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.

Gift-giving as the Book Auntie

I’m at that age now where I don’t exactly qualify as a “child” for Christmas anymore. I’m not as upset about it as I thought I’d be, because this year I finally understood our family rule, “Only the kids get gifts.”

I have accepted  my Auntie position now, and having worked the holiday period in a book store, with a 50% discount on everything on the store floor, of course everyone was getting one thing at least. Books.

Which meant I gained an Auntie category. I’m the Book Auntie now. The Auntie you come to with an amazon reading list the length of your arm, who will either slip you a £20 note when you’re in a book shop and set you loose on the shelves, who will ask you what series you’re collecting and collaborate with your parents so that on birthdays and Christmases you get to tick the latest installation off of your personal “to buy” list.

Everyone I bought a book for was under 14, three of them at that wonderful age where their book choices were tied between the 9-12 age range and the ever widening Teen/ Young Adult section. As a seasoned YA reader, I know that there can be some mature elements that I knew these parents were not comfortable with their children being introduced to. I had to make sure that along the way, I wasn’t exposing them to anything that would push them into maturity closer than they needed to, and in this process got to read books that maybe I wouldn’t have chosen to sit permanently on my own bookshelf.

It was a book a day situation. Sometimes, even the books I bought with the intention to gift (See: Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is also a Star) ended up a resident on my bedside table. I hadn’t read so much, so fast since the summer before I went to university. Then, it was a way to kill time when the schedules of friend’s didn’t link up at the right time or to escape from the boredom of being the only one jobless and vacationless before embarking on that next stage of life that was living at university.

Now, reading became a critical act. I had to take in the styles of the authors, and the actions of the characters. Would X like this long, winding prose? Were the metaphors too flowery? Was the text condescending in anyway? Was the story enjoyable? On the bus, on the train, during my mandated breaks, I would fish a book out of my bag (and I always carried two, incase I completed one earlier than expected), sit and read.

It was like the scene in Ratatouille, when Remy is trying to explain the complimentary tastes of foods perfectly paired to his brother. And after a summer of reading the genre I love only to analyse it, and three weeks reading anything that my Auntie Yvonne could spare from her daughter’s shelves because the lack of books in the family home was killing me it was liberating to have books that I could enjoy… and pass on without that dreadful fear of “I’m never going to see that again” when you loan someone a book.

Because I knew that was already going to happen. I wasn’t going to see these books again because they were bought with someone else in mind. And maybe they’ll have those thoughts in the future when they want to share these stories with their friends.

Today I gave the final gift of books to the last book giftee I acquired through my mum’s Nurse Auntie Conglomerate (Please, I have been running on BPT since the womb, and have only recently showed signs of improving that). She shrieked with joy. She’d been at the very same bookstore I was working at a week before and wanted the two books I’d picked, read and assigned as her gift, but she didn’t have the money to buy them alongside the other four books she’d picked up.

I start to think about my late godmother, who was my Book Auntie and if she felt the same happiness as I do now when I’m being trusted to provide a good selection of literature that encouraged putting the screen down and getting grounded in my own imagination. If she felt the same way as I do now, when doling out these gifts, as she did when I was first presented with So Much or Amazing Grace or Noughts and Crosses or Assassin’s Apprentice, then I know each of these books were given out of love and understanding of my tastes and my interests. And that just makes them all the more precious.

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.