Whose Reality Are We Reflecting?

In Amazing Grace, one of my favourite childhood picture books, Grace, a black girl, is told that she can’t play Peter Pan because he is a white boy!

No adult has ever told the (multiracial) nursery class that Peter Pan can only be white. But it is the only thing they have seen. Despite securing the audition for the role, Grace even starts to doubt it herself.

Eventually, Grace’s Nanny takes her to a ballet to see a black ballerina and gives her the “you can do anything” pep talk. Grace, of course, gets the role of Peter Pan. On the night of the play, Grace GIVES IT TO DEM. She kills the role of Peter Pan in the play like none of the other kids could- they even apologise for saying she couldn’t do it right.

I talk a lot about my status of Book Aunty. I find and buy books every year for kids (at request of their parents).

Nurturing younger readers brings a serious joy to my life. It helps me feel closer to my late godmother, I’ve talked about it before (she bought me books, I buy them books). It brings me joy to see these kids with their noses in books, for them to be excited because the book they wanted has finally been added to their collection, to hear them talk about their favourite characters and authors.

I was born twenty-five years ago. My parents struggled to find books for my childhood library that included black people; the parents of these kids are going through the exact same struggle.

Black kids who should be able to see themselves and the people around them reflected in the books they read.

This week, a study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) showed that in 2017, about 4% of children’s books published contained BAME characters. Only 1% of the books had a BAME protagonist. All of this, despite BAME children making up 32% of the children in compulsory education.

There were 9115 children’s titles published in Britain. That means that 391 books published for children have Characters of Colour present, that 91 books have Protagonists of Colour.

Am I surprised? No.

Am I disappointed. Yes… still.

I’ve been disappointed for years. First as a child, and now as an adult.

I wish I still had the application essay that helped me secure a place at Kingston University to study Publishing. I can’t recall the exact words, but I know the sentiment hasn’t changed.

Children are being failed.

Children are smart, smarter than we give them credit for.

They are intuitive, can pick up on cues. They listen in on “grown up” conversations. They watch the news. They look at the world presented to them in real life, on the page and on the big, small and tiny screens.

They don’t need to be told something explicitly to get the message.

And they are not colour-blind.

They see discrimination just as clearly as we do- even if they might not have the vocabulary to express what they are seeing and experiencing. And it affects them deeply. On a psychological level- the basis of their ego, their self-image, their worth in society.

Somehow, I guess I just didn’t think it was that bad.

After all, I always manage to find the books for the kids that aren’t just “issue” books for kids. A lot of books featuring black characters often do tackle the delicate way to explain racism and discrimination to children, there’s less black kids just doing “normal” kid things. Imagine being a child where the only characters that look like you are experiencing racism when you, yourself are also dealing with racism in your life.

Please, where is the escapism (something a lot of us value about reading) in that?

When I look at the titles I have purchased, they fall in to one of two categories: Books I remember from my own childhood and  American imports. This industry can’t just rely on Americans to do the work, nor can it rely on nostalgia- this country has to support and represent its new, home-grown talent.

There are so many nuances in the BAME British experience that America will never address because it doesn’t have them. Imagine hearing that BAME authors are not even attempting to get published initially in the UK but are instead exporting their stories because they are being told that there is no market for what they are writing!?

The Publishing industry in the UK needs to be braver. To be smarter. To do better.

We already know how. We’ve discussed it enough.

The time has come to match words with action.

Below are some people I know of who are doing more than talking, if you know any more, please add them in the comments below:

This is Book Love – a multi-cultural, multi-lingual pop-up (and online) book store.
Booktrust – The UK’s largest children’s reading charity.
Knights Of – A new children’s publisher team who decided to do the DAMN THING themselves. Originators of the #BooksMadeBetter campaign.
Alanna Max – An indie children’s publisher with naturally inclusive children’s stories.
Inclusive Minds – publishing collective committed to changing the face of children’s books.
Spread The Word – London based writers development agency devoted to the new writers of all backgrounds living in the capital, hosts of the annual London Short Story Prize.
Commonword – Manchester based, writers development agency that has been open since 1977.
The Good Literary Agency – the team behind best-selling, award-winning collection of the British BAME Experience The Good Immigrant working to supporting homegrown writing talent.
Mediadiversified – giving a platform to BAME Brits and founded the Bare Lit Festival, which amplifies the voices of writers of colour.
BAME in Publishing – a networking opportunity held every month for BAME people trying to get into publishing and those of us who have finally gotten our feet through the door.

If you would like to read the CLPE report for yourself, it is available to download in full here.

THAT book

“You know… I don’t actually like reading…”

Kwasi told me… and upon seeing my eyes widen and eyebrows touch my hairline (probably), he was quick to expand the statement “unless it the books you give me.”

