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.

Halfway Through #DiverseDecember

Applying to my MA course I started my cover letter with this sentence:

I am a black girl who loves to read… and I’m also a black girl who has been let down by the industry that provides the majority of her entertainment.

The lack of racial diversity the entire industry is a big problem in my opinion. There are only so many books you can read searching for representation, eventually swearing off of books because they’re not for people like you. It’s alienating as a reader to be repeatedly shown you are unimportant and invisible in fictional worlds, especially if reading is an escape from those Real Life Problems™️.

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Source: TheDailyDoodles.com

We’ve been talking in lectures about the evolution of Publishing as a whole. As a Publisher, my job will be to acquire content, manipulate the content and attempt to make a profit. It sounds like a simple enough business model right? And despite this, there are still large audiences who are not being catered to.

This is where #DiverseDecember comes in. It’s now been officially over two weeks since I found out about this twitter campaign (I can’t believe it’s halfway done)… So I want to talk about the difference it has made in my To Read List and the importance of campaigns promoting diversity in Publishing like We Need Diverse Books, Diverse YA, Creative Access and  Inclusive Minds.

BAME Authors, like BAME students in a majority-white class, are pigeonholed and made the “go-to” spokesperson for their entire race and culture. Like, how stressful is that- carrying an entire race and culture on your shoulders? They’re criticized for writing  or talking too much about race and they’re criticized for not writing or talking enough about race.

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“What’s the Black POV on [topic]?” or “This race-thing again?”
 Marlon James recently said in an article for the Guardian Books that BAME writers, if they want to succeed have to pander to the views of publisher’s main consumers (middle class white women). Which then leads writers to fall into the trap of the single narrative that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us of, in order to succeed. I’m talking acacia trees and sunsets, rastafarians, steel pans and lounging in hammocks, curries, arranged marriages and “mythical” religions, martial arts, “weird” delicacies and lotus blossoms… You see what I’m getting to right?

Like #ReadWomen2014, the hashtag is about promoting different kinds of reading. #ReadWomen2014 was about reading more books from female authors, because despite the fact that the majority of the industry audience and workers are female, the most celebrated writers are often men. For example, YA literature is full of female writers, and yet John Green has been labeled the savior or “crown prince” of the genre.

#DiverseDecember was started by bloggers Naomi Frisby and Dan Lipscomb with the aim to celebrate the work of BAME writers, encourage people to read diversely and to “spread the joy of stories”. The twitter page and hashtag is full of people recommending their favourite classic and contemporary authors of colour, authors and stories from around the globe, other campaigns promoting diversity in publishing and stories about BAME-centric literary projects like Nikesh Shula’s upcoming letter collection “The Good Immigrant” and the fact that Nosy Crow is currently accepting submissions from BAME authors. For someone who used to struggle finding particular authors, the hashtag is a god send. It is so wonderful to see people promoting books that they have loved and want to share with others.

The importance of hearing BAME voices in literature is for more than just having a wider selection of reading. It’s a positive affirmation of my Black-British existence. In my youth I often felt as though I didn’t really have a place in this country, or the one my parents immigrated from.  Learning of the history of your country, and finding out that the only way you are connected through it is through the effects of conquest in the name of Empire, is not the one. I’m sure that many BAME readers must have felt the same kind of disconnect, and campaigns like this only serve to bring us closer to each other and our dual-identities.

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Change doesn’t have to be completely radical, the Publishing Industry isn’t going to get diverse in the snap of our fingers. We can’t collect all seven Dragonballs and ask Shenron to grant our wish… Marketing doesn’t have to be a pushing tactic- it’s easier to pull in this case, as I’ve learned from the last guest speaker of the term- Sam Missingham (the queen of twitter).

The audience is here. We’re identifying ourselves as potential customers.

We’re just waiting for someone to point us in the direction of something we would enjoy. Most of the time, its a close friend or relative- but what if it was direct from the source?

Imagine the profits.

Imagine the books (and apps, and events and the potential for other media tie-ins!).

Imagine the audience returning time and time again because they know you are serving up exactly what they’re looking for?

Yes, I’m thinking about #DiverseDecember from a Publishing Student point of view right now. But a year ago, when I had just graduated, all I wanted to do was read books for and about people who looked like me. As a consumer, I am grateful for this campaign because I’m finally seeing myself as part of the process, and part of the story.