We’re marking Black History Month 2020 with news of the first new acquisition to the Seven Stories Collection since lockdown: a piece of artwork by Martin Aitchison for a book in the Ladybird SUNSTART series, produced in the mid-1970s for young readers in the Caribbean.  

Martin Aitchison worked for Ladybird from 1963 to 1990, having previously drawn for the Eagle comic. He illustrated many of the major Ladybird series, including history titles, the composers series, and traditional tales.

The Sunstart books were produced as part of the long-running Ladybird series of early readers but were designed specially for children growing up in the Caribbean who spoke patois at home and were expected to learn standard English at school. They used the same keywords reading scheme as other Ladybird titles and even featured child characters Ken and Joy who were the Caribbean equivalent to Peter and Jane.

Ladybird Books had a long-established popular format and prided themselves on consistency, so rather than commission a team based in the Caribbean they arranged for author William Murray and illustrator Martin Aitchison to travel to Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados to research and plan the series.  At this date most UK illustrators commissioned to produce work set in the Caribbean would have had to rely on secondary sources and/or imagination, so the books stand out as being comparatively true to life. 

The books were also marketed to British Caribbean readers in the UK, in an attempt to provide Black children with characters with whom they could more easily identify and a means to connect to their heritage.  However, this proposition was probably more attractive to parents who had grown up in the Caribbean than to children born in the UK. 

The experience of producing the Sunstart series doesn’t appear to have made a major impact on the wider output of Ladybird, and the initiative to create Ladybird series explicitly for a non-UK readership was not repeated. From the mid-1970s onwards there was a gradual increase in the number of black characters appearing in the books, but mainly in background roles rather than as protagonists. The same was true for most mainstream publishing at that time and remains a challenge today, despite the increasing diversity of UK society.

In 2018 the online review magazine Books for Keeps invited Karen Sands O’Connor and Darren Chetty to contribute articles examining the way black, Asian and minority ethnic voices have been represented in the English national story, through children’s literature. You can read the whole series here.

The artwork was presented to Seven Stories by Karen Sands O’Connor, who is British Academy Global Professor of Children’s Literature at Newcastle University, specializing in the history of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic children's literature and publishing.

Seven Stories, Newcastle University, and Newcastle City Council together form the Vital North Partnership, which aims to create a centre for excellence for children’s literature in Newcastle upon Tyne.