SPECIAL FEATURE BookTrust Represents

Jill Coleman, BookTrust’s Director, Olivia Danso, BookTrust Represents’ Project Manager, and children’s author, Patrice Lawrence talk to Deputy Editor, A. M. Dassu about representation in children’s publishing and BookTrust’s recent launch of a ground-breaking initiative.

BookTrust is the largest children’s reading charity in the UK. It was founded in 1921 and its main objective is to ‘transform children’s lives through reading’. BookTrust does this by reaching over 3.4 million children aged 0 – 16 across the UK, providing them with books, resources and support to help inspire a love of reading.

Research conducted on representation in children’s books in the UK has shown that fewer than 2% of all authors and illustrators are British people of colour. BookTrust has come up with a revolutionary and much needed initiative that will change these statistics and make a difference in children’s lives from the ground up.

SCBWI wanted to know how a programme like this works from an organisational angle and also from an author’s perspective. We are thrilled to learn more about BookTrust’s plans and share this insightful interview with you.

Hello and welcome!

Jill Coleman, Director, Children's Books

Q. You have held a number of senior roles and have extensive experience in publishing. What in your experience is lacking in children’s literature? What gaps have you seen over the years that have still not been filled?

British authors and illustrators of colour have been consistently under-represented in children’s literature during my years in publishing. BookTrust’s recent research shows that in 2017 less than 6% of children’s authors and illustrators were people of colour and only 2% were British people of colour. This picture has fluctuated somewhat over the past 30 years but has essentially remained unchanged. I have been to many, many publishing conferences which discuss diversity; the industry acknowledges that this is important, but recent research by the Centre for Language in Primary Education (CLPE) showed that in 2017 only 4% of published children’s books featured BAME characters.

Q. BookTrust Represents is a revolutionary project. Although the subject of representation and diversity in children’s books has come up often, nothing like this has been done before. How did the idea come about? Why did BookTrust step up?

The books we read as children shape our attitudes and stay with us for life. Children of colour need to see themselves in books – we know that this has a profound effect on their engagement with reading. And all children need and deserve to experience a range of different voices and perspectives which reflect the multi-ethnic world they live in.

At BookTrust we send out over 3 million free books a year to children; we are always looking for books written by and featuring people of colour and there simply aren’t enough to meet the demand.

Q. What is BookTrust Represents? What exactly are its aims?

We want to increase the number of writers and illustrators of colour from the current 5.6% to over 10% by 2022 and to give the existing creators more visibility and sales. In the longer term, we want to inspire the school children who will be the next generation of writers and illustrators of colour.

We are doing this by a sustained programme of action to fund, promote and support existing writers at events in schools and bookshops across the country and by offering free training and mentoring to new creators of colour.

BookTrust Represents also offers the first robust research into the number of writers and illustrators of colour published in Britain over the past 11 years (between 2007-2017) and examines the barriers and enablers to becoming a creator of colour. It is difficult to change what you cannot measure. We have based our programme of action on the results of our research and we will be updating the research in 2022 to measure progress.

Q. Who will be involved in BookTrust Represents? Do you have any partner organisations?

We could not have done any of this without the generous help and support of a number of writers and illustrators of colour who have given us their time and guidance. The steering group which guides our work is made up of people of colour, both creators and people from the children’s book industry.

Speaking Volumes have been a key partner and inspiration. They have written and published the absolutely wonderful ‘Breaking New Ground’ brochure, which showcases 100 talented British children’s book creators of colour. This is a focus of our campaign and we will be distributing it, along with our book packs and recommendations, to every school in the country. We are also partnering with Pop Up who are running events to promote Breaking New Ground and the creators in it to educators at events across the UK.

Since we launched BookTrust Represents we have had a number of children’s book industry partners join us, including the Booksellers Association, Letterbox Library and Scholastic Book Fairs.

Q. What do you hope to achieve by the end of this project?

Our mission by 2022 is to increase the number of creators of colour published in the UK from 5.6% to over 10% and, just as importantly, to have created a sustainable change that is taken up and maintained by the children’s book industry and by teachers and librarians, so that children get the wonderful books they deserve.

Jill Coleman is Director of Children's Books. She is responsible for BookTrust's expert selection and recommendation of great books, managing book purchasing across the organisation, and working with arts organisations, publishers, authors and illustrators to promote excellence in children's books. Jill has had held a number of senior roles in publishing, including board director of Bloomsbury publishing, managing director of A&C Black and managing director of Little Tiger Press.

Twitter: @Jillcoleman17

Website: booktrust.org.uk/represents


Olivia Danso, Project Manager, BookTrust Represents

Q. Why are you providing a platform specifically for British writers and artists of colour?

The reasons for the BookTrust Represents initiative are two-fold:

1. As you’ve seen from the research, British writers and artists of colour are massively underrepresented in the world of children’s books, despite it being a thriving sector in the UK and 19.5% of the population coming from an ethnic minority background.

With BookTrust Represents, we’re hoping to level the playing field, which includes acknowledging some of the structural barriers in place that have stopped writers and artists of colour from creating children’s books. One of the biggest barriers has been a lack of role models – writers and artists of colour not seeing characters that look like them or books being made by people that look like them, can mean that the job of being a children’s book creator doesn’t feel possible if you’re not white. That in turn means less books with representative characters are being made – it’s a vicious cycle that leads into the second reason for the project.

