Living in a part of London where ‘vintage’ means secondhand and damn expensive, I loved these book covers. These are the old books that pop up in jumble sales and charity stores. I so want to be a warrior, while reading the nursery rhymes.
A beautifully written and poignant article from the Sunday Review of The New York Times about the impact of the lack of young, African American children in books.
A story for a compilation for girls. No magic, no princesses. This was one of my first paid commissions and my type of story.
I sent in proposals for two stories. One was about two young sisters who made their arthritic grandmother a robotic arm out of an extendable mop handle. The the was a short, sweet tale about a girl who is inspired by the shape and tones of a bees wing to enter the school carnival costume. See? No magic. No princesses.
The proposals were duly submitted and accepted. I wrote the stories and eventually received a big envelope with a copy of the book. My daughter and I, eagerly tipped it out on to the sofa and instantly flailed around searching for our sunglasses.
This picture does not do justice to the pinkness, the glitter and – well – the pinkness.
My daughter, who has nothing to do with ballet, or horses (after being bitten by one) gave me a ‘sell out’ look and disappeared upstairs. It was a good lesson in a) how to write short stories for publication in children’s anthologies, b) gender-specific marketing and c) how parents start to disappoint there children so, so soon.
Help the ‘Guardian’ collect the evidence here.
Last year, I was lucky enough to work with the illustrator and writer, Eileen Browne, on a project to promote literacy in prisons. Even though my daughter is now 14, we still flushed out her old copy of ‘Handa’s Surprise’, to get it signed. However, it was the books about Jo, a child with a black mother and white father, just like my daughter, that I am grateful for. According to the vast majority of children’s picture books, families like ours didn’t exist.
Eileen delivered a workshop on writing for children to young fathers in a London prison. Many of these men were not accessing the prison education service and approached the workshop with great caution. The impact was considerable and many saw the workshop and the stories it inspired in them as a way to link with their families and children.
Now Eileen, along with other writers, is challenging the publishers on gender. There is is still a perception that while girls will follow protagonists of both genders, boys are only interested in boys. Better get Katniss on to that.
I love archives. I’ve recently been rummaging around archives in Hackney to write an updated history of Hoxton Hall. In such a short time, my head was buzzing with the stories of Hoxton folk from the past. Counterfeiters, asylum managers, workhouse attendants, fences and costermongers… a Sunday evening BBC series waiting to happen. This leaflet from Lambeth Archives also feels like a historical document, albeit much more recent. There is the language; one parent families, single parent families, lone parent families – the adjective shifts. I also smile, a little sadly, because Lambeth has also been portrayed as the ‘loony left’, a gift for any subeditor who fancied a little light alliteration. I could imagine a leaflet like this being held up as the epitome of political correctness. But the thought that someone, somewhere wanted children to feel a connection to a book, to see a world that reflected their own, makes me feel rather warm. I really like people who are willing to do that. Seriously. I really do.
Come on! You have to do it, don’t you…
The publisher usually sends five free copies. I kept one, sent one to my Aunty in Trinidad and gave one to my husband’s parents, my parents and my best friend’s mum. Which leaves… Damn! Where’s that gone, then? I’ve always wondered what other writers do with their freebies.
I’m a proud mother. Okay, the book doesn’t play Green Day’s ‘Basket Case’ on the ukulele or Cat Stevens on the acoustic.
But it’s mine. all mine.
Two tales – one based on an old Trinidad folk tale of Papa Bois, the guardian of the woods. The other story is inspired by a couple of trips to Lamu, the island off the coast of Kenya, populated by people, donkeys and cats. (The last time we were there, we were on a dhow sailing out into the lagoon at sunset. Some cliches are worth it.)
Twelve-year old twins Liani (never without her camera) and Cyril (”outside world – noooo!”) face down hunters, sniff out crapaux and set Spiderface on the path to a long and happy life.
I must admit, I wasn’t sophisticated enough for Jane Eyre. My favourite Narnia book (er-hm, the only one I read) was ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. I devoured Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books from our primary school library, before trundling through ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ and the blub-fest S.E. Hintons.
