AND THE STARS WERE BURNING BRIGHTLY lights up the world of books!

I am incredibly excited to be holding the proof copy of And the Stars Were Burning Brightly  by Danielle Jawando. Just look at this gorgeous thing! Then go and pre-order it from your bookseller of choice!

‘And The Stars Were Burning Brightly’ by Danielle Jawando

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly was written during the Megaphone scheme, so it is an amazing and really special experience to be reading it again two years on and seeing how it has developed during the editorial process. I was not surprised to see that it was the most requested proof on NetGalley, nor to hear that Melvin Burgess has called it ‘an utter page turner from a storming new talent’.

Melvin Burgess loved it!


Stars’ subject matter remains – and will remain – extremely important. No teenager or parent in Britain today will be unaware of the potential for social media to get out of hand. Danielle has personal experience of this, which she draws on for this wise, moving YA novel. But the novel is so much more than a documentary. My heart ached for Nathan, on a quest for the truth behind his brother’s death. Beautiful meditations on art and space science mingle with a gritty story of ordinary teenagers trying to find human connections and freedom in a world that wants to dehumanise them.

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is an extraordinary book and deserves all the praise it is getting (and it’s getting a lot).  Published by Simon and Schuster, it comes out in March 2020 . You can follow it on Twitter on #Burnbright @DanielleJawando @SimonKids_UK.

Since Megaphone, Danielle has also written a life of Maya Angelou for the children’s series: Little Guides to Great Lives. Thanks to series such as these, there is now no excuse for parents and teachers to not introduce children to great people of colour in history. The books are out there – go and buy them!

‘Maya Angelou’ by Danielle Jawando

As the recent Book Trust Represents report showed, writers of colour are still under-represented in children’s literature. In 2017, just 1.98% of children’s book creators were British people of colour. For context, the 2011 census indicated that 19.5% of people in England and Wales were from minority ethnic backgrounds. That is a  stark contrast, and it’s the very reason that Megaphone was created.  So this copy of And The Stars Were Burning Brightly isn’t just a proof copy. It is wonderful and encouraging evidence that writers can make a difference. Well done Danielle!



Danielle Jawando, Megaphone graduate, signs two book deal!

Huge congratulations to Danielle Jawando , one of the Megaphone ‘graduates’, who  has secured a two book deal with Simon and Schuster for AND THE STARS WERE BURNING BRIGHTLY, the YA novel she was writing during the Megaphone programme. It is such a stunning novel, beautifully written but also covering some really powerful and important themes. I am so excited to know that it will be reaching a much wider readership, in 2020! Danielle is represented by the Madeleine Milburn agency.
Read more:
Danielle Jawando

Megaphone: end of an amazing year!

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.


Where next?

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

Megaphone writer to appear in Scoop

Delighted to say that Nafisa Muhtadi, currently on the Megaphone scheme, has impressed the editor at Scoop Magazine and will be published alongside names such as Neil Gaiman, Tom Stoppard and Jacqueline Wilson! This will be her first print publication credit.

Scoop is an exciting newspaper for children aged 8 – 12, with experienced and passionate publishing professionals at the helm. Check out the current issue here:

Megaphone participants’ recent success:

It’s great to start the week with some good news about Megaphone participants – obviously we know they are talented writers who’ll go far, but it’s good to see that being recognised elsewhere too!

Joyce Efia Harmer has been shortlisted to take part in the Penguin Random House taster day #WriteNow- her entry stood out from over a thousand to make the shortlist!

Danielle Jawando was one of the six finalists for the Penguin Random House USA ‘We Need Diverse Books’ short story competition, with her YA story: The Deerstalker. She’ll receive invaluable feedback from a top editor, Phoebe Yeh.

The link to the original competition is here:

Danielle has also recently been appointed to a post on Manchester Metropolitan University’s creative writing faculty, and will be presenting a paper at the National Association of Writers in Education’s conference this November in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.

Congratulations guys!

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?


Bias & representation – links

This fantastic speech delivered by Nikesh Shukla recognises the importance of representation in children’s books. I’ve heard people (white people, inevitably) dismiss those concerned with better, wider representation in children’s books as ‘worthy’. As a mixed race person like Nikesh’s daughter, I can assure you that worthy is not a description that’s ever occurred to me. Essential for my survival, yes. Worthy no.  Hard to explain but to see yourself in books is to be assured you deserve to exist. For those on the outside, it may look like a worthy crusade; to those on the inside, it is walking across the desert to get to the oasis. Read and share:

I’m delighted to read that Creative Access have found alternative funding to continue their essential work. Here, Josie Dobrin blogs about a topic that is very important if publishing is not only to recruit, but to retain, BAME employees.

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!

Spotlight on Rachel Mann: Children’s Fiction Editor, charity founder and teacher

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


Rachel Mann 2015
Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann (@rachelphilippa ) Children’s Fiction Editor for Simon & Schuster UK,  is one of the editors who is generously donating her time to help select the applicants for Megaphone and to deliver final feedback on the manuscripts. She is also Founding Director of literacy and education charity The Saltpond Education Project (SEP) based in Ghana, West Africa. This sounds a fantastic project, so first of all I asked her to tell me something about it.

