2021 mentees: Abimbola Fashola

This summer, we’re handing the blog to our mentees so they can introduce themselves and their writing. Read on and find out more about the person who could be your next favourite writer!

My name is Abimbola Fashola, I live in South East London and I currently work in a secondary school. I have always been interested in creative writing and love creating characters and new worlds! In 2020 (Pre Pandemic) I took part in the short course called “Writing for Children” at City University with amazing children’s author Sophia Bennett. This course was a 10 week evening course which I committed to attending each week. I learnt so much on this course, such as the importance of having a unique voice and showing not telling.

It is so important for children to see characters and authors that look like them and come from similar backgrounds

I have always enjoyed writing stories and have written some short stories but life took over and I would only write a few short stories here and there. I then attended a masterclass with legendary author Dorothy Koomson through Black Girls Book club towards the end of 2019 and that is what inspired me to start writing seriously again.

Representation and diversity are not just buzz words for me. I genuinely believe it is so important for children to see characters and authors that look like them and come from similar backgrounds as themselves. As much as I appreciate and understand the importance of children’s books that deal with serious topics I also believe it is important to have children’s stories that include children from different backgrounds doing silly and fun things!

I am also (on Megaphone) learning to not be so critical of myself and my writing!

My book is a middle grade story about an 11 year girl called Modupe a black British Nigerian girl who tends to shy away from spotlight. Modupe is an amazing swimmer and wants to finally shake off the annoying ‘Mouse’ nickname she was given by her ex best friend Favour after nearly drowning in a swimming pool at her local leisure centre, by entering her school’s swimming competion that will lead to the finalists going to a prestigious private school in Surrey to compete against the swimmers there. Her loyal but mischievous best friend Korede has an idea to help his best friend. They have to steal ‘Magic Hair Beads’ from their local abandoned hair shop! My story touches on the fast gentrification of London through the eyes of two children as well as a young girl learning to become confident again.

Balancing a full-time job and writing will be my biggest challenge but with the support from my incredible mentor and the other Megaphone mentees I know it is plausible for me to complete my final first draft whilst on the scheme. I am also learning to not be so critical of myself and my writing!

I hope that by the end of the programme I can have a fully written manuscript and I have gained the confidence to present this manuscript to agents and publishers.

The Jericho Prize for Black-British children’s writers is open now

The inaugural Jericho Prize for children’s writing is open now! It’s for Black-British writers with great stories to inspire children aged 4 years plus and 7–9. https://www.jerichoprize.com/home/faqs

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.

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.

The industry can’t continue with its ‘othering’ approach to Black children’s books

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.

Provide lots of opportunities for more authentic books to be made

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.

Seek out and promote individuals who are genuinely passionate about diversifying young children’s literary experiences.

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.

It’s important for children’s education that they see homegrown Black talent writing the books they read

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

Promo for the Jericho Prize: apply at www.jerichoprize.com/

2021 mentees: Zareena Subhani

This summer, we’re handing the blog to our mentees so they can introduce themselves and their writing. Read on and find out more about the person who could be your next favourite writer!

Hi, I’m Zareena (apparently meaning ‘more precious than gold’, so clearly no pressure there…). I was born and raised in Yorkshire to an Indian father and an English mother. My dad was the doctor in our small mining community and as the only brown kids there, my brother and I were treated like local celebs; ‘the doctor’s children’. This bubble of an upbringing brought with it bike rides on my ‘Chopper’, climbing trees, making dens, creating perfumes from rose petals (didn’t everyone in the 1970’s?) and frequent trips to the local library. Think Matilda.

I think young people are brilliant and it’s for them that I write

It’s only really now as an adult that I’ve realised that I’ve always written. From lying on the sofa, off sick from school, watching the terrible events unfold in Northern Ireland, writing poetry (‘You will get no information from the civil population, when all we see is killing…killing…killing…). Yes, I too am relieved I didn’t pursue that media. Although, don’t be too harsh, I was only six or seven.To a gazillion navel-gazing diaries at University, but I’ve never taken myself seriously as a writer; self-protection? 100%. Even now, I flush with embarrassment when asked about it and generally say things like ‘I do a bit of writing’ or’ I faff about with writing.’  I’m really hoping that Megaphone can at least go some way to ridding me of my gargantuan imposter syndrome. I’ll let you know a year from now.

After a degree in English Literature, followed by a PGCE, I have been teaching for thirty years. I can honestly say that there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t wanted to go to work. I think young people are brilliant and it’s for them that I write. And also, rather selfishly perhaps, for the nine-year-old me who never saw herself in any of the books she read.

