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The tragic death of George Floyd, and the riots, injuries and deaths which have taken place since then, woke many of us up to systemic injustices when it comes to racial equality.
And because many of these injustices are a direct result of actions taken many years ago, it’s become increasingly important to me to understand some of the history of racism.
How did the problems we see in today’s systems and structures originate? Who fought the fight before us? What were the cultural restrictions surrounding them as they did so? And why have racist structures not yet been dismantled?
Developing a better understanding of this will help me deal with my own silent prejudices, but also help me teach my children (and myself) how to speak up for a more equal society.
Today I’m taking part in a blog tour for The Tigers in the Tower (Julia Golding, Lion Hudson), an incredible historical novel which gripped me in a can’t-put-it-down, let-the-children-fend-for-themselves kind of way when I devoured it this summer.
Rather than give you a straight review, I thought I’d link the book to what many of us are currently thinking about racial equality and justice by sharing the ways it got me thinking on a broader level.
Nothing beats learning actual history, of course, but historical fiction can be a brilliant way in for children (and us) to understand some of the history of racial and cultural inequality through characters we relate to.
This book is aimed at readers aged 9+ and was featured in my blog post Christian fiction titles for children and tweens.
The Tigers in the Tower is set in 1830, and tells the fictional story of a young mixed-race girl, Sahira Clive.
Born and raised in India to an Indian mother and English father, Sahira has never quite felt like she fits in to the Indian culture surrounding her.
But now, at the age of 12, she has arrived in London for the first time, and definitely doesn’t fit in here either. With her are the two tigers her family were bringing across to fulfil an order from the Royal Menagerie in the Tower of London – but she feels the absence of her mother and father, who both died of a fever whilst making the journey.
So now Sahira is virtually alone, in an unfamiliar country with strange customs. In order to secure her own future and that of the tigers, she must make friends with those who will help her – but will it be enough?
I haven’t read such a unique, well-researched and quirky story for years. The characters are well-rounded, the plot unpredictable, and the ending makes you want to stand up and cheer. It’s a heart-warming tale, with plenty of grit and grime along the way.
The Tigers in the Tower also raises lots of interesting thoughts about race, prejudice and discrimination, and reading it made me wonder whether we should be intentionally adding more of these kinds of books to our children’s repertoire.
Here’s a snapshot of the book and four ways it could open our children’s eyes (and our own, let’s be honest) to issues surrounding race:
1) Racism and the fear of the ‘other’
We are told in the book that Sahira’a father’s family disowned him when he married an Indian bride. This won’t surprise readers with even a basic knowledge of British colonialism.
But the discrimination ran the other way, too.
“Sahira’s mother had been a scandal in Indian society for her choice of foreign spouse.” (ch.2)
It was frowned-upon in Britain to marry a foreigner – but it was also frowned-upon in India.
Later on in the book, we see the same attitude play out in the plans Sahira’s mother had for her:
“Her mother had agreed to come to this country…knowing that no man of her class in Hyderabad would marry Sahira; whereas she had hoped an English man, liberal-minded as [Sahira’s father], might eventually fall for Sahira.” (ch.10)
These reminders that racism works both ways can be very healthy for both us and our children to absorb as we read together. Discriminatory attitudes often begin with a deep-seated fear or distrust of other cultures – which, in turn, starts with an unspoken arrogance in our own.
If we want to address racist attitudes, we must start with our own view of our own culture. Do we see it as superior? Because until we start to gain a little self-awareness about the pros and cons of the way we do life compared to others, we will never fully stamp out our entrenched attitudes.
And these attitudes aren’t just about other nations: often, we can feel a deep scorn even for those in our own neighbourhood who have a different outlook on life due to their family, education or economic background.
2) Racism and misunderstanding
When Sahira arrives at the orphanage, she is introduced as a ‘Hindoo princess’:
“Sahira’s mother was neither Hindoo nor a princess but she wasn’t going to correct him. If the story helped, then she would let it stand.” (ch.3)
How easy it was, and still is, to make assumptions about people based on the colour of their skin or even the country they come from!
Perhaps we laugh at the obvious mistake made by the adults surrounding Sahira. But, if we’re not careful, we ourselves will do the same, assuming someone with black skin comes from Africa, when they’re actually from the Caribbean, or that the person from Pakistan is a Muslim, when in fact they are an Atheist.
And perhaps we (and our children) sometimes feel too small to make a big difference in civil rights. We wonder how we can possibly change mindsets and attitudes on a large-scale.
But here’s the thing: we can choose not to make these assumptions. We can choose to talk to those we meet, ask questions, listen to their stories – and we can teach our children to do the same.
3) Racism and diversity
Being referred to as a ‘Hindoo princess’ when, in fact, she is a Muslim-Christian girl (and unrelated to royalty), Sahira realises that those around her in London don’t see the diversity of Indian culture the way she does.
“…the differences didn’t seem to matter here. Distance blurred the distinctions that were so important in India.” (ch.4)
Sahira comes from a culture where religious and ethnic distinctions are important – but now she’s living in a culture where, it seems, nobody cares a jot.
Reading a book like this helps our children to start to understand that diversity is not simply about being from one country or the other. There are many, many ways to be, for example, ‘Indian’ or ‘British’ or ‘Jamaican’ – we are all totally unique.
In The Tigers in the Tower, we feel so much warmth towards Sahira that we sense her hurt when others haven’t taken the time to get to know her properly. Listening to each other’s stories without bias will help us to appreciate the diversity of humankind.
4) Racism and those who stood against it
It is tempting to criticise our ancestors for not speaking out against racist behaviour. But perhaps ‘speaking out’ simply looked different back then. Some people did speak out, but within the constraints of a very different society.
Sahira has several ‘allies’ in The Tigers in the Tower who fight her corner, from the initial care shown by Mrs Tailor on the ship, to Mr Cops, the keeper of the Royal Menagerie, to Bobby, the upper-class son of MP Sir Robert Peel.
They are portrayed as wonderfully human, with a genuine care and welcome for Sahira – and yet they are all, to different degrees, limited by the constraints of their background.
Mrs Tailor, for example, is genuinely compassionate towards Sahira – and yet can’t offer to become her guardian, because “It would be misunderstood by my family if I returned [to England, from India] a widow with a native child in tow” [ch.1].
I think it’s helpful, when talking to our children about race, to remember that neither one of us is capable of changing the world – only God can do that.
Rather than discourage us, though, we should be encouraged to take the small daily steps that we can take towards a more fair and equal society, and that our cumulative efforts with others really do have the power to change a culture.
Over to you…
I was hugely entertained, but also deeply moved, by The Tigers in the Tower, and am now reading it to Missy (9) and Mister (nearly 11) – I can’t wait to see how it impacts them, and what conversations we have because of it.
If you have tweens or teens, or even if you just like a good story yourself, why don’t you check out what other bloggers thought on the blog tour above?
I can’t recommend this book more. It’d make a brilliant Christmas gift, for those of you who have envy-inducing levels of organisation.
Better still, it will feature on my September giveaway next Friday! My giveaways are exclusively for my mailing list, so hop onto that right here (and grab your free Family Faith Bundle when you do so).
For more books featuring BAME characters, or discussing aspects of race and heritage, check out my post 25+ Culturally Diverse Stories for Children.
And if you’re interested in reading about a different strand of equality, check out How do Christians Parent for Gender Equality?
Which books have raised great conversations between you and your children?
[…] Read my post about how The Tigers in the Tower helps us teach our children about racial equality. […]
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[…] I wrote more about this book and the themes it raises in How Historical Fiction can Help Us Teach our Children about Racial Equality. […]