Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.
Rachel Mann (@rachelphilippa ) Children’s Fiction Editor for Simon & Schuster UK, is one of the editors who is generously donating her time to help select the applicants for Megaphone and to deliver final feedback on the manuscripts. She is also Founding Director of literacy and education charity The Saltpond Education Project (SEP) based in Ghana, West Africa. This sounds a fantastic project, so first of all I asked her to tell me something about it.
Rachel: “SEP has been an ever-evolving project, borne initially from the passion of a single Ghanaian teacher and the very urgent need of the beach children where he lives. We’re now a mid-sized charity with lots of wonderful UK trustees, providing an innovative form of education and teacher-training to over 180 children and 13 staff, all from a particularly underprivileged area of Saltpond, Ghana.”
On the subject of books and literacy, Rachel added:
“One of the first thing I noticed upon my first trip to the country was a truly upsetting lack of imagination and expression in the classroom. This is a complex issue but one that has a lot to do with a lack of access to reading materials for students, teachers and the general population. Schools generally have a few copies of battered, outdated, poorly-produced textbooks to hand – and certainly no fiction – either in English or local languages. Literacy levels across all generations are extremely low in the area we serve – and most of our students are not recorded in national statistics because their births went unregistered.
So, we send over as many culturally appropriate and easily accessible storybooks and educational materials as we’re able to and, where we can, ones in which the children can recognise their own skin colour. Sadly, as we know, there aren’t that many! We then build interactive lessons and teaching styles around stories – using puppets, play acting, art and creative writing. We also run after-school creative writing and reading clubs, among others, as well as adult literacy classes and educational plays for the wider community. Once we were up and running, we let our students name our school, and they chose to call it ‘ the SEP Happy School’. Our school truly is a happy and dynamic place and this is largely because of the impact that stories and pictures have had on our learning environment.”
Rachel is clearly an incredibly busy person, so I had to ask her: why take something new on- why support Megaphone?
Rachel: “I have been working with children’s books for over twelve years now and have always, frankly, felt embarrassed and concerned about the lack of diversity and internationalism in the books that are currently available – though things are finally beginning to shift a little. Publishing is an industry which has a lot to do with canon and heritage, and one that can be very slow to change. Commissioning editors like myself can certainly do much more to ensure that all areas of our global society are reflected in the materials and stories we provide children with, but it’s also a sad fact that we just don’t see enough submissions by writers of BAME heritage. That’s because we’ve already failed a whole generation of readers, who have not seen themselves in stories and so haven’t felt that the industry would welcome them. That’s shocking – and something we need to address as soon as possible.”
Rachel added: “I took some time out of publishing in 2012 to teach English in an incredibly good school in Tower Hamlets, in which the cohort was 98% Bengali Muslim girls. The students were lucky enough to have access to a wonderful library, and a variety of extra-curricular activities around reading and writing. And yet, when these avid readers wrote stories, they would call their characters ‘Lily’ and ‘Rose’ and any number of other names straight out of a Jacqueline Wilson or Sophie McKenzie novel. Hardly any of them ever considered writing about themselves – their protagonists were always normalised Western-Caucasian girls, and certainly didn’t wear hijabs. And the girls I taught were all WONDERFUL writers – open-minded, worldly, expressive, and having had extremely interesting and often difficult lives already. So many of them were made to be authors, but almost none of them considered it. Sadder still, none of those readers were even able to escape a sense of struggle and alienation into imaginary worlds that accepted them. That was a huge factor in my return to publishing!”
Rachel thinks that when it comes to diversity and equality in the children’s book world: “It’s about changing the landscape and helping young people to feel included and supported in reading and writing at as early a stage as possible. Megaphone is wonderful in that it will help get more books published in which all young readers will recognise themselves. At the same time, we must make sure that teachers, librarians and other professionals are able to get those books into the hands of the right children, not just a privileged few. This is a lot to do with library and arts funding – something we must all keep fighting for. Creative writing initiatives like First Story and Ministry of Stories are also doing really wonderful work in helping young people from all backgrounds to get writing!”
Totally agree – and I’d add to that the Young Muslim Writers Awards, which is doing great work. Thank you Rachel for your support!