Reviews /

We Sang Across the Sea: The Empire Windrush and Me

Authored by Benjamin Zephaniah
Illustrated by Onyinye Iwu
Published by Scholastic

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Just saying the title of this book out loud makes you want to hear Benjamin Zephaniah’s voice bringing it to life. This brightly coloured joyful song of a book tells the story of Trinidadian musician, Mona Baptiste, who arrived in England on the Empire Windrush when she was twenty and went on to become a hugely successful singer in Europe. I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of her before I read this book and wished that there was a little more biographical detail at the back than the short paragraph on the last page – so much so that I spent some time researching her extraordinary life, and have no doubt that it will inspire others to do the same. It would make a brilliant start for an independent inquiry project, with lots of different ways to look critically at the idealised, joyful world depicted in the book compared to the reality of travelling to 1950s Britain on the Empire Windrush. For younger readers it would be an interesting case study when learning about fiction and non-fiction texts.

Zephaniah is not the only poet to publish a book about the Windrush generation. John Agard’s Windrush Child, illustrated by Sophie Bass, poetically describes the experience of many children who travelled on Windrush through the eyes of one unnamed child. Bass’ painterly illustrations echo the colourfulness of We Sang Across the Sea but are perhaps more strongly married to Agard’s shorter rhythmic text than Iwu’s work. They make excellent companion texts and the possibilities for comparison and critical appreciation are many. Indeed, with Patrice Lawrence’s Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush and Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England, they form a small canon of picture books which introduce children to the history of Caribbean culture in Britain and of the many famous and not-so-famous people who define the Windrush generation.