Before I begin, I must confess I find Benjamin Zephaniah’s work to be superb, and Windrush Child is no exception. It tells the moving story of 10-year-old Leonard leaving his beloved grandma in Jamaica to start a new life with his parents in Manchester. The adventure starts with colourful descriptions of his early life in Jamaica and glimpses of what life was like living with his grandma. His parents’ reasons for wanting to search for a better life for their son run like a thread throughout the story as well as the many obstacles they faced. Their determination is tangible.
When embarking on the two-week journey by sea with his mother, Leonard is initially excited by the adventure and asks her about the official on the ship, Arosa Star: ‘Him is a customs officer. Him work for the Queen of England, and when you see people like him you must show them respect.’ Immediately Leonard realises he has to be on guard and check himself in this new country. This survival instinct becomes second nature in this new hostile environment.
In England, he has to build a relationship with a father he last saw as a baby: ‘I knew that he loved me and I felt guilty for not liking him more. But I couldn’t fake it.’ The coldness of the weather is matched only by the frosty reception his family receives from most people. He soon yearns for the sunshine, food and freedom he had in Maroon Town but he gradually adapts: ‘After a while I got used to staying indoors and began to prefer it because the white people couldn’t stare at us there.’
In school, Leonard tries to ignore racist comments from the children and stay out of trouble. Of the teachers, he comments, ‘some of them would expect me to know everything about everything foreign. If they told me to do something they would end by saying things like, “This is how we do it in this country”’. Zephaniah does not try to smooth over any of these encounters, and we walk in Leonard’s shoes as he gets frustrated with the everyday hostility and asks his dad why they even moved there when people are so unwelcoming. We learn more of Leonard’s experiences at school, work and his family life and the gradual shifts in attitudes in society are evident as our protagonist starts putting down roots. We are emotionally invested in Leonard as his journey continues. We get to experience the ups and downs with him. Zephaniah doesn’t pull his punches in terms of the everyday racism yet makes it suitable reading for upper primary.
Windrush Child would be perfect as a class novel in Y5 or Y6, as it provides an empathetic portrayal of life as an outsider in postwar Britain. A copy also belongs in every primary and secondary library along with the rest of the Voices series which reflect the authentic, unsung stories of our past.
Benjamin Zephaniah joins Nikki Gamble to talk about Windrush Child #InTheReadingCorner podcast
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