I’ve always been fascinated by multiple births. From those that I’ve taught (how can they be so different and look the same?) to those that I’ve read about (the brilliant ‘One’ by Sarah Crossan) or watched documentaries about (the breathtaking ‘Three Identical Strangers’ on Netflix) and have found this interest infusing much of my writing

My Middle Grade book ‘Split’ is set in India from March-August 1947; the last few months leading up to Partition.

My Middle Grade book ‘Split’ is set in India from March-August 1947; the last few months leading up to Partition. Set against this turbulent backdrop are mixed-race twins, Aiza and Mirha who have spent all of their nine years at the Orphanage of Good Hope in Bombay, run by the kindly Miss Carter. It is imperative that children from the Good Hope are adopted by the time they turn ten or they will be transferred to a different type of Institution; a terrible place by all accounts. As their tenth birthday approaches Aiza has already laid plans for her and her sister to leave. However, salvation comes in the form of Mrs Armstrong, who adopts both girls. But, all is not as it seems and Aiza soon realises that Mrs Armstrong is playing a dangerous game. Mirha has disappeared and Aiza is being treated like a princess. Aiza makes shocking discoveries about Mrs Armstrong’s past and now, in a race against time, she must find her sister and escape. Travelling from Bombay to Simla, Aiza must navigate the treachery of Mrs Armstrong and the political unrest to save Mirha. The book is about family and the accountability that comes with being a a part of one.

2021 mentees: Alka Handa

This summer, we’re handing the blog to our mentees so they can introduce themselves and their writing. Read on and find out more about the person who could be your next favourite writer!

Three years ago,  I picked up my pen to write prose after a gap of some thirty years, and I was thrilled to find how naturally it came back to me.  I started with poetry, taking creative writing classes at CityLit college in Covent Garden. As a teenager, and in later life, I visited and lived in India with my family. The culture and values of my birth country had a profound impact on me. I was always an avid reader. Most of the stories I read as a youth were children’s classics, depicting characters with the same skin colour as the people of my host country. At the time, it didn’t register with me. It was only when I came back to writing prose in midlife that I found myself writing about protagonists from an Asian background like my own. I have been writing the stories that I wanted to read in my youth.

Dealing with issues ranging from self harm to eating disorders, even suicide, made me want to shine a torch on these often unspoken areas in a child’s life

I have two children myself and for the last five years, I have been working for NSPCC ChildLine. I was naturally drawn to supporting children with their mental health in the belief that the early and teenage years are the most formative in a person’s life. Dealing with issues ranging from self harm to eating disorders, even suicide, made me want to shine a torch on these often unspoken areas in a child’s life, especially so in the Asian community where such problems were often swept under the carpet and remain a stigma to this day.

I am really enjoying the camaraderie and mutual support of being within a community of like minded writers which Megaphone provides

To this end, the novel I have been writing focuses on a young Asian protagonist who travels between two continents, both herself and her sister grappling with some of these same issues. This is a story about how they learn to support each other through the struggles of a traditional, patriarchal environment.  I think the biggest challenges I face on my writing journey are my tendency to overwrite and make the story arc too long and drawn out. Editing and structuring will be very important tools for me to learn and I am looking forward to having a well crafted novel by the end of this year. I am really enjoying the camaraderie and mutual support of being within a community of like minded writers which Megaphone provides. The valuable advice and insight into the publishing industry is another wonderful tool. I look forward to the journey.

2021 mentees: Munira Jannath

This summer, we’re handing the blog to our mentees so they can introduce themselves and their writing. Read on and find out more about the person who could be your next favourite writer!

Hi, I’m Munira Jannath. I’m from a little estate in Hackney, my home for 20+ years. I work in education and will complete my teacher training next year. I have always worked in schools in boroughs that reflect the demographics I “belong to” in one way or the other and that’s where my love for stories and need for storytelling grew.

Growing up I felt stories weren’t written about people like me, a British Bangladeshi Muslim girl, who had a flair for adventure and troublemaking, wanting to study my way out of poverty while facing the kinds the problems most kids in children’s books faced. I still can’t swim and can barely ride a bike but I graduated at least!  

My story is about 10 year old Rubi, a Muslim Bengali girl, who is trying to reclaim her family after her home life turns on its head.

I feel some what fortunate to start writing a middle grade novel now and not when the idea for my first story came to me years ago. In the past four years I have seen covers that reflect and represent characters I dreamt of getting to know since when I was old enough to read… Hurrah! I have also found my own reasons to write and to keep writing (Yay!). That’s where my journey with Megaphone started!

My story is about 10 year old Rubi, a Muslim Bengali girl, who is trying to reclaim her family after her home life turns on its head. Mum has depression, dad has turned part time after getting a full time job, Nanu is getting older and her kind of perfect sister gets all the attention! Rubi and her cat side-kick Winnie find themselves in lots of adventures and trouble trying to make everything better!

