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?

Published by Leila from Megaphone

Writer and runs Megaphone: a writer development scheme for people of colour who want to write for children. Tweets @MegaphoneWrite and @LeilaR

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