Our response to the diversity issue in children's books
By Abiola Bello and Helen Lewis, co-founders of The Author School & Hashtag Press
It's 2018 and I am officially done with this diversity issue.
CLPE reported that last year only 4% of children's books had a Black or Asian character and only 1% was a lead. I honestly read that and felt my heart break. Why are we having so many conversations talking about change and then this is the report we see, based on books just from last year?
I'm a Black children's and YA writer. I write books with a range of diverse characters and I know many others do that as well. My debut book ‘Emily Knight I am’ is consistently praised for its diversity and how it is reflective of different cultures. Yet, publishers are apparently looking for our books. I can't speak for anyone else but I'm right here… with an agent.
I was on a panel at the London Book Fair earlier this year and one of the speakers said, “it's all to do with money. Books by Black or Asian people are a 'risk.'” But why is that? Why are we treated differently when we are writing for the same age group? What I don't get is when these conversations happen why aren't we asked, WHAT DO YOU WANT?
I don't need a free writing programme or a call out for BAME authors to submit their manuscript. I don't want separate things or hand outs, I just want to be treated fairly and equally. What I want are publishers who genuinely want to see change and not just want to be perceived to be wanting change. What I need are established and new authors of all races writing about real life. In my world there are not only Black people, so why would I have that reflected in my book? It makes no sense.
I keep seeing these conversations and it is honestly pissing me off. Tagging BAME and POC and saying we need more. (I personally hate the terms BAME or POC, it's not offensive to call us Black). Let's be clear, all publishers are aware of the lack of diversity, if you still see this lack of diversity in 2018 it's because publishers are still not publishing diverse books. It really is that simple.
I wouldn't think in 2018 we could still be having this conversation - I think it is an issue that can be easily solved. I don't like feeling like because I'm Black and my main character is Black that goes against me. I have to work even harder than a White author writing about YA? I mean that's some bullshit, right? If you are actively seeking more ethnic minority authors and they submit a book that has got something, do something. It may not be perfect but work with them on it and help them to build their career. DO SOMETHING!
Not all books by Black authors are about race, hair, crime and social issues, and not all books from Asian authors are about religion and arranged marriages. We can just write (excellent) commercial YA, chick-lit rom-coms and awesome psychological thrillers. We don't need to be boxed. And publishing a handful of Black and Asian authors a year is really not good enough.
When I was submitting, I had an agent say to me that the voice of my character reminded her of Starr from The Hate U Give. I love THUG, but my character sounds nothing like Starr. Then, another agent said she was looking for something like THUG and I thought, really? Now you want this real book because it's sold well. But it sold well because the publishers took a chance and thought outside the box. Black people like to read! We want to read more books with characters that look like us. Why is that so hard?
'The lack of people of colour in publishing such as editors, marketing execs, CEOs, etc sends a message in itself. Twenty-eight years I’ve been an author. The lack of progress on this front is depressing as hell’ - Malorie Blackman, bestselling author of Noughts and Crosses.
I am so glad that I am in a position where I have some control over content. I co-founded The Author School and co-direct Hashtag Press with Helen Lewis, who is as passionate about diversity as I am. Because of these platforms we can encourage our authors to have more diversity in their books. We can publish the Emily Knight series and keep the characters authentic and with The Author School, we attract a range of races and ages as we want everyone to win. This is one of the reasons why I want us to start a traditional publishing house. Not everyone can afford to collaborate and we want to keep finding new voices and give them a platform. I know two people can’t change the industry but we’re going to try.
Let's do less talking and more action. We ALL need to do better.
Authors open your minds and write about people that don't just look like you.
Black and Asian writers, you are good enough, so submit to agents. Don't feel the only way for people to hear your voice is to self-publish.
Agents... it starts with you opening your minds to new voices and ethnic characters. Work with your authors to make them great.
Publishers need to do better. No more excuses.
Are publishers sure that White people only want to read about White characters?
I read the CLPE callout for better ethnic minority representation in children’s books and felt embarrassed by the industry I work in (https://clpe.org.uk/sites/default/files/News%20release%20-%20Reflecting%20Realities%20-%20new%20study%20calls%20for%20better%20ethnic%20representation%20in%20children%27s%20books_0.pdf).
I really do not understand why this is all so complicated. People make things needlessly difficult because it stops them from actually doing the one thing that will make a difference. Yes, change is never the easy route. Yes, people (particularly in the industry) love to be able to put a book in its rightful place in in a bookshop, in the right section, on the right shelf. But real-life is different and the publishing industry needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
I am disappointed and upset to have to have a conversation with one of the women I respect most in this entire world, my business partner, who tells me she feels like she has to work harder and accept that her path won’t be as straightforward, that she may even need to change her goals, because of the colour of her skin. Say, what?
It makes you want to shed a tear, but I’m not going to do that because that won’t make any difference, instead I’m going to make it even more of a mission than it ever was to make a real change in my day job. As well as being the Founder of Literally PR, I am one half of The Author School and indie publishing house Hashtag Press with Abiola Bello. I’m bloody proud to be part of these businesses, that my business partner and I have started from scratch and worked like dogs, day and night, to make happen.
I am White, raised in Kent, went to Uni in London where I lived for a decade, held down a job from the age of 16. Abiola is Black, born in London, lived in London all her life, went to Uni, worked from the age of 16…
Whether I’m White or she’s Black has never made one jot of difference to how we have worked together. We read a lot of the same books, we watch a lot of the same TV shows and films. We spend a lot of time together working our arses off. What makes a publisher think that I want to read a book that only has White characters in it? What makes a publisher think that I even consider the colour of someone’s skin when I make friends, or choices about what I’m going to watch, read or listen to?
People need to STOP making assumptions about what other people want to read and start bloody asking them. Then, they need to start bloody producing books people want to read.
Who is saying, I want to publish books with more diverse characters and issues?
Why are they not saying, I want to publish books that reflect the world around us?
Why are so many assumptions made? And why, oh why, is it so hard to actually publish books by Black, Asian and minority writers or books with non-White characters in the starring role? At The Author School we get a mix of people from all ages, backgrounds, sexualities. At Literally PR, we work with authors of all ages, backgrounds, race. We don’t care what you look like or where you were born or who you spend your time with, if you’re good at writing, you’re good at writing. If you have a decent book idea, you have a decent book idea.
I do not want to believe that because Abiola is Black she has to work harder than she already is to get a decent traditional publishing deal. She already works hard enough as it is (and I know that because I do too, alongside her!). Come on. Seriously, let’s all stop talking about BAME this and POC that, let’s just treat everyone equally and if you’re a talented writer you should be recognised as such, not whether you’re a talented White or Black or Asian writer. WTF!?
I’m furious. Can you tell?
If you are a traditional publisher interested in publishing a really good YA book about the life of a dancer aimed at 13+ audience, then get in touch. I know a really good writer…
And if you’re a writer with a protagonist who isn’t White and you want to get published but you’re worried about all these statistics flying around, then don’t let it put you off. Get in touch with me and Abiola @hashtag_press or @theauthorschool. Join us in our mission to make a difference. Who says two women can’t make a massive difference to the old-fashioned, stuck in the Dark Ages, publishing world anyway?