Haywards Heath library – I owe you so much!
Oh, the politics of black women’s hair. At the recent Women of the World festival, at London’s Southbank, a session was devoted to debate. And below is an excerpt from an interview in the ‘Telegraph’ with Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie:
Throughout the interview, Adichie has been playing with her hair, which is neatly braided and tucked on top of her head. She’s waiting for me to ask about it. Because hair is everywhere in Americanah. It has taken root as a central theme. Adichie herself is a leading voice in the natural hair movement – which decries the use of relaxers and anything that chemically alters it. And none of her characters escapes having their locks categorised. Indeed, much of the storytelling takes place in an American hair salon, where Ifemelu has gone to have her hair braided.
There are descriptions of cornrows, braids, shiny straight weaves, box braids, comb-overs, natural afros, corkscrews, coils, russet waves and TWAs (Teeny Weeny Afros). And to style them? Pomades, irons, relaxers, oils, butters, moisturisers and creamy conditioners.
So what of her own hair? As a ‘hair fundamentalist’ surely it’s all natural?
Adichie hesitates. “Actually the tips are Afro Kinky extensions, to add volume. Most black women add extensions to their hair. But I argue that they should be like our own hair. We should embrace our natural style.”
Her approach, she admits, leaves her Nigerian friends bemused. She has even been scolded by strangers for not having a straight weave.
“My hairdresser in Lagos says; ‘Why do you want to use this rough hair? Try this one, it’s silky and soft'” says Adichie. “And I say to her; “because it’s like what grows on my head. That’s why”.
When I confess that my poker straight locks often bore me to tears, Adichie sits-up straight.
“You should go public,” she urges. “In Nigeria straight weaves are very desirable and very expensive. I remember once, when I was in a salon in Lagos, a woman came in and paid $800 for a straight weave. And I sat there thinking ‘what? Get the rough hair. It’s about $9!”
I’ve pasted this in full, because sets out the arguments so much better than me. It is a subject especially dear to my heart, especially when there is still that Caribbean divide of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ – if you’re curly, you better get out that hot comb. In my time, I have had long hair, short hair, straight hair, curly hair, straightened, relaxed and curly-permed hair. I have loxed my hair (twice), plaited it in braids and there are school photos that involve an afro.
So, I am always intrigued by the depictions of ‘black’ hair in children’s books. I want to see women and men that look like my friends and family. But more importantly, I want to children to see themselves and feel proud.
I bought ‘What About Me?’ for my daughter when she was five months old. It was in a bookshop in the Southbank Centre – I saw the cover and grabbed it. (In those days, I used to grab any book that had a brown-skinned child on it, regardless of the quality!) But this story was great – I read it so much I knew it by heart. While I was studying for MA in Sheffield, I used to read it over the phone so her dad could play it on loudspeaker in the car. But… she used to bend over and kiss the little girl’s face. I may be disillusioned, but I’m convinced she used to think it was me.
Then there is the wonderful ‘So Much’. I found this after Googling Helen Oxenbury’s name in the early days of Amazon. (We had a bag full of Helen Oxenbury board books from Booktrust, given to parents when their babies were vaccinated.) In this book, the illustrator does HAIR. Daddy and baby – yup, afro. Mum’s got the braids. Aunty Bibba, hair up, afro-bun. And a headband. (And desert boots!) Uncle Didi? Shaved back and sides, with a flat-top mohican combo. The grannies – handbags and hats.
At a recent event on equality in publishing, there was a rather tense debate about workforce development. Will a more diverse workforce influence the content of children’s books? Should it? In a global society, should we still be asking that question?
I always used to resent the fact that I had to seek out special ‘black hairdressers’ to get my hair done. In the end, the best hairdresser I ever had was a white guy. The same way, I feel that children’s illustrators regardless of their own ethnic background, should feel able and comfortable to draw our hair and features, sympathetically, stylistically and fit for a baby to kiss.