An interview with Kwame’s Bookshelf

My Brother Charlie
One of the books reviewed on Kwame’s Bookshelf

Kwame’s bookshelf is a lovely book review blog, run by Erica Campayne. In focusing on reviewing children’s books with black and/or disabled main characters, it shines a spotlight on books which are often overlooked by mainstream reviewers, but which are absolutely essential so that every child can see themselves mirrored positively.

At a recent event focusing on inclusivity in children’s literature (the Inclusive Minds conference), delegates were asked to think about the reasons publishers don’t publish more picture books with BAME and disabled main characters. I was surprised to hear ‘They don’t sell internationally’ frequently coming up as a reason. The argument being that picture books have to sell into multiple territories to break even, and that BAME and disabled/differently abled main characters don’t appeal to those territories. Now, while I understand that publishers have to turn a profit, I don’t agree that the value of books can ever be calculated purely in money. For this reason, when Erica came up to me at the London Book Fair event, I instantly thought that I’d love to feature her blog on the Megaphone website. I interviewed her about the blog she started:


LR: How did Kwame’s Bookshelf come about – can you say something about the inspiration behind it, please?

EC: As an adult I was already conscious of buying books by authors from a range of ethnicities, so I took that sensibility with me when shopping for my child. I realised quite quickly that I had even less choice for books than in the adult sections. And I knew that I would be sharing these special moments reading to my new child and presenting ideas to him about the world – I didn’t want one of those ideas to be that he was unusual by showing him books that didn’t feature him. I wanted him to see himself as wonderful and vital and a connected part of the world around him. We also have disabled family members and I wanted to have that included in books as a way of my son and I exploring these ideas. I wanted to include books on his bookshelf that reflected our loves alongside all the other books. I wanted him to have a bookshelf filled with books that showed a range of ethnicities and stories. So I started Googling but wasn’t coming up with many options, and I also started asking family and friends to suggest books, most of which were by African American authors – which is fine, but I realised there was a real lack of books about British kids of a range of cultures. At about the same time I listened to a podcast which stated that an entrepreneur is someone who presents a solution to a problem (and of course monetises it). I don’t think I’m an entrepreneur but I realised that this was the problem I had – finding books that featured lead characters (not just a brown face in a crowd scene) that were from a range of ethnicities and also featured disabled characters. I couldn’t find a list like this when I Googled so I thought I should therefore make one. As Maya Angelou says, if you can’t find the story you want to read, you need to write it. I’m not a writer but I am a connector. So I thought I’d connect the writers of these books with people like me who want to read and purchase them.

LR: Do you feel that it is important to children to see themselves in fiction, and if so, why?

EC: It’s so important. In every culture the stories that are contained in books are used to teach children facts but also societal values, such as to share, to love their family, to overcome fears and dangers…so black, asian, turkish, and children with disabilities should be part of this narrative. Not just for the benefit of children from those backgrounds but also to help other children empathise and realise that there are other experiences in the world or to connect and realise that they share similar experiences to other children, e.g. no one wants to go to bed and miss out on the fun!

LR: Did you feel reflected and represented in children’s books when you were growing up? If not, do you feel this absence was a problem?

EC: I know that my mum made a conscious point of buying me toys and dolls that featured black children, we had some sent from family in America and we read a wide range of books. I also attended Saturday school which is a supplementary school for black children where alongside maths and english you were taught black history. So there were lots of other inputs. But I decided to set up Kwame’s Bookshelf when I realised that I was still hunting for books with black lead protagonists in the same way that my mum was over 30 years ago!

LR: Do you feel seeing Black and disabled authors is also important to child readers?

EC: Yes – it’s important for all of us. We can’t continue to shape the world into one mould. In this connected world of the internet where children will encounter so many more perspectives on life, they need to know about that and navigate that. In the way that CBeebies successfully shows how you can offer depictions of all sorts of families, literature needs to catch up.

LR:If you could pass on just one message to publishers of children’s literature, what would that message be?  

EC: Increase the richness of the books on offer. Nurture UK based writiers who want to create these books and be bold and confident that they will reach a large audience. Just like the fantastic Megaphone programme that you ran and which I got to hear extracts of the work that was created. The talent is there but more effort needs to be made to support it. This isn’t just an issue for families from diverse backgrounds, my white friends also want to buy books for their children that reflect the lives their children grow up in – especially in somewhere like London where I live. And with the way the world is growing so divisive let’s try and set a different tone for the children who will take over from us in the future.

LR: Thank you.

