The mainstream is diverse; the literature industry isn’t.

There is so much to think about and talk over, following the recent A Place at The Table conference on diversity in children’s literature.Author  Catherine Johnson’s article about the conference is here, with a mention for Megaphone:

She certainly speaks for me when she writes:

I think a lot of people – me included – are fed up to the back teeth talking about diversity. (…) Books at present are exclusive; children need to see the world they live in reflected in their reading matter. So why isn’t it happening?

And here’s another great article, this time by Misan Sagay from the world of screenwriting: .

Misan Sagay writes:

 “What am I diverse from? I think the word can be a way of establishing a norm, and me outside that norm, and that worries me.”

I applaud Christopher, from Pickled Pepper Books, who told us at A Place at the Table how he tried as  a bookseller to ‘make diversity mainstream’. Booksellers like him are much needed. I remember when our Birmingham Waterstones used to have a small dump-bin marked ‘Other cultures’ – in this section would be everything from Handa’s Surprise to Noughts and Crosses. No longer, and that is a good thing. However, most bookshops still do not come even close to reflecting the world outside their doors. And that’s exactly the issue.

The world outside the doors of the bookshop and the doors of the publishing houses IS diverse. Diversity IS mainstream. Diverse is what the world IS, naturally: differently abled people, people with all shades of skin and all kinds of backgrounds, all genders, religions and mixed, and none. The problem is that the literature industry is NOT diverse and is therefore not mainstream. It is structured and curated to reflect the interests and needs of only a very small sliver of the population: white, heterosexual, able bodied (or more accurately, the not-yet-disabled, a brilliantly accurate term though I can’t remember where I read it!), middle- to upper-middle class, London-focused.

We – by which I mean the whole literature industry – need to stop curating our lists and bookshops and manuscripts to reflect only the small sliver of the population described above. Truthfully, I think it is just easier for people to continue selling books to people like them, rather than to connect with the many potential book buyers who don’t fit the description above. But what is easy is not what is right – and I mean that not merely from an ethical standpoint but from a hard business standpoint. Every industry worth its salt develops its markets in an effort to be resilient and responsive in a tough economic climate. Why not the literature industry? The growth of, for example, Islamic children’s publishing companies such as Shade 7 Publishing, demonstrates the demand for books that reflect the mainstream.

Valuable as events such as A Place at the Table are, we have to talk to each other less and instead talk more to the parents, the children, the world outside the literature bubble, those people who have no interest in publishing and just want to buy books that acknowledge their existence and value.

We have taken down the signs saying ‘no dogs, no Irish’ but we’ve got other signs, invisible ones, and we need to take those down too, and not get defensive when those whose eyesight has been honed by lifetimes of being invisible themselves, point out that the signs exist.

Misan Sagay writes in the same article I linked to above, about efforts to bring diversity to screenwriting: “It feels like a dance people are doing somewhere over there, when the solution is over here and very simple,” she says, “hire more black people, hire more black women.”

The literature industry needs to heed her words. The solutions are simple, though that doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement. As always in literature, point of view is key. We need to turn our point of view around; we do not need to bring diversity mainstream. Diversity IS mainstream – it is the literature industry that isn’t. What is it going to do about it?


Second masterclass: hook, cake, hake.

We were really pleased to welcome Catherine Johnson (and her cake) to the Writing West Midlands’ meeting room for the second masterclass of Megaphone. Catherine focused on story: from your first chapter, can the reader tell what the story is about or  not? She brought us back again and again to the fact that a reader, especially a young one – or a busy editor/agent who has twenty more manuscripts to read that weekend – wants to know right from chapter one, what the story is shaping up to be; what the crucial matter at stake is, for the character.

Catherine and her cake.

I remember once, about ten years ago, taking a chapter of my work in progress to an SCBWI-arranged meeting with a well-known editor. I thought it was pretty good. I’d always been told I wrote well. The editor scanned my first chapters, and eventually stabbed her finger onto a (to me, unremarkable) paragraph on the fourth page. “That’s your hook,” she said briefly. “Start with that.”

