BBIA: Tamarind - redressing the balance

Verna Wilkins
News - Children 28 May 2009

Concluding BookBrunch's look at the British Book Industry Awards, Verna Wilkins, founder and MD of Tamarind Books, who won the 2008 Diversity Award, recalls the challenges and moments of inspiration that have seen her witness a gradual shift towards children's books with non-white characters Publishing was not my chosen career, but just over 20 years ago I set up a publishing company. I did so without the faintest idea of the great difficulties and the intermittent pleasures I would encounter in my new way of life. I realised that although there was a great and exciting market in children's books, black children did not qualify for entry into that market. In the bookshops, there were hundreds of books with white children and books with animals. The painfully few with black characters were stereotypical and dealt with issues, mainly to do with race and colour.

It was a comment from one of my sons that made me realise that I had to do something. After a couple of weeks at school, and rising five, he came home with a 'This is Me' booklet with himself painted pink. On questioning, he knew that pink was not his skin colour, but that was the 'flesh colour' that his teacher had handed out to everyone. When I offered to change it to brown, he refused, insisting that it had to be that colour because it was for a book! He had already learned, at that early age, that he did not qualify for entry into the world of books. I began reading the research on 'how children learn' and the powerful impact their early learning material has on their sense of self and personal value, and set up Tamarind Books.
With the help of my long-suffering, supportive family, we did everything from the kitchen table. I took my first effort to the local school and asked the teacher if she would use it in her classroom. The story was of a little black girl's birthday party. The illustrations showed a multi-ethnic group having fun at the party. I was told that one book was not enough. I did two more: a boy making a cake, and a mother mending her car. The teacher said that maybe the books would work better if there were puzzles to go with them. She would use them as multicultural resources in her classroom. So I designed and manufactured puzzles to go with each book. They worked well and we soon had orders from some schools. We travelled around to various multicultural book fairs, and the list began to grow.
I lost count of the number of times I was told by booksellers that 'we don t have a market in this area for your books. They might sell elsewhere where there are black people'. In the areas where there were black people, I was told that they did not come into the bookshop. This was very disturbing: I grew up in the Caribbean, 3,500 miles away, and I read Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Cinderella; my poetry was about 'hosts of golden daffodils' when I was surrounded by hibiscus and oleander; my Christmas carols were about snow and it was 90 degrees in the shade. So books with white characters are for everyone and exported widely, even in countries where there were people of colour, but it didn t seem to be working the other way round. I was labouring under the impression that reading and education were about the broadening of horizons!
As the list grew, and the financial commitment grew alongside the emotional commitment, we had to work incredibly hard to survive. We had to find alternative markets for the books. A violent racist incident in a school playground created a huge national discussion, and I was interviewed by the Sunday Times. The article brought 450 letters from parents, teachers and librarians onto my door mat from all over the world. The Times then did another article about the response, entitled Righting the sin of omission , referring to our work with the Tamarind list of books. All the responses, save one, were positive. It was clear from these letters that children in the Asian communities and children with disabilities also suffered the sin of omission or stereotypical inclusion.
While parents continued to ask where they could find the books, there was no demand from the bookshops themselves, so we did mail order. One of our most popular titles, Dave and the Tooth Fairy, sold many thousands from the kitchen table. We attended educational book exhibitions to reach the schools and for the parents, we went to non-traditional outlets like the Afro Hair and Beauty Show. Many young parents take their children and we sold thousands of pounds of books in a market where punters are not looking to buy books.
This year a talk at the London Book Fair entitled The Missing Millions, hosted by Diversity in Publishing Network, outlined the case for the market that booksellers in the main are ignoring. Luckily, the Newham Bookshop and Letterbox Library have been stockists for the whole of Tamarind's existence and helped to make our survival possible. John Newman of the Newham Bookshop reported, to our delight, that he has never, in all the years of trading with us, had a single Tamarind book returned!
Tamarind received the British Book Industry Award for Cultural Diversity for 2008. The Arts Council has worked tirelessly to support Diversity in Publishing. This Award has brought recognition, appreciation and gravitas to the Tamarind list. Booksellers understand that our peers have acknowledged us and that we are making an important contribution in the area of children's publishing. Tamarind is now an imprint of Random House Children's Books and, with the team of experts now working on the list, it is set to redress the balance in publishing.

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