From education to art, campaigning to children’s books, they're leading the fight to ensure young people from all backgrounds have the chance to see themselves in books.
From education to art, campaigning to children’s books, they're leading the fight to ensure young people from all backgrounds have the chance to see themselves in books.
This week Penguin launched Lit in Colour, a collaboration with race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust to support schools in giving their students access to a more diverse range of books and authors.
Here, we talk to five individuals, from creatives to educators to campaigners, who are already driving important change, both in curriculum reform and more broadly across the world of books and reading, in order to find out what motivates them – and what they want to see change in the future.
Being East African Asian means you never really feel like you fit in anywhere anyway, but when I was a teenager I realised – even though I read voraciously – that I would never be able to fully associate myself with a character in a book, and if I was a character in those books, I’d be really peripheral, a bit taboo and a bit exotic. I thought that was really sad.
When I started teaching I realised that some of the books we were teaching the kids were so stereotypical. They were about refugees who really suffered and stuck out, or they were about slavery, or gangs. So I started to look at how to find myself in books. The first thing was etymology: Sanskrit is the mother of all European languages, and that was fascinating.
I never understood why literature as a subject was called English literature in schools. We don’t do English Art and we don’t do English Music. Literature is a global thing, so why do we look at this really narrow bit of literature? What about all the other books? It feels like a missed opportunity in so many ways. Yes we start with The Iliad, yes we study The Odyssey, but do we understand the proto-epic hero of Gilgamesh? Do we understand how those tropes come up in the Ramayana way before The Iliad and The Odyssey were even thought of? Do we understand how that goes on to translate to Luke Skywalker? There’s a narrative to literature and we’re giving kids a tiny slice of it. Inadvertently, what we’re saying is “literature started here, this is the most important thing” but I know in my culture we were talking about literature way before that.
I had been involved in a lot of the grassroots education movements for a while. I was part of @WomenEd, @BAMEedNetwork, @LGBTeduk. But because I am a woman who is Asian, who is also bi, I was like: which of my hats do I put on today? And so we thought of having just one conference where all of us brought all of these ideas together, and that’s how DiverseEd was formed. We’re in our third year, we’ve had several conferences, we’ve got a book coming out – The Diverse Educators Manifesto – that includes informative articles, helpful resources and advice.
This year, more than any other year, we’ve been talking about diversifying the curriculum. We've also gone virtual in a number of ways. I used to go to conferences now and again, but now I do two or three training sessions online a week, outside of my job as a deputy headmaster, on diversity in the curriculum. I can get to a lot more people that way.
I think people get bogged down that there’s not enough Black writers or Asian writers in the curriculum. But I think there are broader issues that you can’t solve immediately: I can’t suddenly magic those people out of thin air, I can’t magic those resources out of thin air and I can’t magic the exam boards to include them, because it takes time to do that. But what I can do is say: have you thought about Sikh soldiers when you talk about WW1 poetry? For now, we have to do the things around the edges. That way, I can create the writers of tomorrow by saying: your people wrote, your people write, and that’s something you can do as well. A writer doesn’t necessarily look like Dickens, he might look like Salman Rushdie.
The book I wish I’d been taught in school: The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood, or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. It would have been great to get that opportunity to hear from characters who don’t have a voice.
The idea for Look Up! came about when I was walking around Hyde Park with my girlfriend, and she was bugging me to look up and see the Peter Pan statue, but I was just checking my phone, waiting for an important email that didn't come. It just got in my head that I was missing all these beautiful things. The book is about Rocket, a young Black girl who's obsessed with space and is trying to get her older brother Jamal to look up from his mobile to see this meteor shower that she's been looking for. It’s a book about being present.
The press reception and awards were great, but the special moments came when we went on our first school tour. We were talking to about 300 kids a day, with the book projected onto a big screen. When the kids would see it, especially the Black kids, their eyes would just open up. For us that was mind-blowing; it’s why we did it. Now we have kids dressing up as our character for World Book Day.
I never wanted to be an author. It’s just a plot twist. School put me off reading completely. I found it all very dry. I think what's important is to give students books where they can see themselves and the world they live in, and that will hopefully help them engage. So, you know, if we're talking about an inner-city primary school, give them some Angie Thomas or some Malorie Blackman. Or give them escapism: some cool sci-fi, or some futurism. Give them a range of books that aren't just Shakespeare and Lord of the Flies.
