All Stories is an initiative that offers free opportunities for underrepresented children's book writers to develop their work. The second programme began in October last year and will end in June '23. Every fortnight, a new mentee introduces themselves and tells us about their experience so far. Please welcome Cabbi Charles.


Cabbi Charles is an author and illustrator of children’s picture books, currently working on her manuscripts for MG novels and chapter books. As well as gaining an All Stories mentorship, she is a Pathways Into Children’s Publishing (illustration) mentee. Her manuscript texts have won a GEA children’s novel award, and commended for the FAB Prize. Cabbi is a member of Megaphone Writers and SCBWI-BI where she has contributed illustrations to Words & Pictures articles. Cabbi’s latest picture book is Dion’s Sunshine Surprise.


"I sometimes feel I’m a little late to writing and illustrating. It is my third or fourth ‘career’ change — or as Michelle Obama better describes it, ‘swerve’. As a child I enjoyed books and I wrote stories, for myself and for school, but despite continuing to be an avid reader, I never considered myself a potential author.


My first swerve was leaving the ‘job for life’ to re-enter education, gaining an arts-related degree. Swerves into self-employment, teaching and parenthood have brought me back to the world of children’s picture books. My initial interest was as an illustrator, noticing the lack of representation for black children as I searched bookshops, leaving me no option but to go online where I was relieved to find diverse books to fill our shelves. When someone suggested I could also write my own I laughed in their face at such a ridiculous idea. But their sincere words wouldn’t leave my head and I soon signed up for my first writing class where ideas poured out as I started to learn the craft.


I discovered children’s picture books by black British authors existed, such as Davina Hamilton’s: Riley Can Be Anything, but they were being self-published with little fanfare in the mainstream. When the CLPE’s Reflecting Realities report of 2018/19 confirmed the lack of black characters in commercial books reflected the lack of black authors and illustrators gaining entry into the industry, it was a reality check. I swerved again and decided I’d need to park my dreams of a traditional route to publication if I really wanted to get my stories into the world. I headed back to City Lit, to complete a self-publishing short course.


There have been plenty of discouraging comments, such as: ‘No publisher will touch you once you’ve self-published,’ ‘I don’t need to read your book as self-published books are usually rubbish,’ (librarian), ‘We’re inclusive but don’t stock self-published.’ The gatekeeping and gaslighting is especially sad when used to deter the very people who are passionate enough to share their stories via alternative routes to publishing. It matters to me that I keep my stories alive, not dormant in a forgotten file somewhere.


My critique groups have been a great source of support and advice, questioning and exploring texts to make them better. Many eyes are needed to see what I can’t see after weeks, months of writing. Self-promotion and marketing are the areas in which I am sorely lacking. I’ve been told I’m wasting my time as I have less than a thousand followers and there is no recognition from press or book awards. So when my picture book manuscript, Dion’s Sunshine Surprise, was shortlisted for the unique and wonderful Jericho Prize, it was a big confidence boost. The feedback that a friend’s son loves my story and my sales have gone into double numbers are laughable achievements to many but compared to my story never being seen? I’ll take it! And if by now you’re interested in buying Dion’s Sunshine Surprise, you can find it on Amazon — (I’m getting better at this self-promotion!).


As I wrote more, my interest in writing longer stories was reawakened. More courses and competition wins, including gaining a place with the Golden Egg Academy and the All Stories mentorship (many thanks, Catherine Coe and Emma Roberts), have let me stay on this swerve amid the obstacles. The saying ‘better late than never’ has never made more sense to me than now. I read Malorie Blackman’s biography, Just Saying, and recognise there are shared reasons why generations of black and other under-represented UK writers never pursued their talents for writing. I’ve met people like my BT engineer (my broadband is still struggling) who talked about loving to write back in the day but no one gave them permission to pursue it, and they never saw themselves in the books they loved to read. ​


My move towards children’s books has now, hopefully, turned into my last big swerve. I have no idea what my place in the children’s book industry will look like, but I keep pushing through with my writing and illustration practice. However, I do see in my future a hand-printed and bound picture book (I’m eyeing another short course) and a finished middle grade book, published either traditionally, or not. I have a couple of very curious teens watching me, who hopefully now know what took me decades to figure out: that it is important we make space for our voices within this industry and our stories deserve to be read by all."

*Header: Tita Berredo 




Follow Cabbi on Twitter @cabbicharles

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