Books: mirrors for children’s lives?

Afshan Lodhi

Martin Luther King had a dream that one day his children would ‘not be judged by the color [colour] of their skin but by the content of their character’. I have a dream that one day the very books our children read – the same books that will help teach them right and wrong, and which will inform their self-esteem – will reflect the diversity of their own lives.

Right now, there are too few minority authors featured on UK children’s bookshelves. There are too few minority characters between the pages of children’s books. Children learn a lot from the stories they read and hear as children – fairytales, for instance, are so pervasive that they shape the way we view love, marriage and sex. Moving away from narratives that privilege the dominance of the few, we need stories that tell the other side of the story. We need stories that usualise experiences of all kinds – queer stories, ethnic minority stories, radical stories.

The widely acknowledged lack of diversity in the UK children’s fiction market has persisted for too long.

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‘At every conference I or my writer friends attend, there are kids asking why they can’t find books with characters who look like them, either on the cover or in the pages,’ wrote Ellen Oh, one of the founders of the US movement #WeNeedDiverseBooks, in a recent blog.

Recently, the Young Enigma Awards 2014 announced two new names in LGBT+ writing: Bryony Bates (winner of the Allan Horsfall Prize, funded by Archives+) and Janette Ayachi (winner of the Barbara Burford Prize, funded by Commonword). Highlighting voices such as these creates LGBT+ role models for young people and inspires a generation to pick up their pens and tell their own stories.

Both writers will be supported by LGBT+ writer development project and youth arts advocacy group Young Enigma with Archives+ and Commonword. They will have writer in residency opportunities and commissions, and will have their work read by and performed in front of audiences across the country.

I co-founded Young Enigma in 2012 with Vada‘s publisher, Adam Lowe, and Pete Kalu, Artistic Director of Commonword. Our aim was to create a next generation of LGBT+ role models and to empower LGBT+ people to tell their own stories. We work closely with young and emerging writers aged 13-35 to develop not just their writing and artistic skills, but also their life skills and employability in general. Our young people put on their own shows, develop and realise their own projects, write for publications such as this one, and perform on stages across the world. In many respects, Vada and Young Enigma are related projects that feed into and off each other – and they both contribute to a world where we hear a greater range of voices.

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The Commonword Diversity Writing for Children Prize is another facet of this growing movement that seeks to change whose stories we see and hear. The prize aims to play its part in creating an environment where more culturally diverse stories are available in the UK for today’s children and young adults.

The prize welcomes submissions from unpublished children’s authors whose writing embraces ethnic diversity either through their own ethnicity and culture or in their writing. The support isn’t just a token, either – the winner’s prize includes half a grand in prize money, professional mentoring from Catherine Pellegrino & Associate and free books. Runners up will receive detailed feedback on their manuscript by Commonword.

A few years ago, I won the Outsider Writer’s Award, sponsored by Dog Horn Publishing, at the Big Issue in the North Awards. That award opened doors for me – including commissions, residencies and now my job working in writer development and literary activism. I’m grateful for what it did for me, and glad that over the years I’ve begun telling my own story on my own terms. At a recent reading, a young woman came up to me and thanked me for sharing my experience – an experience which was hers too, but which she hadn’t seen portrayed elsewhere.

The SI Leeds Literary Prize is another such prize, albeit focused on changing the landscape of adult publishing. The prize champions women writers of fiction who are from Black and Asian backgrounds in the UK. The first prize-winner, Minoli Salgado, has a debut novel coming out this October from Peepal Tree Press. Similarly, the Polari First Book Prize celebrates debut books by LGBT+ writers – and the inaugural prize went to young queer poet Max Wallis.

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Efforts to make young people’s books more inclusive and efforts to inspire young people to tell their own stories – including those mentioned here – are vital to representing lives we’re told are not ‘mainstream’.

Children pick up bad habits while they’re young, and it’s harder to shift prejudices later on in life. It falls to us to show young people the real breadth of experiences in contemporary Britain – only then can we hope for a better world for the next generation.

I’m trying to do my bit. You can help by sharing details of initiatives such as these, by telling your own stories, or even just by reading more work by the kinds of writers the mainstream tends to ignore.

The closing date for entries to the Commonword Children’s Diversity Writing Prize is 1 September 2014.

The Guardian has a list of LGBT+ titles suitable for young people.

About Afshan Lodhi

Afshan Lodhi, born in Dubai, is of Indian/Pakistani descent. She writes plays, short fiction and works in publishing and theatre. She has worked with Manchester Lit Festival, Contact, The Royal Exchange Theatre, Eclipse Theatre and one day hopes to take over the world.