanory 1969. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Friends and communities

When we think about where we belong, it’s often with people who are similar to us. In children’s books, that means with other children. Nini from Nini at Carnival (Errol Lloyd, 1978) doesn’t have a costume, but her best friend finds a piece of cloth that fits Nini perfectly so she can parade with the other children. In Hospital Day (Leila Berg, illustrated by Shirley Hughes, 1972), Well, I Never (Leila Berg, illustrated by George Him, 1972) and Sean’s Red Bike (Petronella Breinburg, illustrated by Errol Lloyd 1974), we return to a time when children spent most of their time out of the house on the street playing with their friends. They are also some of the first few books in the UK that showed Asian, Caribbean and African-heritage families.

Nini at Carnival by Errol Lloyd

Nini at Carnival by Errol Lloyd

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Usage terms © Errol Lloyd. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Little Nippers books, written and edited by Leila Berg

Little Nippers books, written and edited by Leila Berg

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Usage terms Little Nippers: Hospital Day © Series editor: Leila Berg. Story: Leila Berg. Artwork: Shirley Hughes. You may not use this material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing the work. Little Nippers: Well I Never © Series editor: Leila Berg. Story: Leila Berg. Artwork: George Him. You may not use this material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing the work.

Sean's Red Bike by Petronella Breinburg, illustrated by Errol Lloyd

Sean's Red Bike by Petronella Breinburg, illustrated by Errol Lloyd

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Usage terms Text © Estate of Petronella Breinburg. Illustrations © Errol Lloyd. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

And finally, we go to Peter in The Snowy Day (Ezra Jack Keats, 1962). This is a book that was really important in creating a sense of belonging. It was written in 1962 when it was still legal to discriminate against black people in the United States. There were many racist books and stories that made people of colour look stupid and ugly. The beautiful, tender pictures in this book do the opposite. Peter is not old enough to play with the big boys, so he makes a snow angel and plays snowballs. Then he returns home to his loving family until he can do it all again tomorrow. This book shows how a simple story can make people feel like they belong.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

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Usage terms Excerpt(s) from THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats, copyright © 1962 by Ezra Jack Keats; copyright renewed © 1990 by Martin Pope, Executor. Used by permission of Viking Children's Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. You may not use this material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing the work.

Looking to the future

Families are always changing, so we’ll always need new stories to help us think about what it means to belong. Maybe in the future people will be writing stories about their family home on a space ship, or their alien grandma. Right now, there are probably things about your family that you’ve never seen written about in a book. What does family mean to you?

 

Banner image © Errol Lloyd. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

  • Patrice Lawrence
  • Patrice Lawrence is a British-born author writing primarily for children and young adults. She has been shortlisted for the Costa Children's Award, won the Waterstones Prize for Older Fiction and the YA Bookseller, as well as being nominated for the Carnegie Medal three times. Prior to becoming a full time writer, she worked in the voluntary sector for more than 20 years in roles promoting equality and social justice.

  • Lucy Pearson
  • Dr Lucy Pearson is Senior Lecturer in Children’s Literature at Newcastle. She works on children’s literature and publishing, with a special interest in prize culture and ideas of literary value. Her published works include The Making of Modern Children’s Literature in Britain: Publishing and Criticism in the 1960s and 1970s (2013) and Jacqueline Wilson: A new casebook (2015). She is currently working on a history of the CILIP Carnegie Medal.

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