LAS’ co-Vice Chair Valentina Bold blogs about Breaking New Ground, an event celebrating children’s writers of colour with Faridah Àbíké-Íyímíde, Ken Wilson-Max, Sarwat Chadda and Emily Hughes.
More than 60 people, including writers of colour living and working in Scotland, and publishers, agents, teachers, librarians and industry professionals, joined us at Scottish Storytelling Centre on Tuesday 18 June to hear more about the writers’ work and why children from all backgrounds need to see each other in the books they read.
Breaking New Ground: celebrating children’s writers & illustrators of colour
It was an absolute pleasure, and a privilege, on behalf of Literature Alliance Scotland (LAS) to introduce Breaking New Ground: an exciting new initiative which deserves support and promotion. This was a night to remember, celebrating children’s writers and illustrators of colour, both through the publication and in person.
The event opened with a speech from Sharmilla Beezmohun of Speaking Volumes, who created this catalogue. She spoke movingly, and powerfully, about the organisation’s firm belief in “supporting diversity as much as possible”, and their desire to “create a different understanding of what Britain is about.” The book certainly does that. Four contributors spoke, compellingly, giving us a great deal to consider.
Debut author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímíde (above) enthralled us with a reading from her new YA novel Ace of Spades, out with Usborne in April 2020: “essentially Get Out meets Gossip Girl,” as she described it. Still a student at the University of Aberdeen, and from Croydon, she said: “I wanted to create something that was like a puzzle,” and the glimpses we had of the novel (one character memorably observes ‘they treat my black skin like a gun’) showed that, as promised, this book will “tell us what institutional racism looks like and how it affects us mentally.” This is a writer to watch out for.
In a last-minute change to the programme, we were delighted to hear from veteran illustrator and writer Ken Wilson-Max (above) who writes for younger children, and whose work is already familiar to audiences in Britain and the United States. Zimbabwean by birth, his stories allow children “to see themselves in a book, reflected back in something positive – for some people that hasn’t happened, ever.” He had the audience beating out heartbeats, to the rhythm of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’, as he read his wonderful book The Drum, out loud. His new book, Astro Girl, contains powerful messages for children of colour and, particularly, for girls – a must-have for those with early readers to buy for.
On a different tack entirely, Sarwat Chadda (above) – who describes himself as ‘British-born, Muslim-raised, South-Asian descended’ – read from his Ash Mistry series, inspired by Indian mythology, and hugely entertaining – he made a powerful case for taking fantasy fiction beyond Tolkien: “I can add to that,” as he said. Other work includes City of the Plague God, exploring Mesopotamian mythology through the eyes of an American Muslim child, from an Iraqi family. Again, great reads – especially for younger teenage children.
The last speaker was hands-on — picture-book maker Emily Hughes (above) demonstrated how she explains drawing emotions to children. She talked, too, about her own inspirations: “fairy tales were some of the most important things when I was younger,” along with Japanese children’s literature and the art she saw in books like Taro Yashima’s Crow Boy. Her own work includes The Little Gardener and Wild.
The Q&As which punctuated the evening were just as fascinating, touching on issues including publishing, bookselling and writers of colour. Hughes said, of Breaking New Ground: “I hope it can get in the hands of publishers who don’t see it as a risk to publish people of colour.” Chadda added: “if you can’t pronounce a name on a book, it shouldn’t stop you from buying it.”
In a damning statistic quoted by Farrah Serroukh, of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, in Breaking New Ground, of 9115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, only 4% featured a black, Asian or minority ethnic character. One hundred resounding voices, represented in this new book, offer an alternative future, to be appreciated and embraced.
This free event was a collaboration between Literature Alliance Scotland and Scottish Book Trust in partnership with Pop Up Projects, Speaking Volumes and BookTrust and is part of a national tour of Breaking New Ground. We’re also grateful to Lighthouse Bookshop who provided a pop-up bookshop.