Poet Benjamin Zephaniah has written a new children's book called Face. The story is centred around the character of Martin, who is a white school student who has a facial disfigurement. I read this book with my children, aged six and ten, and they thoroughly enjoyed it. Every page brought a new twist.
My children, being black and growing up in the East End of London where this book is based, were able to identify with the descriptions of cultural diversity in the book. Working class kids will enjoy the inner city pursuits of a groups of Newham school students through their half term holidays. Face shows how events test true friendships, attitudes and stereotypes, and shows how a shared experience can help break down prejudices.
It was interesting to see how questioning my children became when the issue of race began to feature in the story. The book provoked discussion on why some people are racist, where racism comes from, and the nature of the police.
My children know areas where the book is set – such as Green Street in Newham – and were able to contrast the descriptions with their own experiences. For me the book brought back memories of Wanstead Park's Bank Holiday Funfair, with everyone dressing their best – or, as Zephaniah describes it, 'a park with the attitude of a beach.'
The ethnic flavour of the East End is described with realism and injected with history. Through the eyes of a character you read how, 'In the 16th century French Protestant refugees settled.. then Germans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Jews and Poles. The latest arrivals were Caribbeans, Africans, Asians and Bosnians.'
Teenage characters describe Green Street police station as a 'symbol of authority' and a building representing 'state oppression'. In short, this book talks of looking beyond the face to what really unites us all – class experiences.
Face by Benjamin Zephaniah, Bloomsbury Press, £4.99, can be ordered from Bookmarks phone 0171 637 1848.