What especially stands out to me from what Erica said, is the fact of having to consciously look for picture books with black and disabled protagonists. In contrast, one doesn’t have to consciously look for books with white and able-bodied characters; they are easily and widely and immediately available in mainstream shops. Finding black and disabled characters in picture books is simply much harder work, and it shouldn’t be. Everyone deserves an equal place in literature.

Read Erica’s reviews at:
Tweet her at @kwamesbookshelf and Instagram her @kwamesbookshelf

And if you’re a publisher or author with a suitable book, why not send her something to review?

Megaphone: end of an amazing year!

So, it’s hard to believe, but Megaphone has come to an end. The year is completed and I will now be taking stock, evaluating and planning for the future. We have filmed footage of the writers for a short film which is in the editing process at the moment. The only element of the programme left outstanding is sending samples out to the editors, which will be done this week. The masterclasses and one-to-ones, the spine of the programme, are completed.

Megaphone can already point to material successes: two of the writers have secured representation by major agents with their completed novels – Danielle Jawando is now represented by Madeleine Milburn and Joyce Efia Harmer by Jo Unwin. The other writers have had keen interest from agents and publishers also, and short stories – in some cases their first publications – have been commissioned from the writers by the BBC, Aquila and Scoop.  Megaphone had an incredibly well-attended final event at the London Book Fair, with plenty of positive attention and support, both for the Megaphone writers and for the programme itself, in the wake of it.

In the coming weeks, I will be evaluating the programme and asking the writers to tell me about the benefits to them, what they have learned and what they would have liked to be different. But in the mean-time I thought it would be good to reflect on my own feelings!

What have the benefits been to me?

Certainly, setting up a project like this without any previous experience has been a challenge, but it is one I have benefitted from enormously – I’ve learned about the process of setting up and managing a project from start to finish, and have come to feel it’s not too different from writing a novel!

Most importantly, I’ve had the pleasure and honour to be around as five unique and dazzling works of literature come into the world. I’ve met five incredible people – Danielle, Nafisa, Tina, Joyce and Avanti – whose stories deserve to be read, and I’ve seen them grow and flourish in confidence and skill to tell those stories. I admire the energy and the commitment that all these writers have brought to this year –in the face of many different challenges, they have never given up.  It really feels as if all five writers have grown, and that development is exactly what I hoped to achieve with Megaphone: five writers who are more publishable and more likely to sustain a career in publishing after the programme than before – because they have more knowledge, improved skills and a better sense of the mental and emotional resilience needed to persist in the industry. Which is not to say that these writers couldn’t have got to this stage without Megaphone. But it’s a difficult and discouraging world out there for authors. Anyone who’s ever tried to describe the writing life to a new writer eager to embark on it, will know how hard it is to strike the right balance between being realistic and being discouraging.  Sustained support and guidance is, I feel, the thing that can make the real difference.  This year, the Megaphone writers have discovered that they can do it, they can write a novel, and they’ve developed a support network in each other that I hope will last their lifetimes, through all the ups and downs of a writing life. Writing in a community is something children’s literature does very well, and Megaphone continues that tradition.


Where next?

Over the next few months, I will be evaluating Megaphone, and looking at ways in which the project can be honed and improved and potentially extended, without losing its core strength and focus. I will also need to identify future sources of funding (this year’s funding came from Arts Council England, The Publishers Association and a kind donation from Melissa Cox).

I will of course be following the progress of the Megaphone writers and hope to be able to share news of publication deals over the next few months. It’s a long game with no certainties, but I’m hopeful!

Writing West Midlands have been a constant support and we are planning an event with them as part of the Birmingham Book Festival this year, so keep an eye out for that in October. It has meant a lot to me that this has taken place in Birmingham. As a city, we have a lot in common with children’s literature in that we’re constantly looked down on by those who know little about us. We’re low on bookshops, hit by cuts, our libraries are disappearing; yet we are simultaneously a youthful, hopeful, exciting, entrepreneurial and ethnically diverse city –with a long history of world-changing invention. Megaphone is in the right place.

Long term, I hope that Megaphone can come to be seen as a place for agents and publishers to look when they want to find the best and most exciting new writing for children. It has been a fantastic year for BAME children’s authorship – with success in most of the major prizes and attention paid to glaring absences for the first year ever.. What I hope is that this year won’t be a one-off but a real sea-change in how the non-white experience in children’s literature is valued, understood and respected. And that Megaphone will be part of that sea-change.
– Leila Rasheed