Megaphone is really excited about this new initiative for so many reasons.
- It supports Black-British writers
- It addresses an age range which is SO important to children’s development in the early years, building a love of reading and a sense of belonging in books
- It’s a prize for writing books for the youngest readers, which I think might be unique in the UK (I may be wrong!). The text in a book for the youngest readers is so often under-valued, but as a reader and parent, I know that the most beautiful illustrations won’t make up for a text that doesn’t stand up to reading and re-reading, night after night.
Leila talked to Fabia Turner, the founder of the Prize, about the ideas behind it.
Leila: What strategic, long-term actions do you think the book industry (publishing, bookselling, librarians, etc.) should take to ensure that ” Black-British children see themselves reflected realistically in books” in the future?
Fabia: Your question is about realistic representation of Black-British children in books, so I’ll try to stick to that, although it’s multifaceted and difficult to answer briefly. And, of course, the book industry is ultimately driven by global market forces which makes things tricky.
You can’t really talk about authentic representation without broadening this out to the concept of inclusivity and what this means for the book industry. I think what’s required is permanent structural and cultural change.
The industry’s composition still needs to become more diverse. It should more closely match our multi-ethnic, multicultural UK society through staffing and commissioning of Black-British creatives if it’s to truly be able to create, publish and sell books that authentically represent the lives and experiences of Black-British children.
Company policies need to show commitment to fostering a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere, where Black-British book professionals (editors, illustrators, authors, designers, booksellers, librarians, etc) feel a sense of belonging and become empowered to have a say in books being created about them. This requires recruitment of more Black staff, not just in entry-level roles, but at decision-making levels where they can champion inclusive values, effect continual strategic change, and, perhaps, most importantly, veto manuscripts that don’t represent Black-British children appropriately. However, Black people in the industry should not have sole responsibility for this workload. We need the majority of people in the book industry to buy into this inclusive ethos for significant long-term change to be possible.
Which means for those already in the industry, there needs to be a willingness and commitment to inclusive training, to ensure everyone understands what good inclusive practice looks like, so they can recognise and consistently challenge their own unconscious biases in their daily work with children’s books. Books reeking of bad representation – those that have one-dimensional Black characters, are full of negative stereotypes or, even worse, contain what are essentially white main characters with brown faces – are more harmful than zero representation in my view, but sometimes this can be difficult to spot to the untrained eye.
Lastly, the industry can’t continue with its ‘othering’ approach to Black children’s books, or any book featuring characters of colour for that matter. They are not niche or trendy – they are necessary and there’s a growing market for them and, as such, they deserve the same care and attention in terms of decent production budgets and schedules, to ensure what’s produced is well-researched and carefully illustrated to reflect Black children in an authentic and inclusive way.
L: How can we make sure that this becomes a given?
F: I think a rigorous, industry-wide standard set of criteria that all children’s manuscripts can be measured by, or some form of built-in peer-review process, would help to lift standards of authentic representation until the inclusive approach becomes the default way of making and selling children’s books. The Centre for Literacy and Primary Education (CLPE) is doing excellent work in this area, and publishers and booksellers should take a closer look at their recent research.
Also, initiatives such as Megaphone, the Jericho Prize, Fab Prize and others showcasing underrepresented creatives of colour are fundamental in this gradual shift in attitudes, and will encourage marginalised creatives to push for change themselves as the industry becomes more transparent and accessible to them. I think we mustn’t be afraid to speak up when a book has appalling representation but, equally, we need to provide lots of opportunities for more authentic books to be made.
L: On the same lines, what could nurseries and schools be doing to ensure the children they look after see themselves in books?
F: Well, again, this requires a top-down change in thinking across the early years and primary education sectors. Headteachers, governors, and early years centre managers need to make specific adjustments in their English and diversity and inclusion policies to ensure access to good quality multicultural and multi-ethnic books in their educational settings. But staff also need to do the practical work around this which means they need training. They also need healthy budgets so they can afford to buy new books. This takes money, money which a lot of education settings haven’t got right now, and hopefully local education authorities will step up and support them in this work. But, in the meantime, staff could audit their book collections to check books are authentically inclusive at all age levels, and to identify gaps in terms of quality representation. This stocktake should happen regardless of the ethnic make-up of their early years or school population.
I’d also encourage primary and early years setting English leads to look at the CLPE’s research on ethnic representation in children’s books. The CLPE offers a wealth of support and resources including quality core book lists for the early years and key stages 1 and 2. Many of their resources are freely accessible to educators who sign up to their website. That would be the first place I’d look seek out and promote individuals who are genuinely passionate about diversifying young children’s literary experiences. That would be the first place I would look if I were keen to transform and replenish my book stock.
Lastly, when employing new staff, English leads and school librarians especially, senior management should seek out and promote individuals who are genuinely passionate about diversifying young children’s literary experiences. These are the practitioners who will be motivated to spend school budgets on inclusive books, stock them in school/class libraries, connect with Black authors and illustrators for (virtual) visits, and instil confidence in other staff members to improve their inclusive practice. They need to be building Black texts into lessons/learning experiences instead of reading them only during Black History Month. This way, children will see educators reading and teaching from Black texts regularly and they will become embedded into the fabric of the schools and nurseries just as the old favourites are.
L: Can you say why you chose the age range you did? Is it to do with the impact of early childhood reading?
F: There are several reasons but, yes, that’s the main one. I’ve noticed brilliant recent initiatives that focus on diversifying literature in secondary schools, and while this is fantastic – I’m thrilled it’s happening – it’s happening far too late in the game! Recent research shows that by KS1 some children have formed firm ideas about race due to environment and upbringing. Added to this an average child tends to have developed a strong stable sense of self around the age of eight. With all this in mind it’s clear that young children need to be exposed to carefully curated quality inclusive texts from birth. Not only will this richer literary experience deepen their understanding of similarities and differences between ethnic/cultural groups, but, particularly for marginalised young children of colour, reading multicultural multi-ethnic books where they see themselves fosters a sense of self-worth, self-confidence and much more.
What we read and see in books as young children has a powerful influence on our world view. And if all you see reflected is white characters, created by white authors and white illustrators, this definitely has a detrimental impact in the long run.
The other reason we chose this age range is that many of the contemporary books currently available, particularly in the picture book category, are by African-American or white-British creatives. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this and most of these books are fantastic, we want to support Black-British talent so they too can write stories within these categories if they wish to. It’s important for children’s education that they see homegrown Black talent writing the books they read. With these role models, children too will aspire to work in the book industry hence promoting that long-term cultural change we spoke about earlier. It’s a cyclical thing.
Lastly, I often receive requests from self-published creatives and most, if not all, have written picture books. I think some new writers may be of the view that creating a picture book is easy when in fact it’s no easier than writing a chapter book. So I wanted to support them in developing their work through this award.
If the Jericho Prize runs again in future, we will be focusing on first chapter books for 5-7s, as this category definitely needs attention to create inclusive texts with Black main characters.
L: We certainly hope it runs again and again!
For full details, see the website: https://www.jerichoprize.com/home/faqs