The bookseller – Commentary – Rewriting the narrative around black writers in contemporary fiction

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When it comes to including kids of color in young fiction, we’ve come a long way. Back in 2018, when I launched my book conditioner, Storymix, there was a shortage of color leads in the five-to-eight space. I couldn’t find a single story featuring a child who looked like my son.

Starting a packager was a pragmatic choice born out of my unique experience and skills as an author, senior editor, writing tutor, and expert in creating children’s book IP (including stints at Working Partners and OOP). As a packager, I knew our titles could take up space on bookstore shelves and that we could publish them quickly and provide a unique opportunity to incubate talented writers of color and provide editorial support.

Along with the successes, there is still a sense of narrowness around the kinds of black experiences that appeal to the industry.

Since 2018, Storymix has placed nine projects, including Remi Blackwood’s Future Hero series, Lola Morayo’s Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door titles, and Serena Holly’s The Marvelous Granny Jinks books. With our small team, we have helped launch and amplify several authors and illustrators, and in 2021 we won the Precious Creative Business of the Year Award.

As an author, I had failed to sell a book to a British publisher under my own name. All of my writing credits were under pen names and stories written to inform. An editor’s comments on one of my novels included, “Can she write something a little more urban, please?” The conceit of black children living in idyllic countryside, being carefree and having magical adventures, just didn’t seem to fly. The ill-informed trope still resonates today: that we all live in cities and are new to Britain. This return was given a decade ago, and as we move forward, there is a long way to go for true parity for black creators.

My mid-level fantasy novels were finally published by HarperCollins US. This story of black creators heading to the United States for success is also not a new tale. But things are changing. My fantasy adventure The Unmorrow Curse, which features black Cotswold children discovering Norse runes, has found its way back and was published by small but mighty independent publisher UCLan earlier this month.

Standing alone

But alongside the successes, there’s still a sense of narrowness around the kinds of black experiences that appeal to the industry; a feeling that if one of us fails, we will all fail; that the open doors might begin to quietly close.

What I want us to talk about is how we ensure that equal and fair representation remains beyond a trend. How do we support careers and give black creatives the freedom to publish books beyond the labels the industry might want to give them?

Being willing to discuss the tough stuff and take action every day is how we will sustain change. There have been phenomenal releases by big business, but I want to celebrate independent publishers and booksellers who stand up for authors of color. Booksellers like Woke Babies, This is Book Love, New Chapter Books and Round Table Books. Publishers like Knights Of or Lantana, which publish stories about everyday experiences centered around joy. These books will help change the culture and celebrate the multiplicity of the black experience in the UK.

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