Saturday 1 November 2008

Verna Wilkins and the Promise of Change in Our Own Lifetimes

BREAKING NEWS This morning Barack Obama was declared the next president of the United States and suddenly the world has changed irretrievably . Americans are celebrating, yes, but so are Africans and Indonesians - their connections to Obama may be tenuous, but in his victory, they can suddenly see possibility. And they are not the only ones. "I didn't think this would happen in my lifetime," says one pundit who was old enough to recall not being allowed to vote 40 years ago in America.

After today, In My Lifetime is possible for all our impossible dreams. Well done, America - and good luck.

So I was really really excited to blog this week because I attended the Patrick Hardy Lecture which featured one of my heroes, Verna Wilkins (pictured) of Tamarind Books. It just seemed so appropriate on the eve that some history might (might!) be made in the United States.

But unfortunately the sock monster (you know, the one who steals socks) must have escaped from the washing machine while I wasn't looking and nicked the notebook where I recorded almost every single word.

So all I have to do this without notes which doesn't do justice to this wonderful lady.

Verna says she woke up to her true calling when her then small son came home from school one day with a self portrait that he'd coloured in pink. Apparently the teacher only had pink crayons.

This reminds me of the day son number one (now 17) came back from nursery with a picture he'd drawn of our family. There was Dad, pink skin (which is almost true but sometimes he looks even milkier); there was my son, also pink (which was true at the time but no longer since he took up rugby and other outdoor bone-crushing pursuits). And then there was Mum, as in me - unmistakeable in my glasses ... but with bright blue skin.

Unlike Verna's son, my boy had solved the problem of the missing tint by grabbing the nearest other-colour.

What does it mean? We like to say that children are colour blind but they're not. Yes they are colour blind in the sense that they do not care to judge people on the basis of race like some adults do. But they are NOT colour blind in the sense that they can see!

They can see that they are a certain colour - unlike the teacher who couldn't see that her pupil was not pink-skinned. They notice that there are differences between people - like my son noticing that I was different skinned from him and his father.

And Verna's big point is that so many children in the UK - those with disability, and those with dual heritage like mine, and especially those on the more ochrey end of the colour scale - simply don't see themselves in the books they read.

It is as if they are invisible.

Verna set up Tamarind to redress the balance featuring children in many different hues, two-tone pairs of parents (like me and my husband), and wheelchairs and disability as part of the furniture. In Boots for the Bridesmaid, the brown-skinned little girl in the story has a white mum who also happens to use a wheelchair - but it's never mentioned in the text. The blurb on the cover of her catalogue is "In the Picture".

And Verna sets her rainbow kids in real kids situations.

No, not edgy stories about life on a gritty estate and racism and exclusion.

Situations that matter to REAL KIDS - like losing a tooth, birthdays, and learning to count.

Just because the images feature a range of skin tones doesn't mean they can only be read by children with permanent tans. "These books are for all children," Verna says. Its a mantra repeated over and over again in the Tamarind catalogue - "For ALL children in any environment".

Of course, 20 years on from when Verna started out, things are better. We have Malorie Blackman. And Benjamin Zephanaiah. And after years of Verna hand-selling her books from bookseller to bookseller with a bag of samples, Tamarind has become an imprint of Random House. (Verna, Malorie and Benjamin probably have a virtual monopoly of school visits during Black History Month - which in itself maybe says something about diversity in children's publishing)

After her talk, Verna took a few questions from the audience which were mainly writers, publishers and editors. One editor said, and I have to paraphrase because the sock monster took my notebook: part of the problem is that the submissions we receive do not often reflect the diversity we see in Tamarind.

Verna's response was that for there to be more submissions of this sort, more books had to be published.

As an imprint of Random House, Tamarind now has the resources to expand its rainbow:
Having established its reputation, Tamarind is ready to focus more on other cultures, including South-east Asia, and to develop more books 
for the fast-growing dual-heritage market. Read the whole Bookseller article
But in an ideal world, there would be no gap in the market; no burning need for a Tamarind Books - and no need for Black History Month.

P.S. Writers take note: Tamarind is actively looking for submissions in the area of young fiction and chapter books.


  1. mmm, this is great news - with Tamarind as an imprint of Random House, she can guarantee 10 new books a year... what an amazing woman.

  2. Obama has won!

    Can you feel the hope?

  3. Whoohoo, yes! Obama has won - can you feel the change in atmosphere right around the world!

    Very interesting post, Candy. As you can imagine it's a kind of top of mind topic here - which is why all local children's publishers will only accept stories that are "African" in some way, that truly and totally reflects ethnic diversity in some major way. Books that are about "white" kids only simply do not get published. Books that are eurocentric, do not get published. The sad thing though is that the majority of SA readers are white - because books cost a fortune here - and those kids lean towards Harry Potter, Meg Cabot etc. The bookstores carry very little that is actually representative of the SA population because at this stage, it doesn't sell - or is not being written in a way that boosts big sales - and you know that bookstores like a "sure thing". But I think this will change, gradually. It's shifting already in the adult market.

  4. for me, the obama thing just makes me want to believe that some of the worst problems in my beloved philippines - corruption, poverty, and yes, bigotry - could be alleviated in my life time. life did not improve after our revolution in 1986 and i have taken to saying that i don't expect it to improve in my lifetime.

    but when you think that 40 years ago a black person could not even vote in america, obama's achievement really shines hope in places hope doesn't normally reach.

    and maybe someday, a country like the philippines could even begin to address problems like children's literacy ...


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