Megaphone understands the need to support marginalised writers but also understands what it means to be one too.

I am excited to work with Megaphone! Having the opportunity to work through the internal and externals problems I face writing Rubi with an experienced and empathetic mentor is invaluable! Megaphone understands the need to support marginalised writers but also understands what it means to be one too. So far, I have had support with structuring, planning and getting the words written for my first draft. I can’t wait to have a complete story by the end!

Megaphone x RCW and Knights Of workshop

We’re really happy to announce we’re working with RCW Literary Agency and Knights Of to support new children’s/ YA writers of colour. Their workshop will reserve 15 places for existing Megaphone Community members and offer a further 15 places to new attendees.


Megaphone Community is a community of practice for writers of colour who want to write for children or teenagers. It was first offered to support everyone who applied for Megaphone mentoring this year. Last time we ran the mentoring scheme, I hated the thought of saying ‘No’ to so many people, and as a writer, I knew how frustrating it was to apply for competetive schemes and get nowhere. I also knew that for writers of colour working in children’s literature, it was often quite isolating. So Community was designed to offer an online space for every applicant to get some ongoing support: a well to dip into when necessary, a place to ask questions and talk about writing. There’s a programme of free events (all online, we use Band https://band.us/ and Zoom to deliver Megaphone Community at the moment), including six IN CONVERSATIONS with people like Serena Patel and Jasmine Richards. Stephanie King, Usborne Commissioning Editor, is available fortnightly to answer any questions about publishing you might have, no matter how daft you might think them! These are recorded, so if you join in September you can watch them back. Following a survey of what members want, we’re starting to offer individualised feedback on submission packages and regular Writers’ Surgeries, too. Most importantly, Community will keep on evolving – and you could be a part of it.

We’re looking forward to welcoming you! Apply here: https://www.rcwlitagency.com/workshops/

Megaphone supports Inclusion Labs Decade of Diversity

I am delighted to pledge Megaphone’s support to Inclusion Labs’ DECADE OF DIVERSITY initiative. We will share our learning from working with writers of colour- who all love children’s and YA books, and who were all reading children once – to support the initiative for more diverse literature in schools. Where we can- our capacity as a small Arts Council England National Lottery funded project allowing – we will be delighted to support schools that are committed to change, to understand more about how readers and writers of colour grow, and about the importance of diverse books.
What I love about the initative is the understanding that we need to take strategic action to make a fairer world, and also the acknowledgement of the enormous influence that schools, and children’s books, have on children’s developing mental health. The books schools put in front of their children, and the ways in which they are used, matter so much. I read pasionately as a child, but never found myself in stories. Research repeatedly shows that reading for pleasure in childhood correlates with later success and happiness in all areas of life. We need to make it as easy as possible for all children to develop that love of literature and the confidence that comes from seeing yourself honoured as the centre of a story. I encourage all schools and all teachers to audit their libraries, look at the messages that their book stock is giving out, and pledge 25% diverse literature in schools by 2030. Governing boards too should work towards diversity so that they can truly represent every child in their school. You can read more here: https://www.inclusionlabs.org/partnerwithus

“In 2019 33.5% of the school population were of minority ethnic origins, in stark contrast only 5% of children’s books had an ethnic minority main character.”

– Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, read more: https://clpe.org.uk/publications-and-bookpacks/reflecting-realities

A few suggestions to get you started!

Seventh mentee added!

We’re really happy to say that after discussions with mentors and consulting with our funders, Arts Council England, we have decide we have the capacity to add a further mentoring place for a shortlisted writer. Abimbola Fashola is our seventh mentee and we’re so excited to be working on her wonderful book with her!
We will also be continuing to support all the applicants who joined our free Community programme – so if you applied and haven’t taken up your place yet, please do – there’s a Zoom meet-up this Friday and our first event, an Open Door chat about publishing with commissioning editor Stephanie King, is coming up soon after.

Nearly there!

So, the past week may have been the busiest so far in this round of Megaphone delivery. Actually a lot (LOT – I’m going to do a free webinar on this topic) of the work takes place before the project even starts, in making the funding application – but aside from that, these days of reading all the applications, agonising over which to shortlist, are intense. This is the first time we’ve also tried to give every eligible applicant a little feedback, and that too has been demanding, with 60 eligible applicants. The emails inviting people to the Community strand are going out today, and the editors have all made their rankings, so on Monday I look forward to contacting and announcing the mentees! If you were not successful this time, please don’t be discouraged – I can’t stress enough how subjective writing competitions always are, which is exactly why this time round we created Community. See you there!
– Leila

%d bloggers like this: