The vicious circle with publishing and diversity
By Siobhan Curham, author of Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow
When the manuscript for my new novel, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, came back from the copy editor, one of her notes read: ‘too political’. The note was in reference to an observation one of the main characters, Stevie, makes when she’s putting on her school uniform after the long summer break. As she does up her skirt Stevie realises that she’s lost weight around her stomach and hips as a result of not having free school meals for six weeks. I refused to change this part of the book as per the copy editor’s note because I know only too well that, for people like Stevie living in poverty, this isn’t ‘political’, it’s factual.
The sad fact is that today, 30% of children in the UK are classed as living in relative poverty and the total number of people living in poverty in Britain reached 10.4 million in 2017. I’ve seen evidence of this for myself when I’ve done author events in schools in deprived areas and the teachers have warned me beforehand that it might be hard to get the pupils to concentrate first thing, as many of them wouldn’t have had any breakfast. Foodbank use increased by 13% in the UK last year, with 1.3 million emergency food supplies delivered to people in dire need.
The fact that so many young people are living in poverty and yet we hardly ever read about it in children’s or young adult books is something I feel really strongly about.
Although I never lived in abject poverty like Stevie in my novel, I did grow up on a council estate in London where deprivation was rife and I was from a poor family. Many of the details in the book, such as the theft of the school shirt from Lost Property, are taken from my own personal experience. In my case, I left my one and only school shirt in the changing room of another school when I was playing an away game for my school hockey team. Money was so tight in my house that taking a replacement shirt from Lost Property felt like a better option than fessing up about my carelessness to my parents. To this day, I can still remember the way my skin crawled with shame when I took that shirt, but anything was better than causing my parents more stress about money.
When I was sixteen, I had something of an epiphany, realising that my love of writing could be my passport out of a life of hardship. The defining moment came one night when a gang set fire to a car right outside my bedroom window. The desire to escape overwhelmed me and the only way I could see of doing this was by going to university. So I stopped skiving off school, drinking, clubbing and taking drugs, and I started hanging out in the library, studying as if my life depended upon it. I ended up acing my A levels and went off to uni. But once I got there serious doubts started setting in. Although I loved being away from home and made lots of new friends, I felt that I had nothing in common with them and this began to seriously intimidate me. This was back in the day when only 10% of people went to uni and 99% of them seemed to come from much wealthier backgrounds. I didn’t meet a single other person from a council estate when I was at uni. My inner voice of fear started telling me that I didn’t belong there; that I ought to drop out and get a job in a shop. So, after two years, that’s exactly what I did. Then the shop I was working in closed down and I got a job in the complaints department for a frozen food company. Admittedly, that job did involve some writing - writing grovelling apology letters that went something like this: ‘Dear Sir, I’m so sorry you found a severed finger in your frozen peas...’ I wasn’t exactly living the dream.
This is why I feel so passionately about diversity in books and publishing. I know at first-hand how hard it can be to try and compete in a world where the dice seem loaded against you before you even begin.
In the 18 years since my first book was published I can count on the fingers of one hand how many working class and people from ethnic backgrounds I’ve encountered in publishing. To put this in context, I’ve had 25 books published and worked with many different publishing houses. I also worked for nine years as an editorial consultant for a children’s publishing company and saw from the inside how non-diverse that world is. Publishing is a remarkably hard industry to break into and unpaid work experience can be a key first step. Every so often we would have young people spend a week in the office on work experience. They were always the children of friends of the bosses. Always privately educated. Always turned up late, And always sat at their desks looking bored for a week until they could leave, work experience box ticked. After I’d been working there for a couple of years I ran a writing project for the charity Centrepoint, helping homeless teens. One of the girls I met there was passionate about books and writing. I asked my bosses if she could do some work experience for us, as I knew how invaluable this would be on her CV. They agreed but didn’t even offer to pay her travel expenses, despite knowing that she was living in a hostel for the homeless, so a colleague and I clubbed together to pay her fares. Every day for a week she turned up on time and bubbled over with enthusiasm and a fantastic work ethic, soaking up every second of the experience.
But this was just a one-off occurrence and it highlights a key problem with any work experience or internship initiatives in publishing. How many people can afford to work for free? A literary agent, who works for a large agency in London told me that they once had an intern from a working class background working for them but she had to leave as she couldn’t afford the commute.
It seems to me that we’re trapped in a vicious circle when it comes to publishing and diversity. And until a serious intervention is made to encourage and enable both creators and decision-makers from all different backgrounds, children’s publishing and the books it produces will continue to reflect only a small section of society. I hope that Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, featuring the stories of a British teen living in poverty and a Syrian refugee, will go some way to redressing the balance.