Many black children have grown up with a book in hand but how many books allowed them to see themselves in the characters that they’ve grown to love?
Growing up in the UK, many Black children can relate to being avid bookworms but when it comes to relating to their favourite characters, chances are close to none. Naturally, any good book will hook a reader and transport them to a world where they’d want to explore. But by simply turning those pages, Black children never get to see their lives in the story but instead see an image of what their lives could be. This makes them believe that their culture isn’t important or worthy enough of being in print and teaches them that.
When they are represented, they are given characters that have personalities based on stereotypes. There’s barely any children books for people of colour and when they happen to pop out of thin air, you come to find that they’re written by people who are not of their race or ethnicity.
“I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books . . . I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples. . . Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. ” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, novelist, nonfiction writer, and short story writer
For Jean’nelle Brew, books were an intrinsic part of her childhood and started reading well before she started Primary school. As an only child, books were her entertainment and allowed herself to get lost in them. Writing came from not wanting to do the Maths tasks her gran-dad used to set for her and eventually, she realised she had a knack for writing and would dedicate poetry to her mother.
“The children’s books I saw growing up and still see even now, would have you believing that everyone had the exact same background, two parent home, a cat or dog, a big house and was of course white. A huge misrepresentation as this was the opposite of what I saw around me. A completely erasure of the people I saw daily. So I didn’t really read that many childrens books that weren’t centred on animals because I was bored of the same narrative, seeing the same faces go on cool, wild adventures.”
Unfortunately, the books that did have a black character would roughly centre a black girl not loving her skin or hair and this is just the limited narrative that was always plastered down and sold. Instead, why couldn’t a black girl love herself and go on an adventure? That would definitely make a better role model to a young black girl growing up in a society that demonised her visibility.
The idea came rushing down to Brew in South Africa, at a Homework club she set up while reading a book to a girl and she would so often place her arm by the other arms illustrated in the picture and would laugh when she matched her complexion with theirs. Despite the language barrier between her and the text, Brew knew the little girl understood that and was inspired by this. That’s exactly what she wanted to write.
She came up with the My Young Adventures series; a twelve book series teaching children the importance of diversity, inclusivity and self love. The first book is about a young black female protagonist, exploring her relationship with the world and her family.
I wouldn’t have imagined working on a series with my close friend at the age of 21. -Jean’nelle Brew
We should support writers who offer inclusivity and buy their books or spread the word. Maybe donate one of their books to your local library or school? It can offer a non black child a different story and a black child something they can relate to. It can teach them that they matter and their story, matters.
Every child deserves to see themselves in books.
Check out her first book here:My Young Adventures