I tell this story because I now see – with the benefit of ten years of experience of failure and success in writing – that that editor and Catherine Johnson are saying the same thing. The first chapter must establish not just the who’s it about, but the what do they want right now? and the why is this interesting?  To a new writer, who’s struggling with and in love with language and the pictures it can paint, inserting such basic story stuff can feel clunky, commercial, paint-by-numbers. It certainly did to me back then – though, more to the point, I had no idea how to do it! But look at any great literary work, from Hamlet to Mrs Dalloway, and I bet you’ll see that all these questions are answered very swiftly, in a manner fitting the intended audience. And that, without sacrificing any energy and beauty from the prose. This is even more so the case in great children’s fiction.

The one where no-one had their eyes closed.

Reading first chapters is a great way of finding out how to make this work. Go to Waterstone’s, or use Amazon’s Look Inside function (other booksellers are available, etc.), and read the first pages of a number of books for the age range you’re writing for. Stop after chapter one, whether you’re enjoying it or not, and reflect: why  am I enjoying this (or not)? Why do I want to read on (or not)? The answers will be illuminating for your own writing. Great prose will be mingled with strong character and a heart, a journey, a need or a want that hooks you and reels you in, like…

Hake Cape SA-merluccius_capensis_sw
the promised hake. (look, I’m trying, OK).


Spotlight on Catherine Johnson, author and Megaphone masterclass leader

 Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.

Catherine Johnson is one of the authors who will be leading a writing masterclass for Megaphone.

Catherine Johnson: “In twenty years I have only ever worked with one Black editor.”

In her twenty year career she has written many books for young readers, including Sawbones, which won the Young Quills Best Historical Fiction prize in 2013. Her latest novel for teenagers is The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo – a gripping mystery about a girl who is not what she seems. She also writes for film and TV including scripts for Bullet Boy and Holby City. Her radio play has been shortlisted for The Prix Italia and The Imison award. But she is particularly known for her historical fiction, which often tells the stories of non-white children and teenagers in the past – something I think is particularly useful, given that British history has until fairly recently been presented as exclusively white, which does not reflect the reality. I asked her to say something about her writing process: what draws her to a character or a scenario in history and makes her want to turn it into a novel?

square SBCatherine: “It’s usually different every time, Sawbones was triggered by a visit to the Hunterian Museum in London – there was a tumour in a jar, the label read ‘cut off the face of a boy in St Kitts’ and I wrote the whole thing in six weeks. Caraboo came out of being reminded about her in an interview when I had just written Nest Of Vipers (about a gang of confidence tricksters). I was asked who my favourite conman or woman from history was, and I knew I had to write about her. Every book is different. Although being shallow I must admit the first historical fiction I ever wrote was prescribed by fashion. I wanted a book with empire line frocks so it had to be the 1820s…I have to get caught up in the story, a novel takes a long time and it’s sort of a confidence trick in itself. You have to convince yourself your characters are real before you convince any readers!”

Benjamin Zephaniah has recently spoken about how Black History Month ought to be integral to the teaching of history, not just a month. I asked Catherine if she thought historical fiction had a place in teaching parts of history that the curriculum doesn’t reach.

Catherine: “I was so bad at history that I wasn’t allowed to take the O level (they were O levels then). I hated learning about Corn Laws but I loved people. I have learned more reading historical fiction and brilliant non-fiction – like Peter Fryers’ Staying Power.  I think it’s so much easier learning stuff if it’s interesting. What I object to is taking exams. It’s hard. You want students to love their topics, maybe making it more about people and less about economics isn’t a bad thing.”

Finally, I asked her: what positive change would you love to see in the children’s book world? What project, initiative or change of approach would really make a difference?

516tZVguXhL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_CBCatherine: “I think writers need proper support; publishing is a business but I don’t know if it’s one I would be able to join if I was starting out now. I had a housing association house, a part time job and tax credits as well as writing books. These days – twenty years on – my advances are not any more than when I started out. It looks bleak – why do it at all? It’s hardly viable…..BUT the only person who loses out if you don’t do it is you. So it’s like a horrible addiction. What positive change would I like to see apart from writers being paid reasonably? More people of colour in the publishing industry for sure, in twenty years I have only ever worked with one Black editor.”

About Megaphone, Catherine has previously said:“I believe the Megaphone project is one that’s needed now more than ever. As a BAME author who has been published for the last twenty years I have seen numbers of non white UK children’s authors stay resolutely low. Young readers need to see modern Britain reflected back at them in their books. New authors need support – support that is no longer available in publishing today.”

Thanks to Catherine for her support!