Jules & his neighbours

Book cover of Jules en zijn buren (Jules and his neighbours) by Annemie Berenbrouchx.

It’s been a while since I published a proper blog post. There’s been a number reasons for this, the main one being becoming a mummy last summer! Settling into motherhood has been a wonderful experience and I’m learning everyday, but it’s also meant a complete reorganisation of my life and priorities. Still, going out and engaging educationally has remained important to me and my partner in the way we are raising our son.

I regularly take him to the library’s Baby Café groups so that he can meet and play with other children of a similar age and also to pass on my love of books. While there recently I noticed a particular book series because of the name of the lead character: Jules. We use this as a shortened version of Julian’s name from time to time, so the books (authored by Belgian writer Annemie Berenbrouchx) caught my eye. I became very interested in one book in the series featuring a black woman character as a neighbour of Jules. Like so many parents of colour, I am always on the look out for various forms of media that depict society as diverse and accepting of people of all backgrounds. Although the primary character of Jules seems to be a white child, I was encouraged by the apparent normalisation of multiculturalism in the book and I decided to take the book out and read it to Julian at home. However, the second I began looking further through the book I noticed a real problem with its narrative and decided I wouldn’t read it to Julian after all.

The story* basically goes like this…

Jules has two female neighbours. They look completely different to one another. One has lived next door to Jules for a long time. She is white, has blonde hair and talks a lot. She loves soft colours such as pink and light blue. Jules notices that she always smells like flowers.

The other neighbour has not lived next door to Jules for a long time. She has dark skin, black hair and she listens well. She likes to listen to the blonde neighbour and also to music. The dark neighbour comes from another country. That country is far away from here. She loves warm colours such as yellow, orange and red. Jules thinks she’s very beautiful.

Sometimes one neighbour calls the other and invites her over for tea. They listen to the same music. They drink the same tea. The two female neighbours are completely different. But one thing is for sure: they completely love Jules!

***

At face value, the story seems to simply say that Jules has two very different neighbours, who come from different countries and cultures, but can still get along and find things in common, such as music, tea and Jules. Obviously, it’s great to tell our kids that we live in a diverse society alongside people from all over the world. We should teach them that everyone belongs and has an equal place and also teach our kids about the rest of the world too (which is why we are avid Bino & Fino fans, for instance). On the other hand, we should also teach our kids that it is not necessarily the case that every non-white person, or family with a different cultural background, is “foreign”. And being a critical discourse analysis researcher, I can’t help but delve deeper and ask more complicated questions, even when it comes to children’s literature.

For example, why does the black woman ‘like’ to listen to the white woman? Why does she need to be exoticised by the proximity of ‘warm’ colour and musical references? Her characterisation and juxtaposition with the other (white) neighbour upholds notions of white womanhood as well as supremacy.

Illustration from Jules en zijn buren.

It’s also not the most feminist representation of either of the neighbours, with them both liking talking over a cup of tea and children. We don’t learn anything else about them really, such as their work. Of course, the issue that struck me the hardest was the necessity for the character of colour to be portrayed as coming from ‘another country…far away from here’. Arguably, Berenbrouchx wanted to make a point about the neighbour’s ability to integrate despite her foreigness, hence the emphasis on her coming from another land. However, portraying Africa as a faraway, exotic landmass that all black people come directly from, to a certain degree, is erroneous and dehumanising. Telling a child which country in Africa a person might come from would already improve this narrative. Likewise, assuming that all white people in European countries are automatically “locals” is not always accurate and it strengthens xenophobic notions of identity and belonging – even in children. For instance, a friend’s 5 year old once said to me: “You must come from very far away, because you’re brown.” This is all she’s seen in storybooks and on TV, so it must be true, right?

Not always.

“We need to change the narratives. We need to let it be known that black is British. That brown is British and we are not going away.”  – Reni Eddo-Lodge

Illustration from Jules en zijn buren.

* This is a translation from the original text, which is Dutch.

 

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