AS THE former entertainment editor of The Voice, Britain’s leading black newspaper, I’ve written my fair share of articles about black representation.
I’ve listened intently as black talents from the worlds of music, theatre, film and more discussed the challenges that they faced progressing in their fields – challenges that were often non-existent for their non-black counterparts.
I’ve also had many discussions about the need for greater diversity in literature. It was this issue that I chose to address when I released my debut children’s book, Riley Can Be Anything.
An inspiring rhyming story, Riley Can Be Anything follows Riley – a young black schoolboy – who, with the encouragement of his big cousin Joe, comes to realise he can be anything he chooses to be.
While I know there are many wonderful children’s books on offer that feature black characters, it is also fact that such books are grossly underrepresented in the wider children’s book market.
My own journey into the world of children’s literature confirmed this when I corresponded with insiders from book organisations.
One editor of a leading book company said of my offering: “I applaud your quest to feature black children in children’s books, which is something I am very aware of and try my best to feature books with as many diverse representations as possible.”
Another children’s books editor told me: “Sadly, there aren’t enough children’s books about/for black children and there is quite a strong call for more of them.”
I was encouraged, but also bewildered – as I have been for some time about the children’s book market.
I know that numerous creative industries have long been hampered by the ‘black people won’t sell’ mentality. It’s that age-old industry thinking that if, for example, you create a TV show with a predominantly black cast, non-black people won’t watch it.
But I always understood that to be the thinking when the product in question – be it a TV show, a film or a novel – was targeted towards an adult audience.
After all, adults have had years to develop their views and prejudices.
As such, a TV boss, who perhaps has his/her own racial biases, might well feel justified in (wrongly) thinking that non-black adult audiences wouldn’t relate to a show that featured mainly black characters.
But kids? They’re an entirely different market, surely? They’re the one demographic who haven’t had years and years to develop racial prejudices and, therefore, would be open to reading a book that featured characters of any race.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe for a second that kids are colour blind. After a few weeks in a new nursery, my four-year-old daughter came and told me that she and her three-year-old brother were the only ones with “brown faces” in the class. So I know that kids most definitely identify the differences between themselves and their peers.
But the difference with children – particularly pre-school children – is that while they do see skin colour, they tend not to be hampered by it. It doesn’t stop them from holding hands, playing games or sharing paints and Play-Doh with a child of a different race.
So it is truly disappointing that the publishing industry continues to maintain this old-fashioned ‘black books are a hard sell’ notion because it does our children a disservice. Not only is it important for black children to see reflections of themselves in books in order to feel included, there’s also value in all children being able to see books that feature characters of various ethnicities – so as to accurately portray the world they live in.
Recent years have seen the rise of campaigns that have called for greater diversity in the creative industries. One way to address this issue for the long term is to ensure that today’s youngsters have a healthy attitude towards diversity.
Today’s children could well be tomorrow’s TV bosses, film executives and indeed, gatekeepers in the publishing industry.
Teach them from early that diversity – in books, on television, in life – is normal and they’ll grow up to approach their professions with the same mentality.
I’m doing my bit with my new book; adding to the many wonderful stories, which also seek to normalise racial diversity in children’s publishing.
With Riley Can Be Anything, I hope to empower black children with positive reflections of themselves, and also inspire them – and indeed, all children – that with hard work, they really can be anything.
Riley Can Be Anything is out now, available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/2rAd6HR