It was a book that became a sensation — but not in a way its author could have predicted. Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Kate Clanchy’s memoir of her 35-year teaching career, was published in 2019. Teachers raved about it, critics loved it. The Times of London said it was “one of the most uplifting books you will ever read”. The writer Philip Pullman said it should be in every staffroom. In 2020 the judges of the Orwell prize said it was a book in which “a brilliantly honest writer tackles a subject that ties so many people up in knots — education and how it is inexorably dominated by class”, as they gave her their award for that year.
That was before the book was engulfed in an almighty Twitter storm, before it was accused of being racist and ableist, before it became a symbol of everything that was wrong with publishing as a whole.
It makes you want to read it for yourself, but, unless you already own a copy, that is no longer possible. Because two weeks ago Clanchy’s publisher Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, announced that it was parting company with Clanchy by mutual consent. Her work is no longer for sale — not just this book, but none of the eight books she has published with them since 1999. They no longer exist as e-books. You will not be able to find them in bookshops. My local store sounded bemused: “This has never happened before.”
Clanchy’s body of work has been disappeared. Well, not entirely. There are stacks of them in cardboard boxes lining the corridor of her Oxford home. “I couldn’t bear for them to be pulped,” she says, apologetically, as we stand in the doorway, contemplating the chaos.
Teachers raved about it, critics loved it. The Times of London said it was “one of the most uplifting books you will ever read.”
The story of how Clanchy, 56, who was born in Glasgow and read English at Oxford before dedicating herself to teaching poetry to children from the most challenging backgrounds, picking up an MBE along the way, has ended up as a literary outcast is an extraordinary tale of our times.
The saga began in July when Clanchy was scrolling through emails in her spam folder, and discovered emails in there alerting her to reviews of her book on the website Goodreads. The emails themselves were abusive and threatening, but the reviews startled her even more. They said that Clanchy’s book was racist and was full of derogatory comments about her pupils’ appearances, including a black child with “chocolate-coloured skin” and another with “a Jewish nose”.
Clanchy, who is also a writer in residence at Mansfield College, Oxford, and teaches at the city’s EMBS Community College, where she most recently completed a project with Afghan refugees, was appalled. She took to Twitter to vent.
They “made up a racist quote and said it was in my book” she said to her 40,000 followers, urging them to report the review to Goodreads. High-profile authors leaped to her defense, Pullman among them. But just as quickly, a dissenting wave began to grow.
Sunny Singh, an academic, Chimene Suleyman, the co-editor of the book The Good Immigrant USA, and Monisha Rajesh, a travel writer, were among those who took issue with the book and highlighted racial stereotypes and troubling descriptions. There was the Afghan girl described as having “almond-shaped eyes”, a Somali boy with a “narrow skull” and a Muslim girl who was “butch-looking”. The award-winning teenage author Dara McAnulty, who is autistic, shared passages where Clanchy described two autistic children as “unselfconsciously odd” and “jarring company”. The row escalated as Twitter rows do — people on both sides were sent vile abuse.
Clanchy could not believe the scale of the unfolding disaster. Her initial defensiveness is something she profoundly regrets. On initially saying the quotes were made up, she now says: “I meant that people on Goodreads were taking something to mean the opposite of the intention of the sentence.” This was confounded by the fact that some phrases had been distorted. She did not write “Jewish nose”, for example, but “Ashkenazi nose”. “I do wholeheartedly apologize. I apologize many, many times over. I am sorry,” she says.
Kate Clanchy dedicated herself to teaching poetry to children from challenging backgrounds. The story of how she ended up as a literary outcast is an extraordinary tale of our times.
The underlying charge, that the book is racist, however, is one she rejects. It is very specifically “anti-racist”, she says. Clanchy has spent most of her professional life championing the work of underprivileged children. She first had the idea for Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me about 10 years ago. At this point, her publisher was not enthusiastic. “It sounded quite boring. Everyone thinks teachers are boring and everyone thinks teachers are stupid. I know that they are neither.”
Then, suddenly, after the success of Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, his account of his career as a brain surgeon, there was an appetite for the professional memoir. Like Marsh, who positioned himself not as the heroic medic people believed him to be, but as a flawed individual, battling ego, stress and vanity, Clanchy’s book would have “a vulnerable I”, a narrator who admitted her flaws and prejudices and then, through each chapter, challenge these.