So we started to talk.

Why doesn’t Kwasi like to read books?

They don’t get him excited, he’s not interested, most of the reading he does, is reading for schoolwork. He’d rather sit down with his brother and play on the xbox or laptop. The usual things you’d expect to hear from a teenage boy who is justifying why he doesn’t make the time to read for pleasure.

The biggest reason though, Kwasi can’t find a book that he feels is for him.

He hadn’t had that book yet.

The book that made him excited to read.

I remember back in the early 2000s when my brother borrowed that very first copy of Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak from the school library. Omari wasn’t a reader like I was, so it was really weird for our parents to see the boy who’d rather be biking on the street or watching Dragon Ball Z curled up with a book in his hand all of the sudden.

It set off a chain reaction in him.

He didn’t want to borrow from the school anymore, he wanted a copy that was his alone (seriously, he would not share, when I wanted to read them, I had to buy my own copies when I wanted to read it). And then, every time he saw a new addition had been released, he’d head down to the local WH Smith with mum and a tenner to get his fix.

After encountering this book, my brother actively started looking for books to read, first, books by Darren Shan, after all, he devoured the Saga of Darren Shan, why wouldn’t he also enjoy the Demonata series or The Thin Executioner? After literally exhausting his complete Darren Shan collection, my brother went on to Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider, and Justin Somper’s Vampirates (absolute banger of a book series tbh).

(To tell you how much my brother and I appreciate Darren Shan’s horror writing; there is a small bookshelf in our upstairs hallway stocked with a near complete list of Darren Shan’s bibliography… and we both got hyped at our big university ages when we found out that Darren Shan had been releasing instalments of Zom-B.)

Omari had found his book.

It’s harder when the book recipient has particular tastes. Kwasi’s not big into magic, so fantasy is out of the question (which as a devotee to SFF, dissertation on High Fantasy writer, broke my heart). A lot of the books I read at Kwasi’s age had female protagonists, great for me, but I he’d wasn’t interested in Georgia Nicholson’s confessional diary and similar titles. It takes time, patience and experimentation to help a kid find that book.

But I found that book.

Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry.

I actually got a text from Kwasi thanking me for finding that book for him, and if I could get him some more Malorie Blackman books. Since then I have been, mostly books that I’ve read and loved myself. I know his mum takes him and his siblings to the library as often as she can, and I give him names of books I remember reading, or authors I think he’d enjoy. For his fourteenth birthday, he got an entire book series (Gone by Michael Grant) and he’s currently working his way through those.

Seeing him carry around a copy of these books with the cracked spine and doggy eared pages doesn’t inspire anger in me it might some other book lovers- after all, the books are his now, I should just be glad he’s finally found joy in reading.

Bookgiving 2017

In this 2017 all my kids getting books and pyjamas because we want to encourage them to (what?) READ and get enough SLEEP (and give their parents a break in this coming 2018th year of our Lord). Some of my kids’ families don’t celebrate Christmas- which is why this is about book-giving.

I try my best to find brown protagonists for my brown babies, introduce them to familiar folklore or re-imaginings of things they may have heard sitting in Grandma’s lap. Because that’s what Book Aunties DO!

I got 9 kids to shop for aged 2 to 13 years.

Afia is my little Ghana princess, my baby ghel. My dolly-child. She loves Disney princesses, legos and taking care of her two big brothers, even when they are mean. A serious petite madam who is always excited to read to me.

What they got: Ada Twist, Scientist Andrea Beatley, With Love from Anna Hibiscus Atinuke

Why I bought it: With Love from Anna Hibiscus was a request, lads, when you get that premier book from a series you are SET. Here is proof- the next book in the Anna Hibiscus series was a request. Like Pokémon- Afia’s trying to catch ’em all! Ada Twist, Scientist is a fun book about a little girl who’s smart as HELL and has a supportive family who encourage her all through her life- just like my girl! Plus it’s cute AF!

Kwasi has been through a lot in his short 13 years. Sometimes I know I spoil and indulge him because I know I want him to feel loved and supported, and now I’m seeing the teen angst and anger sweep through him. I try to find him books that are a bit more mature now so he doesn’t feel like he’s being talked down to.

What they got: Pigeon English Stephen Kelman, The Spider Weaver Margaret Musgrove

Why I bought it: Pidgin English, I wanted to give my boy some more male protagonists who are also black because Mallory Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry was such a success. The Spider Weaver because well… his mum is always telling me about how  her brothers weave Kente and I didn’t know this story that comes with a mini-history lesson on the fabric. I assume he had too, but I always remember loving having physical copies of Trini folk-tales, not just memories of the oral and thought he’d enjoy the same.