That was the thing that made me want to do the book when I got older. Because, you know, I could have made Look Up! about a unicorn and a rabbit with the same story. But I think the reason it resonates so much is that it’s a little Black girl, and her older Black brother in a hoodie, and they have this beautiful relationship. Rocket is so excited about life, and she’s a leader. She is based on all the amazing Black women in my life.
I like putting real life figures who kids might not have heard of but who are amazing and important in my stories. Like [astronaut] Mae Jemison, who is in Look Up!, or Imani Wilmot who appears in Clean Up! and started the first female surf competition in Jamaica. The other day I found out about Lonnie Johnson, a Black guy who invented the Super Soaker – I would love to tell stories about people like him. I don't always think it always has to be about oppression or a fight for a equality. I’m over that a bit. I’d be happy writing for kids for the rest of my life.
The book I wish I’d been taught in school: At primary school, Julian is a Mermaid. Just to see a kid who is free and accepted in his family.
Maja is a student and the founder of Maja’s Education Project.
I’m in my third year at university. I didn’t use to be the type to take on extra-curricular stuff; I have really bad anxiety and when I get too stressed out I shut down, so I very much take on one thing at a time. Black Lives Matter comes up every year and it’s always like, the world is outraged, then two weeks later goes back to normal. But in June, when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor died, there was this feeling of, ‘No, no going back to normal, we’re changing things this time’.
When people, brands, huge companies were posting squares on Black Out Tuesday, that was it, that was the start of Maja’s Education Project. There were so many things people could have posted instead that could have made a difference – an infographic of where people can donate to bail-out funds and George Floyd’s family, petitions to change our curriculum. People were coming to me and saying, “I don’t know where my money’s going to when I’m donating, I don’t know if what I’m watching is correct”. So, through Instagram, I recommended people read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race; I’d just been paid, so I sent out a few copies to those who wanted them. That led to me asking those who had copies to share them; people who didn’t have a book were then offering to send money to pay for one, so I ended up putting my PayPal address in my Instagram profile. Within four or five hours there was £900 in my account.
Only a handful of people had asked for a book, and that doesn’t cost £900; so I planned on donating the money to the bail-out fund. But people kept sharing and donating – we had £2000 within a day. I’d never seen that much money in my bank account in my life. So we continued to send out books.
At the same time, my parents were involved in an unfair altercation with the police; footage of it appeared on Sky, ITV, everywhere. Suddenly there was footage of me on the BBC calling the UK a racist country, and it went viral on Twitter. It was wild, and it made me realise the depth of racism in the UK. But for all the difficulty and the death threats, it gave the education project so much attention. It was a lot at the time.
We’ve now sent more than £5,500 worth of books out. I’ve gone from sending out a few books to being the company director of a non-profit organisation. I used to buy from Waterstones, online, in such quantities my bank thought it was fraud, but now I buy directly from Black publishers, and we also sell books on the website too. My room-mate’s getting fed up with the endless packages and books coming through the door, but the reaction has been amazing.
Working with schools has been my favourite thing, hearing that they’ve taken books we’ve sent them. It was Junot Diaz, I think, who said that the way to create a monster is to make sure they’re never seen. Too often, the only way Black characters are seen or represented is through trauma. But if in school we showed Black people doing normal things, and read about how we are, I think there would be so much difference in how we’re treated in general. I know that there are little Black children looking for themselves in books and not seeing anyone.
I’d love for Maja’s Education Project to get to all the people who needed it, to be available in more accessible areas: for people to go to a bookshop with a card that allowed them to pick up a book. I want to work with the bigger people to help the smaller people.
The book I wish I’d been taught in school: Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation. Learning about Black history would have definitely made me feel more seen and represented growing up.
One of my biggest things is to try and demystify the industry as much as I possibly can for other people coming into the game, because when you really look, there are very few illustrators of colour. So I hosted a Black British illustrators’ networking event last year. We did a series of portfolio reviews with everybody, and the atmosphere was electric; just brilliant energy. I want people to know it’s not just about drawing, that there’s an industry to learn about too, the structures and financial aspects.
At school, I had natural talent but I wasn’t able to focus at all. My home environment wasn't very conducive to that. But I was curious, and I read a lot. I knew about illustration from seeing artists like Quentin Blake, but I only associated it with middle-aged white people. It would have made a lot of difference to see someone who looks like me come into the school and say: this is what I do, see the work, join the dots. Because if you haven't seen examples of something, it’s difficult to know it’s possible.