2. CLPE reported that in 2017 only 4% of children’s books featured a Black, Asian or ethnic minority character, whilst 33.1% of British school-age children are from Black, Asian or other ethnic minority backgrounds. At BookTrust, we believe all children deserve to see themselves reflected in the books they read, especially in a multicultural society such as ours. If we can support more writers and artists to create children’s books featuring a range of diverse characters, perhaps we can help more children feel represented, as well as seeing a realistic future for themselves as a writer or artist regardless of ethnicity.

Q. What do you plan on delivering during the project? What are your key objectives during the next three years?

Our key objectives over the next three years are:

1. Increase the exposure of existing authors and illustrators of colour, by promoting them to schools and bookshops.
2. Increase the number of published authors and illustrators of colour from 5.6% to 10% by 2022.
3. Inspire the next generation of creators by getting writers and illustrators of colour in front of children in schools and bookshops.

We’ll be delivering these objectives through:

• Three years of training events for aspiring writers and illustrators of colour.
• Offering mentoring and shadowing opportunities to aspiring writers and illustrators of colour.
• Offering book promotion opportunities through school visits, bookshop events and festivals.
• A closed Facebook Group for peer support.
• Regularly updating resources and opportunities for writers and illustrators of colour from our project partners and beyond.

Q. How will BookTrust Represents help children’s authors, illustrators and specifically young readers?

We hope that by utilising our position as the largest children’s reading charity in the UK, we can put a spotlight on the new and emerging talent that exists within the children’s book industry, that hasn’t for a variety of reasons, been given the opportunity to break through. By offering a curated training programme for example, that looks at the personal and the professional, and how to navigate specific industry barriers that creatives of colour have to face, we aim to equip and inspire more authors and illustrators of colour to create the next collection of great children’s books.

If more books are created with even more diverse characters, we’ll be able to offer more book choices to children across the country, and what better incentive for reading more books is there than seeing that the characters you love also look like you and your friends? That’s what we want; more books, better representation, more readers.

Olivia Danso is the project manager of BookTrust Represents. She has worked on community projects for the last ten years in the charity sector, as well as for local and state government in the UK and Australia. She also writes adult fiction under the pen name Maame Blue.

Twitter: @oliviadanso6

Website: maamebluewrites.com


Patrice Lawrence, Children’s Author

Q. What has your experience in getting published been? What barriers did you face, if any?

The challenges to being published started as a child. I grew up at a time when the Miss World beauty contest was as big as Eurovision is now. A powerful lesson absorbed from year after year of watching smiling young women parade in swimsuits and national costume was that people with my type of hair and skin colour were not considered beautiful to the people that mattered. My mum could tell me otherwise as much as she liked, but she was never going to be in a position to judge. Everybody in powerful positions was white, from my teachers and school heads to the politicians that ran the country.

For me, the most powerful of all were the writers that filled my head with stories. I was a voracious reader but every child saving the day in those stories was white. As were the writers. Consequently, every character I wrote was white and, in spite of my own love of books, every reader I envisaged was white too. It wasn't until I saw the BBC adaptation of Pig Heart Boy and discovered Malorie Blackman that I realised that I, as a British-born black woman, should write about characters that reflect my heritage. My writing opened up and flourished.

My experience as a YA writer has been a good one. Only one publisher, Hachette, would take a risk on Orangeboy and they have championed it - and me - tirelessly. I've participated in literary festivals in the UK and abroad, become an arts reviewer on Radio 4, delivered workshops to children and adults, written columns for online and print magazines and will be interviewed as part of a Proms event in August.

Q. What does an initiative like BookTrust Represents mean to you as an author? How will it help you and other authors of colour?

The recent mainstream discussions around the broadcaster, Danny Baker's, chimp tweet was another reminder of why many people of colour choose to have certain conversations amongst themselves. Talking about negative experiences is painful and frustrating, even more so when faced with defensiveness or hostility. An initiative that enables authors and illustrators to develop their skills, knowledge and networks without having to put up a tentative hand and ask 'is it the same for me?' is invaluable. It acknowledges that creators of colour, still such a tiny presence within the industry, may have some different experiences from our white counterparts. We are also navigating a predominantly white publishing industry, while trying to work out the stories we want to tell. I want to be part of those conversations, listening, learning and sharing experiences which ultimately I hope will change the industry for the better.

Q. What else do you think can be done to help children’s authors and illustrators?

The underlying problem for most author/illustrators is money. Being creative may feel essential but doing it as a job is a luxury. So much effort (and money) goes into developing the creative skills, that the ongoing survival post-publication is often ignored. Advice and support is needed to help develop careers beyond the debut - often alongside other responsibilities and jobs.

Patrice Lawrence is an award-winning writer for children and young people. Her debut YA novel, Orangeboy , won the Bookseller YA Prize and the Waterstones Prize for Older Children's Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Costa Children's Book Award and many regional awards. Indigo Donut, won the Bristol Crimefest YA prize. Her recent books include Snap , a special World Book Day book, Toad Attack for younger readers and Diver's Daughter, part of Scholastic's Voices series inspired by UK Black and Asian history. Patrice has contributed to several short story anthologies including Malory Towers: New Class of Malory Towers. Patrice's third YA novel, Rose, Interrupted is published in July.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LawrencePatrice

Website: patricelawrence.wordpress.com



A. M. Dassu is a children’s author and deputy editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her at deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org

You can find her on Twitter @a_reflective and Instagram @a.m.dassu

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