By Leila Rasheed
If you’d asked me when I was twenty if I viewed myself as an Asian, or ethnic minority writer, I’m sure I’d have said no. I’m only half Bangladeshi, after all, and culturally I didn’t feel especially close to my roots.
Eighteen years later, after working in and around the children’s literature industry for several years – as a children’s bookseller, student of children’s literature and lecturer in creative writing, employee of the National Literacy Trust, and of course as a published writer doing all the things that writers do – school visits, festival visits, etc. – I have a slightly different perspective.
It has been impossible not to notice the absence, not only of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic main characters in books, but also (and more worryingly, in my view) the absence of writers, publishers and other gatekeepers from non-white backgrounds. (Most recently, a report from the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals indicated the extreme lack of ethnic diversity among its members, and therefore, presumably, among those eligible to nominate for the Carnegie and Greenaway awards.
As a result of this absence of diversity across the board, I believe that the books produced for children are skewed in their nature, content and tone, the conversations around race and equality are skewed and people from ethnic minorities, even people like me who do not begin by considering themselves ‘other’, start to feel that children’s literature excludes more than it includes – and that something should be done about it.
This is why I have set up Megaphone, a new, year-long writer development scheme which will support ethnic minority writers through the process of writing their first book for children or teenagers. The project has been generously funded by Arts Council England and The Publishers’ Association, and supported in kind by Writing West Midlands.
I drew on my experience as a tutor in writing for children (primarily on the University of Warwick’s MA in Writing) to design the best course I could imagine, one which would support new writers, but also promote them and their books. We’re looking for five talented writers who wish to write a novel for children or teenagers, in 2016 – 2017. By the end of the year we would love them to have produced five publishable manuscripts, but most of all we want them to have developed their skills, insight and networks so that they stand the very best chance of getting published and sustaining a career as a children’s or YA author in the long term.
The five successful applicants will benefit from:
- One-to-one support and feedback to help them write the best novel they possibly can.
- Masterclasses given by best-selling and award-winning children’s authors: Sarwat Chadda (The Ash Mistry series), Catherine Johnson (The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo), Candy Gourlay (Tall Story). Alex Wheatle MBE (Liccle Bit), Lee Weatherly (How To Write a Blockbuster).
- A masterclass given by Julia Churchill, Literary Agent and head of the children’s department at A M Heath.
- Feedback from top editors at Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Scholastic, Hachette. (see Who’s Involved on the Megaphone website for biographies of the editors and writers)
- A final showcase event and a short promotional film to bring the writers to the attention of the public and the publishing industry.
The most encouraging thing about setting up Megaphone has been the amount of support and enthusiasm the project has attracted. Jane Griffiths, Senior Commissioning Editor for Children's Fiction at Simon and Schuster, one of the participating editors, said:
“Diversity in books is often discussed at length in various forums and arenas, but it’s only initiatives like Megaphone that will move us from discussion to action.”
Catherine Johnson, author of The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, and many other novels, said:
“I believe the Megaphone project is one that's needed now more than ever. As a BAME author who has been published for the last twenty years I have seen numbers of non-white UK children's authors stay resolutely low.”
And in the last couple of days Megaphone has received an incredibly generous personal donation from Melissa Cox of Waterstone’s, who told the project that:
“I'm mixed race and one of my major frustrations for years as both a book lover and bookseller, has been the lack of new voices from people of different ethnicities.”
Her generous donation will cover the course fees for one participant who is in financial need.
I’d like to encourage all SCBWI members from ethnic minority backgrounds – mixed and complex backgrounds being very welcome – to apply to Megaphone, via the website: www.megaphonewrite.com . You just need to be over 18 and resident in England.
Each place costs £300, with fees fully covered for anyone in in need. There is no cost to apply and places are awarded on merit. Applications close on 24th December 2015. Good luck!
Contact: Leila Rasheed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More about Leila here
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