Rachel: “SEP has been an ever-evolving project, borne initially from the passion of a single Ghanaian teacher and the very urgent need of the beach children where he lives. We’re now a mid-sized charity with lots of wonderful UK trustees, providing an innovative form of education and teacher-training to over 180 children and 13 staff, all from a particularly underprivileged area of Saltpond, Ghana.”
On the subject of books and literacy, Rachel added:

Children reading at the Saltpond Education Project

“One of the first thing I noticed upon my first trip to the country was a truly upsetting lack of imagination and expression in the classroom. This is a complex issue but one that has a lot to do with a lack of access to reading materials for students, teachers and the general population. Schools generally have a few copies of battered, outdated, poorly-produced textbooks to hand – and certainly no fiction – either in English or local languages. Literacy levels across all generations are extremely low in the area we serve – and most of our students are not recorded in national statistics because their births went unregistered.

So, we send over as many culturally appropriate and easily accessible storybooks and educational materials as we’re able to and, where we can, ones in which the children can recognise their own skin colour. Sadly, as we know, there aren’t that many! We then build interactive lessons and teaching styles around stories – using puppets, play acting, art and creative writing. We also run after-school creative writing and reading clubs, among others, as well as adult literacy classes and educational plays for the wider community. Once we were up and running, we let our students name our school, and they chose to call it ‘ the SEP Happy School’. Our school truly is a happy and dynamic place and this is largely because of the impact that stories and pictures have had on our learning environment.”


Rachel is clearly an incredibly busy person, so I had to ask her: why take something new on- why support Megaphone?

Rachel: “I have been working with children’s books for over twelve years now and have always, frankly, felt embarrassed and concerned about the lack of diversity and internationalism in the books that are currently available – though things are finally beginning to shift a little. Publishing is an industry which has a lot to do with canon and heritage, and one that can be very slow to change. Commissioning editors like myself can certainly do much more to ensure that all areas of our global society are reflected in the materials and stories we provide children with, but it’s also a sad fact that we just don’t see enough submissions by writers of BAME heritage. That’s because we’ve already failed a whole generation of readers, who have not seen themselves in stories and so haven’t felt that the industry would welcome them. That’s shocking – and something we need to address as soon as possible.”

Rachel added: “I took some time out of publishing in 2012 to teach English in an incredibly good school in Tower Hamlets, in which the cohort was 98% Bengali Muslim girls. The students were lucky enough to have access to a wonderful library, and a variety of extra-curricular activities around reading and writing. And yet, when these avid readers wrote stories, they would call their characters ‘Lily’ and ‘Rose’ and any number of other names straight out of a Jacqueline Wilson or Sophie McKenzie novel. Hardly any of them ever considered writing about themselves – their protagonists were always normalised Western-Caucasian girls, and certainly didn’t wear hijabs. And the girls I taught were all WONDERFUL writers – open-minded, worldly, expressive, and having had extremely interesting and often difficult lives already. So many of them were made to be authors, but almost none of them considered it. Sadder still, none of those readers were even able to escape a sense of struggle and alienation into imaginary worlds that accepted them. That was a huge factor in my return to publishing!”

Rachel thinks that when it comes to diversity and equality in the children’s book world: “It’s about changing the landscape and helping young people to feel included and supported in reading and writing at as early a stage as possible. Megaphone is wonderful in that it will help get more books published in which all young readers will recognise themselves. At the same time, we must make sure that teachers, librarians and other professionals are able to get those books into the hands of the right children, not just a privileged few. This is a lot to do with library and arts funding – something we must all keep fighting for. Creative writing initiatives like First Story and Ministry of Stories are also doing really wonderful work in helping young people from all backgrounds to get writing!”

Totally agree – and I’d add to that the Young Muslim Writers Awards, which is doing great work. Thank you Rachel for your support!

Spotlight on Jane Griffiths, Children’s Fiction Commissioning Editor.

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

Jane Griffiths is one of the editors who is generously donating her time to help select the applicants for Megaphone and to deliver final feedback on the manuscripts. She has worked in publishing for over ten years and is currently Senior Commissioning Editor at Simon & Schuster Children’s Books UK – a key role, with a lot of responsibility for which books and authors reach publication.  Read on, to get great tips about being the kind of writer that editors love to work with!


Jane Griffiths - photo
Jane Griffiths

Leila:  “ You’ve recently been double shortlisted for the Branford Boase award – with The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss and The Dark Inside by Rupert Wallis – which acknowledges the contribution an editor makes to a book – congratulations! What do you think makes a great editor?”

Jane: “Thanks so much! I was thrilled when I heard that I’d been shortlisted with two of my authors for the prize, it’s a wonderful award because it recognizes that the editorial process is a collaborative one. And that, for me, is the crux of the editor/author relationship, collaboration and working together to make sure that the author’s novel is the very best it can be. I think editors can look at a manuscript the way that authors can’t always because you are one-step removed from the process – it’s why editors are often described as the “midwives” of the authors’ “babies”! So, really I think a great editor is someone who is there to help an author shape and form their manuscript into the best book it can be.”
Leila:  “And what makes a great writer from the editor’s point of view?”
Jane: “Every author is different, but the writers I enjoy working with most are the ones who you know are open to ideas and suggestions and also are keen to get stuck into those rewrites if necessary! I think that most of my authors would say the editorial process is a fun one (I hope!) with two people working together on a text they are both passionate about. Having said that, I also think that a great writer knows the world that they have created in their novel – they know their characters inside out and often have backstories and histories in their mind that go well beyond the action that takes place in the novel – which means they’re able to take editorial comments and ideas and really run with them.”

23652426YORLeila: “And finally, why did you want to be involved with Megaphone?”
Jane: “As a commissioning editor it’s frustrating that we just don’t see enough from diverse voices that reflect different perspectives and experiences. As an industry we need to do something about that by going out and actively seeking authors from different backgrounds to open up the world of publishing and schemes like Megaphone are a really good way to do that.”


Thanks to Jane for her support!