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.
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.
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
Adam’s grandfather has died, and his family feels broken. But then a strange man with a scar on his chest appears at the door and walks into Adam’s life. William is the recipient of Adam’s grandfather’s donated heart, and something has drawn him to the grieving family. As events unfold, and the secret tragedy of Adam’s family is revealed, it becomes clear that though William has been healed by their loss, he has healing of his own to give.
Irfan Master’s first YA novel, A Beautiful Lie, dealt with events in India in 1947, during Partition, and was widely recognised as an impressive literary debut. His second novel, Out of Heart, explores different territory but with the same memorable style. This is the story of a contemporary British Asian family who heal through graffiti, hearts and a mysterious link with a stranger. Inventive use of form lifts this above the standard novel. Adam, the protagonist, is a strange, artistic boy but the real reason for the darkness he carries around with him isn’t revealed until half way through the novel. This is a magical realist novel about a family healing as well as about a teenage boy exploring his different father figures – all flawed in some way. It is also a moving exploration of the hurt that is passed on through families, of the inarticulacy of conventional masculinity and how that hampers emotional closeness, and about the controlling, demanding aspect of community. It’s also an insight into contemporary Pakistani-British family life; something that’s rarely written about in children’s or YA literature. I found plenty that was familiar to me from life, though not from literature, in the story; not least the complex relationships between generations in a family whose heritage is overseas.
Irfan Master has been good enough to answer some questions for us, giving us an insight into his writing process and his views on supporting BAME children’s and YA authors.
LR: I enjoyed the magical realism element of OUT OF HEART, by which I mean the connections the characters have with each other through dreams; how did this come about? Did you begin with the idea that you wanted to write magical realism, or did it evolve as you wrote from the characters outwards?
IM: I love magical realism, of course. Although I do think it’s hard to determine what is or isn’t magical realism these days. Strangely, when I think of magical realism, I immediately think of the films Harvey and Donnie Darko and the incredible novel by Toni Morrison, Beloved. I think the prospect of lingering after your death through memories, photographs, spirits etc is credible but I felt even more tangible was the idea of a functioning heart in another person. I mean, how deep is that connection really? Scientifically, it is purely functional, a good heart for a bad heart, but I wanted to bring that connection across in a deeper. spiritual way, especially as Abdul Aziz Shah isn’t in the book much in real terms, but actually he’s always there. Every heart reference leads back to him. And dreams, especially in times of great stress, can be important in determining things characters might be repressing. I think in this way, these vivid dream states are largely used to give the reader a better understanding of reality. By using that heightened state, I think I was able to illustrate emotions that are hard to describe in an everyday situation. (cont. below image)
LR: I also very much liked the form you chose, and the meditative feeling it creates by varying the pace. How did you decide on the form (traditionally-written chapters alternating with short statements and facts about the heart)? What challenges and opportunities did you find when writing in this form?
IM: The whole book, in my mind, exists in a vacuum, of symbolism and metaphor and I think the short statements were markers for that. I wanted that elegiac, meditative tone for the book from the outset and each chapter start gave me that. I really don’t know how the reader will feel about them, but I really like them! I think the first heart statement in the book, about the size of your heart being the size of your fist, was significant, in that it was a direct reference to something Adam has an idea about with his graffiti and because in my mind the clenched fist is an act of protest. An act of defiance, and I feel that is what Abdul Aziz Shah is doing by donating his heart. As for challenges, well, finding a bunch of interesting heart facts was one! And then rewriting a few so they sounded poetic or poignant was another. I didn’t set out to take so many risks, if they can be called that, with the form for this book, but I did want to try a few things: The two William Blake poems as bookends. The drawings as signifiers for each character at the start of chapter. The heart statements. The word play by Adam to make sense of the world. The free verse parts for Abdul-Aziz Shah, Farah and Adam. The dot-to-dot references and the image at the back of the book. These were all extras, as it were, to try and lift the story into the sky alongside Icarus and Adam.
LR: What was it about the topic of heart transplants that first attracted you – did you begin with the topic, or did you begin with the characters?
IM: Always the characters for me. Always a snippet of conversation, or a chance meeting. I usually note these exchanges down and wait for things to come back and nudge me. I do remember a conversation with an old Pakistani man on a park bench: He was clutching his chest and I asked in Urdu if he was OK. He was very impressed that I could speak Urdu and so was happy to chat. He explained he’d had a heart transplant and that he felt odd and like a different person. Not good or bad, just different. We chatted a little until I saw on the path, a young woman, a little girl and a tall boy in a black hoody. They came and collected their Dadda, lifting him to his feet and led him away, the little girl waved at me and skipped happily behind them. I stored all of that away, and with a few tweaks, that became the Shah family.
As for heart transplants. I was just fascinated about this incredibly powerful and muscular engine-like organ in our bodies, but even more than that I read some articles around “heart transplant tendencies”. That is, the receiver of the heart acquires a taste for say, chocolate or poetry or Jazz or cycling, something that was new to them. The articles followed up with the donor family and found the donor had also liked these things, in some cases obsessively. I found this fascinating especially as Doctor’s couldn’t really explain how this might happen. The heart is not a repository for emotions and memories. Historically we’ve always equated the heart with emotion and pain and feeling, but this has no scientific basis. So, I was really intrigued by this and wanted to use it in a story with a particular focus on two very different men from very different yet still diverse backgrounds.
LR: You explore topics that are sometimes hard for people to acknowledge in real life; the controlling nature of immigrant communities, for example. Do you think books have a part to play in bringing this kind of topic into the open? I think immigrant communities can be wary of self-critique because they feel very much criticised from outside, so feel they have to ‘stick together’ and the down side of this can be that real problems aren’t addressed. What is your feeling on this? Are there particular topics you think are important to address in books?