Lizzie is the sweetest little thing! She’s such a nice big sister and is learning how to read for herself, though she still needs help. Her mum was doing my hair and Lizzie came to keep me company all day and read Jack and the Beanstalk with me (her favourite part, that she can recite by heart- little actress in the making: FEE FI FO FUM I SMELL THE PONG OF AN ENGLISHMAN (the publisher changed it from “blood” I guess to make it more child-friendly? don’t @ me)

What they got: Lila and the Secret of the Rain David Conway

Why I bought it: I wanted a cute picture book! Also… like, do y’all know how deep picture books are getting nowadays? I literally love it. This is a cute story about trying to do your best for your community… and the joy when it prevails.

Hannah is my baby sister (who’s 13)! If not in blood, then by face. When we are out together, especially at weddings people are always saying how nice it is to see sisters with our age gap (lol) get on so well. She’s bi-lingual! My girl speaks Twi, cause her daddy taught her, she’s a lil mix of the islands and the motherland, sweetest thing.

What they got: Pigeon English Stephen Kelman

Why I bought it: Honestly I heard bits about this book for the longest while and yes, I bought it TWICE. My girl’s dad is Jamaican and Ghanaian, like I said, she speak Twi! I don’t come across books for kids this age with African protagonists, and even then, harder still for me to find a Ghanaian protagonist? Plus this book is doing bits on the english secondary school curriculum I heard?

Ramalah I’m dying with all these Tweens. Ramalah is a bright girl, she can bake cakes, brownies and doughnuts as well as her professional baker mum. One problem…. she don’t like to read all that much.  Book shopping for Ramalah is like a science experiment, I’m still on the look out for that book that will let her see reading can be fun.

What they got: Zahrah the Windseeker Nnedi Okorafor

Why I bought it: I had so much fun reading Zahrah the Windseeker. It was the first Nnedi Okorafor book that I ever read and it spurred me into reading as much of her work as I could. It feels like Sci-fi and Fantasy all based in Nigerian cultures. The setting is very mystical and feels very solar punk (the people live in interactive house trees, you can GROW computers from seeds!) and the cultures of the characters are vivid af.

Sam is the most serious six year-old you ever met. Despite thanking me for his gift, he let me known that he mostly reads non-fiction and would like a book about science, space, dinosaurs, history or archeology. Yes, in that order. So yes, I have work to do.

What they got: Anna Hibiscus Atinuke

Why I bought it: I’ve had great success buying Anna Hibiscus titles. All the kids I’ve previously bought it for love it. I especially buy these books for my little Naija babies because they’re books their parents love reading these short stories to them as well, as the characters go through situations that the parents may’ve had in Nigeria and tell their kids about when parents go into one of those “back in my day” times.

Shamfa My sweet angel, the love of my life, the light in my heart. My little clone! Who was also born in December. The Terrible Twos are here, and even though she can’t read- she will remind her big, big sisters that what they’ve got in their hands are “[her] book!”

What they got: Twelve Dancing Princesses, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea Rachel Isadora

Why I bought it: It was my baby’s birthday. She loves being read to. I love reading books to her! So does her mum and dad. The main pull of purchasing these Rachel Isadora versions of classic fairy tales- my uncle and his partner are very afrocentric and loved that these stories were being given a different cultural setting than the ones we grew up on.

Taymiyah is easy to shop for. My girl will read any and everything under the sun. She’s bendy so I was gonna look into some kid-yoga books, but then I remember just how much she loves reading a book where she and the protagonist are the exact same age.

What they got: President of the Whole Fifth Grade Sherri Winston

Why I bought it: Like I said- easy buy. Taymiyah just went into year six. Last year, I got my girl a book with a protagonist of the similar age- her mum reported that she did not put down that book at all (and is still revisiting it). The cover art of this novel looked cute, and it’s a series! So if she loves it… thats a few gifting opportunities sorted (who doesn’t love a complete set?).

Yaw– Recently bespectacled, my tiny professor. He whinges often, but loves to ask questions. My boy’s first words were chiding Oscar Pistorius for the crocodile tears at the sentencing hearing- he pays more attention to the news than I did… and he was also the easiest to shop for as he’d been asking for one particular book since it came out.

What they got: Jaden Toussaint- The Greatest Episode 1 Marti Dumas , The Getaway Jeff Kinney

Why I bought it: Yaw been asking for The Getaway since it’s pub-date. I promised him I’d get it for his birthday, but it wasn’t published until well after. He lives for this series. Because this birthday he just got the promise of the Getaway and some legos- Jaden Toussaint was a fun extra- this was the best choice, my boy is smart and inquisitive and I thought he’d enjoy a book with a child genius protagonist.

That’s it all folks.

Bookgiving 2017, all done.

Book Auntie antics- over!