For me, creating characters is not so much about appearance – it’s more about personality. So when Nathan [Bryon, co-creator of Look Up!] came to me with the idea for Rocket, I thought about one of my nieces who is just brilliant and super curious at all times. And then the sketches were born. When the book came out, the reaction was nothing short of astounding on a global scale. I get pictures, videos – stuff sent to me from all corners of the world. The book has been places I might never go.
When we started going out there with Look Up! kids, especially young Black kids, were like: no way, wow, did you really draw that?! The parents, too. A lot of them are in their 30s like me and send me letters saying: dude, where were you when I was growing up? I wish I'd had this when I was young. It feels like it’s only been in the last five years or so we’ve had the language to articulate what it is to not feel seen. At the same time, Rocket is just a Black girl having fun, you know? The story itself has nothing to do with her ethnicity, it’s all just there in the artwork, unspoken. Our audience, I'm proud to say, is multiethnic, multicultural – kids from all over love this character. But for Black children, it just meant they didn’t have to make great leaps of imagination to be able to see themselves.
Ye olde English. That’s what we used to call what we were taught in school. Don’t get me wrong, Shakespeare and Dickens are favourites, they’re great stories. But there are more stories and there are other stories. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realised what those stories effectively did, which is told me what my place in life is. They showed me through the lack of visibility of people like me doing certain things, that this is what I'm supposed to do. This is my slot in life. We can't acknowledge how diverse people are, and not make the literature available to them diverse.
Books go a long way to helping you imagine what you can see yourself doing. When I was about 16 or 17, I started reading horror fantasy quite a lot. And it was always about somebody who came from somewhere that had to really go against the odds to put themselves in another place. And I think that lent a lot to the person that I was developing into. It made me understand that I can do anything that I want to do if I really put my mind to it.
The book I wish I’d been taught in school: Maya Angelou, because of the example of a life fully lived provided in her stories.
One day, in a meeting at #Merky, I thought it would be great to be able to amplify writers, to create a world in which you’d be able to ‘sign’ authors, like you did in music. I didn’t think any of that would be possible. But when we spoke about it Stormzy had the same kind of ideas. People had sent him scripts, other things that they’d written, which he’d identified with. Like me, he’s always been a big reader, and he always wanted to be an advocate of reading and books. He was like, “I think this could be an amazing idea for something we could make happen.”
You have a conversation, you have an idea, you never think it will become a reality. But here we are with #MerkyBooks. Elevating and amplifying young Black voices, this was a big deal for us. I didn’t necessarily think about what it would look like three years down the line but I could never have envisaged that we would be working as hard and working as well as we have done so far and getting the recognition for the authors. It’s not just about the Stormzy show, it’s these people who are trusting us with their work, and who are brilliant, brilliant writers.
For us, it’s a case of changing now what we didn’t understand then. I definitely had more books than toys; in the summer holidays I’d challenge myself to read a book a day: Sweet Valley High, Judy Blume, Stephen King, Terry McMillan. But it was only recently that I’ve found books that culturally resonated with me. I remember reading Zadie Smith during my A Levels and for the first time saw my own experience pointed out to me. As a 16-year-old British Ghanian girl living in North West London I didn’t think I was being underrepresented. I don’t think I identified how gaping those holes were until I was older.
Maybe it’s important that people see where those gaps are now, so that it challenges them to think about what their imprint on the world will be going forward, and whether any of them want to step forward and try and fill those gaps. It never occurred to me, oh, Akua, you can be a writer and you can write about your experiences.
Now, we’re trying to pull people in that want to tell stories that need to be told. With #MerkyBooks, we very much want to tell all the stories. Traditionally we’ve done very Black British stories. But over the past year we’re now starting to see and engage with stories that maybe wouldn’t have expected to, whether that’s from the Turkish community, authors with mixed heritage or Asian writers. These are people who understand what we do and think they could have a home here. And that for me feels like the best-case scenario.
To learn more about Lit in Colour, click here.
To read about Penguin’s commitment to becoming a more inclusive publisher, click here.
What did you think of this article? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.
Paula Sutton left a high-flying fashion career to escape to Norfolk. Now, after a whirlwind year, she's written a much-needed guide to a happier life.
Entangled Life, the bestselling, award-winning examination of how fungi upholds our world, has dazzled readers. We go mushroom-hunting with its author, Merlin Sheldrake.