The boy with “chocolate-coloured” skin is a good example. In one chapter, Clanchy is bewildered when one of her brightest and best-behaved pupils ends up in a fight. She talks to him and slowly it transpires that he has fallen out with a good friend because of remarks about his appearance. Clanchy, who believed them both to be Somali, is bemused, until the boy explains that although his family have claimed to be Somali on their visa application, they are in fact part-Kenyan, and he is tortured by the idea that his appearance might give the family away.
The point of the chapter is that Clanchy is “educated to be less colour-blind” and not to make lazy assumptions about the children she meets. The word “chocolate” was the one he used repeatedly in the poems he wrote in Clanchy’s classes, and unthinkingly, perhaps, Clanchy used it as well.
Clanchy put out a statement on Twitter saying the experience had been “humbling” and she was listening. Then stories from pupils kept emerging as the row rumbled on. Shukria Rezaei, the girl with the “almond” eyes, wrote a piece for The Sunday Times explaining that this physical feature is at the core of her identity as a member of the Afghan Hazara ethnic group. She thanked her teacher for describing her so beautifully.
Kate Clanchy’s book became a symbol of everything that was wrong with publishing as a whole.
None of this seemed to matter, however, because by now the argument had shifted, and Clanchy’s book had become a symbol of the deep flaws in a white, elitist publishing industry. What better evidence was there than the fact that this book had been published and garlanded with awards? There was an additional fury: that somehow Clanchy and her defenders, Pullman in particular, had caused her critics to be bombarded with vile threats.
Letters and statements were written: the Society of Authors tried to distance itself from Pullman, its president (he deleted his tweets and apologized); a thousand people from “the writing and publishing community” defended Rajesh, Suleyman and Singh, whom they claimed had been “targeted, harassed and gaslighted online” after criticizing Clanchy.
In this moment of chaos, you might expect Picador, Clanchy’s publisher, with whom she had worked for 20 years, to seize control of the situation. It did not. Two days after the row erupted it put out a statement saying that it was listening to the criticism of the book and would strive to be more inclusive. A second statement emerged two days after that. It apologized for “the emotional anguish experienced by many of you who took the time to engage with the text”.
Shukria Rezaei, the girl with the “almond” eyes, wrote a piece for The Sunday Times thanking Clanchy for describing her so beautifully.
It was the third one that surprised Clanchy. It issued an apology on Clanchy’s behalf, saying she was “profoundly sorry” and that she would be revising the book. This was followed by another apology, this time to the critics who had been abused online. Clanchy, who was at home watching her career go up in flames, had not been consulted by the publisher. It was surreal, she says. “All my most precious things, my teaching practice, my family, my writing, my children’s poems, everything was being fundamentally attacked and then, over my head, this apology had been put out.”
There are some mitigating factors in Picador’s defense. One is that Clanchy’s long-standing editor had gone on sabbatical a couple of weeks before the storm blew up, while the head of the imprint, whom she had known for many years, had left. Picador’s new publisher, Philip Gwyn Jones, was a man she had never met. The row had become “a corporate thing”, Clanchy says, and she is not sure that anyone in those meetings discussing her fate had read the book.
Two days after that, unable to sleep at 3am, she turned on her computer and saw an email from an author she knew. It was a reply, that she had been cc’d into, to a letter from a senior figure at Picador that appeared to have been sent to all of the imprint’s authors except her, which suggested that the publisher was distancing itself from her. She doesn’t know exactly what the letter said because the attachment had been left off, but the content of the email gave her a fairly strong clue. “I believe you have failed honourably to own the problem along with Kate, who was your friend — albeit a friend who made mistakes. She has been disowned and hung out to dry,” the author had written.
It was at that moment that Clanchy, who has three children of her own — the youngest, twins, are in their last year of school — came close to suicide.
“It was very strong,” she says of the impulse to end her life. “I really want to stress this. I’m a mentally healthy person. I’m very resilient. I’m a teacher. But I was amazed by the strength of the ideation.” Clanchy had been through a huge amount that year, including the loss of both her parents to Covid-19 within days of each other, and the end of her marriage (she is going through a divorce). Any mention of this in coverage of the story last year tended to lead to accusations about “the weaponisation of white women’s tears”. It is fairly obvious, sitting with her, that it does matter; that she is human and that she was dealing with a lot.
At this point, she did not yet believe that her relationship with the publisher was terminal. Clanchy was able to arrange a meeting with middle management at Picador and told them that she felt that they were falling short in their duty of care. She agreed that she would revise the book and it would be checked by “sensitivity readers”. She was happy with this arrangement. The rewriting was “cathartic and good”, she says. She especially wanted to change the sections on autism, which she knows she got wrong.
It was fairly obvious, sitting with her, that Clanchy was dealing with a lot.
Things might have ended there, but in November, Gwyn Jones gave an interview to The Daily Telegraph in which he said he regretted not having stood more firmly beside Clanchy, prompting another wave of recrimination on Twitter. He duly issued a groveling four-part apology pledging to “use my privileged position as a white middle-class gatekeeper with more awareness”. Clanchy was not consulted. Then, in December, she was asked to write an essay for Prospect magazine about her experience of being canceled.
Picador counseled against it, arguing that it would not be good for her mental health. She wrote it anyway, including the suicidal ideation. A new storm erupted — now it was Clanchy’s gall in positioning herself as a victim that was under attack. Picador put out another statement, an incoherent one, simultaneously condemning the bullying of Clanchy’s critics and of Clanchy herself, while distancing themselves from Gwyn Jones and claiming to have played no part in the Prospect piece. It was, in other words, an almighty mess.
By now Clanchy could see that this was going to keep happening, that her publishers were going to follow her around wringing their hands and cringing as though she was a racist auntie they could not control, and they mutually agreed to part ways. The split sounds rather like a divorce. Rights had to be carved up, payments negotiated — the pupils whose work was to feature in planned anthologies had already been paid. For weeks Clanchy has been cc’d into emails between lawyers and agents with “the dissolution of Katherine Clanchy” in the subject line, and, now, it is done.
“I have been dissolved,” she says. They were willing to keep publishing her most recent book, How to Grow Your Own Poem. But she couldn’t part with it. “I couldn’t leave the book with people who weren’t going to defend the teaching practice,” she says, sadly. They wanted her to sign a nondisclosure agreement. She refused.
She claims to feel much better now, though she still seems fragile, at home with Hetty the “triumphantly dim” Bengal cat. Clanchy says that she is simultaneously able to see the absurdity of the situation — the point her book is supposed to prove, that publishing is too middle-class and white, is one she has spent many years trying to make herself — while living with the consequences of it every day. “There’s a great big cloud of shame that’s impacted everybody I know. It interrupts every time you see somebody. You have to think, ‘Oh dear. Do they want to speak to me?’”
Clanchy is simultaneously able to see the absurdity of the situation while living with the consequences of it every day.
In truth, it is hard to imagine that the rights will not be snapped up by another publisher (“No comment,” she says), but the story raises difficult questions about the role of publishing. Clanchy believes that one of the reasons that Pan Macmillan failed her in its duty of care was because the attack was not just coming from the outside. “I have been told that young staff within Macmillan found me to be harmful, and I think that’s why I have to be entirely removed,” she says.
The question then is what the values of modern publishing are. Clanchy does not believe that publishing houses should act as moral arbiters: “If you look back through history, all kinds of outrageous things have been published,” she says. “It’s not a teacher, it’s not the BBC. It doesn’t have a moral duty to improve.” When it comes to the personal views of staff members, she believes that they are in even more of a mess. “It’s like Heinz beans. If you work for Heinz, and you speak against the beans you get fired,” she says, laughing. “Why isn’t it as simple as that?” Pan Macmillan declined to comment for this piece.
In all of this chaos, the people who have stood beside her are her pupils. As well as those who came forward to defend her, 25 pupils signed a letter to The Bookseller magazine in praise of all she has done. “Though well-meaning people appear to want to defend us, in some ways their intervention is often disempowering and causing us distress, because it does not reflect our reality. We do not need defending: we will speak for ourselves,” the letter said. Clanchy visited one of them last week. “She said, ‘I’m glad you’re leaving Picador, because they should have taken care of us. We were very happy to defend you, but it wasn’t our job.”
Since this interview with Kate Clanchy, Swift Press has announced plans to reissue Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me as an e-book
Rosie Kinchen is an associate editor and the main interviewer of News Review at The Sunday Times