IM: I think all topics should be there for writers to address. The importance to the writer can be personal or functional depending on the writer and what she/he has in mind for the story. For Out of Heart, I was led by the story, and the central characters and that’s how it came out. Addressing the domestic violence in the book for instance, and let’s be honest, it’s hard to sugarcoat that, so I don’t. That chapter is hard to read. But at no point do I intimate that this is a problem for immigrant communities only. I think some elders in the community that I come from might think I’m painting the community in a bad light, but I am writing from within about a community I know quite well rather than from outside looking in. I’ve worked in various community settings and my Mum is a Family Support Officer at a local Sure Start Centre in a very mixed community ranging from white working class to immigrants from the old country in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Albania etc. We’ve had lots of conversations about the complexity of the communities we know and those we don’t. She’s seen firsthand what happens if people don’t come forward to address the issues. We are extremely complex third and fourth generation communities with a host of issues that afflict us. The same as everybody else. Our kids and families access social workers, visit counsellors, go to drug rehabilitation, use birth control, suffer from anxiety and depression, get divorced, have children out of wedlock, have gambling addictions and marry out of their cultural group. I never set out to write a story about singular topics, but rather a story around themes of redemption, grief and family relationships. I feel they are universal themes and my hope is they can be accessed by all.
LR: Moving on to the focus of Megaphone…Do you feel we need more support for BAME children’s and YA writers in Britain? What sort of support do you think is most needed, if so? What changes and developments would you personally most like to see?
IM: I definitely think we need more support for BAME writers particularly in Children’s and YA. Mentoring will always be a progressive way to nurture new writers or writers looking to be published. Clearly, Megaphone does this so brilliantly and has already become a reference point for BAME writers, published and unpublished. I also like the fact that Megaphone isn’t London based. As a writer born in Leicester, I think this helps widens the pool to writers from around the country and would definitely have tried to access Megaphone if it had existed when I started out. I do believe this trend to move outside the capital will continue as London becomes more expensive, competitive and in many ways over saturated with publishing houses. It feels like a lot of Independent publishers based outside of London are winning major awards and publishing a more varied list and this can only be good for the industry. There are BAME writers out there. Some established, some breaking through. Question is are they getting the publishing deals? If not, why not? If so, are they under pressure to write the book the publisher/industry/editor wants? Does that mean they sell out? How much diversity are we talking with regards to subject matter? Are they getting a decent publicity spend? Do publishers understand what they have in a BAME writer writing stories from a uniques perspective? Are BAME writers too black or too asian or just too much for publishing? I think these questions still hover over the industry, the difference is a lot more people are asking them.
There has been a lot said in the last few years about publishing not being diverse enough, and it does feel like publishing in general has taken this on board. Influential BAME writers, bloggers and commentators on social media can now ask publishers to defend their position publicly, especially with regards to awards and their publishing lists. After years of being overlooked for prizes and not being booked for festivals you now have the Jhalak prize and the Bare Lit Festival. BAME writers and supporters can only wait so long for change to happen until we take things into our own hands and I think Megaphone coming into existence is also symptomatic of this.
Real change has to be systemic, not just at editorial level or publicity and marketing level but a deeply embedded recognition by the industry that more diverse books, more wider representation can only help a society grow. That publishing diverse stories helps create empathy, helps BAME communities feel more a part of the what it means to be British, broadens the narrative to more than just the one story, helps young people from BAME communities feel that they too can be the main protagonists in popular books and moves the conversation away from the bottom line of profit margin, commercial success and well worn tropes and trends that have been prevalent in publishing since the 50s and 60s. The day Megaphone isn’t needed, is the day we can say, there isn’t a problem with publishing, not only in this country, but around the world.
LR: And finally, what are you planning to write next – is there a book in the pipeline?
IM: Yes there is! A story set in the court of Queen Victoria about two Indian boys sent as observers/spies A kid of subversive look at all the issues of colonialism through the eyes of two highly intelligent, sophisticated characters who arrive expecting the seat of a glorious empire only to find an oppressive feudal system in place and a country that is neither more civilised or advanced than their own homeland.
LR: That sounds amazing! Thank you so much for answering these questions.
Belated but very sincere congratulations to the winners: Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Patrice Lawrence and Lizzy Stewart. Especially pleased to see Patrice Lawrence recognised – she led a fantastic masterclass for Megaphone, and the writers are thrilled to have worked with yet another prize-winning author.
This short course isn’t a Megaphone event, but it is being taught by Leila Rasheed (me) and organised by Writing West Midlands, one of Megaphone’s key supporters. It begins on May 3rd and runs for six weeks. If you are curious about writing for children, or don’t feel ready yet to apply to Megaphone but would like to improve your skills and increase your knowledge in this area, this short course could be for you. It takes place in central Birmingham, and the venue is easily accessible by train, tram and bus. Click the link below for full details:
Penguin Random House’s entry-level recruitment programme, The Scheme, is back for 2017.
This year they are looking for the publicists of the future, with four successful candidates joining Penguin Random House in September 2017 to embark on a fully-paid traineeship lasting 13 months.
Applications are open to all, regardless of professional experience or qualifications, and candidates will not be asked to provide CVs. Instead, applicants will be asked to answer three questions designed to test seven core qualities required by publicists today, including ambition, curiosity and a passion for our purpose.
The picture says it all. It was standing room only! Thank you to the many people who turned up to hear the Megaphone writers read and to help celebrate their achievements. And thank you to the Megaphone writers themselves, who all gave excellent readings despite nerves. You were all superb and I hope you enjoyed the rest of #LBF17!