A chat with artist & illustrator, Chellie Carroll
Glossop based artist and illustrator, Chellie Carroll, has recently illustrated a beautiful book called Astrology for Black Girls. In this blog, we find out more from Chellie about the importance of inclusivity and representation within art and illustrating…
“As a child I didn’t have many books that I could call my own,” said Chellie. “Books were seen as a luxury. I did love books, though, they were my greatest form of escapism, especially picture books.
“The few books I did have were either bought by my mum from the local library when they were selling off their old books or I would save my pennies and deposit them in my school book club account. When I had enough money saved, I’d choose from the selection of shiny new books they had on display. I felt like a child in a sweet shop! Sometimes I’d buy books by authors who were coming to visit my primary school, with the most memorable being Helen Cresswell, Tony Ross and Joan Eddington, author of the Johnny Briggs. series.
“One of my most treasured books was ‘Thorn Rose’ by Errol Le Cain. I absolutely adored this book and the illustrations inside it. They mesmerised me with the intricate details and rich colours. I’d spend hours trying my hardest to copy the illustrations, losing myself in Le Cain’s amazing decorative fairytale fantasy worlds. At the time, I don’t think I was ever really aware or thought about the lack of diversity in any of the illustrations in this book or for that matter any of the books that sat on my shelves at home or at school or in the library.
“My world was very much a white world. I was a mixed race child of a single parent white British woman, living in a Northern mill town in the 70’s and 80’s. Everyone around me was white. My family was white (except my younger brother who didn’t look like me as he was lighter than me and had straight hair). My friends were white and 99% of the town where I lived was white. As a family we lived a hand to mouth existence, we didn’t have a car and didn’t go on holidays so my only experience of the world before I was 16 was though the books I read and the TV and films I watched.
“Diversity wasn’t a thing in my world. The only times I thought about my colour was when it was pointed out to me, either I was the “wrong” colour for a role in a play, like Wendy in Peter Pan or the “wrong” colour to be a character in a playground game, like Princess
Leia. Or, when I was being called names, white people telling me I didn’t belong and I should ‘go back to where I came from’.
“I think, without realising it, I spent most of my time trying to fit in, to sink into the background, trying to be the same as everyone else in order to avoid confrontation. Because of that I rarely questioned why I didn’t see myself represented in the world I inhabited.
“Trying to fit in, meant that there were quite a few things I didn’t like about myself even though my mum would constantly reassure me that I was pretty and unique. I hated my hair. I always wanted it to be straight and not ‘frizzy’, and tried everything to make it so. I remember when I was around seven or eight seeing Floella Benjamin on TV with the most amazing hair, braided with beautifully coloured beads on the end. I asked my mum if I could have my hair like Floella and she agreed and bought a selection of beautifully coloured beads. I sat patiently for hours as my mum braided my hair, threaded the beads onto each braid and threaded cotton around the end of my braids so the beads wouldn’t fall off. I went to school the next day brimming with confidence at my amazing hairstyle, feeling different but in a good way. When I got to school though, the response wasn’t a positive one, I was told that I had to remove my braids and beads as my hair was ‘inappropriate’ for school. I was devastated.
“Fast forward 30 odd years, and I now have two children of my own. My husband is white, my eldest son is white and my youngest daughter is brown. My family is truly diverse. My children live in a different world from the one I grew up in. They are more aware of diversity around them, the world is a much smaller place. However, they still have to confront the lack of understanding. People assuming that one of them is adopted or even that they must have a different mum or dad. They have had their peers state that my son cannot be mixed race because he is white while my daughter can, because she is brown.
“The need to pigeon-hole is still strong. The community we live in is the same community that I grew up in and despite the increased awareness of diversity the reality is that it is still mainly white. My daughter finds it harder because she stands out more among her peers. She has come home many times from primary school upset because, like me, she has been told by her friends that she couldn’t be the ‘Princess’ because she was the ‘wrong colour’ or had the ‘wrong type of hair’.
“This made me think. Think about why children say what they do. I truly believe that when children make these comments, they don’t say them to purposefully hurt and upset. Their comments are not rooted in prejudice. I think they are saying what they know to be their reality from what they had seen in the books, TV and films around them.
Breaking the stereotypes and normalising diversity
“So, despite living in a more diverse world, the stereotypes are still there, the erosion is painfully slow. I feel representation in children’s literature and films is important as it is one way we can normalise diversity, break the stereotypes and remove the boxes that we like to put ourselves and others in. Change what we see and watch not only to better reflect the world we see around us but also represent the world that we want to see. The princess can be anyone and so can the prince.
“Returning to my favourite childhood book, might I have felt differently about myself if I had seen myself represented in the fairytale worlds I obsessed over? Would I have felt better about my hair if I had seen Sleeping Beauty with long curly brown hair? Would I have embraced my difference, my face, my ‘flat nose?
“As a professional children’s illustrator, I can now influence the images in picture books. It’s a long process, but black and minority children can now turn the pages and see themselves better reflected.”
Find out more about Chellie’s work at https://www.chelliecarroll.co.uk