In our Giving Voice series, we meet three people who are showing young people of colour the power of self-expression – helping them to explore their heritage, give voice to their identity and tell their own story. Next up, Samantha Williams, founder of This is Book Love, which brings inclusive reading material into schools
On a bright day at an inner London primary school, the pupils are enjoying a lesson with a difference. A stall has been set up, draped in vibrant patterned fabrics and bright flags. On it are stacks of books for young readers: some tell the stories of renowned people such as Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Malala and the Williams sisters; others contain stories in two languages: English alongside Urdu or Yoruba or Swahili.
Self-portraits by the pupils hang around the stall. The children dance and sing, waving flags of the countries in which their parents or their grandparents were born.
“It’s a big word to use about primary-aged children, but they seemed to find the event empowering,” says Hannah Rigg, a teacher at the school. “[Children were] talking about their backgrounds with pride. We had parents sitting with their kids, looking through books written in their first language, about characters who looked like them.”
The event was run by This is Book Love, which founder Samantha Williams describes as a multicultural book carnival. Since 2016, she has been bringing inclusive children’s books to schools and community centres. She also sells them online.
The germ of the idea first came 10 years before, following the death of Williams’ mother, who was from Barbados. “I felt I’d lost my anchor to many aspects of life, including part of my heritage,” she explains. “After I had my children, that feeling intensified; I was bereft on their behalf as they had lost their only black grandparent.”
Being unable to find any children’s books that featured black grandmothers made her realise there was a need for better representation in books and toys. However, it wasn’t until a few years later, after an incident at her daughters’ summer club, that she felt compelled to do something.
“I was dropping the girls off and was wearing my hair afro and this little boy shouted ‘bushy hair’ at me,” Williams recalls. “It saddened me that such a young child was already making racist comments.
“I went to see the club head, and said: ‘I don’t want this child reprimanded but educated. I want him to understand and value diversity’.”
Williams then ordered as many children’s books as she could afford by writers from ethnically diverse backgrounds – titles such as Big Hair, Don’t Care by Crystal Swain-Bates – and returned to the club to demonstrate to staff how they could help change children’s perceptions.
It’s a big word to use about primary-aged children, but they seemed to find the event empowering
“The club leader’s response was what I had hoped it would be,” Williams says. “Books can inspire, raise self-esteem, give children something to aim for, help them to see themselves as the heroes of the story. The right reading material can set someone on a path that leads from dreams to reality. He knew that, but hadn’t the resources needed to find those books.”
Since then, Williams has run events at scores of schools and community centres, as well as selling books at markets and festivals. She has expanded to stock toys, puzzles and clothes, plus more books telling stories from dozens of countries.
Covid-19 put events on pause earlier this year, but she hopes to soon be able to reach parts of the country where children from diverse backgrounds are often still treated as outsiders.
Although BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) children accounted for 32 per cent of UK school students in 2017, just 4.3 per cent of children’s books published that year featured a BAME character – and only 1 per cent included a person of colour as the main character.
According to Rigg, part of the carnival’s success is down to all pupils feeling included. “Samantha asks about the children’s cultural heritage beforehand so she can bring flags and books for every child, no matter where their family is from,” she explains. “[It] is a celebration of diversity and inclusion so we can’t have any child feeling left out. It’s a very visual, joyful event and the engagement level among the children is high.”
Father-of-four Leonard Ofori-Atta has become a regular supporter. “I wanted to show my daughters high-achieving black female role models,” he explains. “Samantha recommended Run the Show like CEO Oprah Winfrey, by Caroline Moss. We’ve gone through it so many times already and it’s definitely leaving its mark, and my son recently bought KN Chimbiri’s The Story of the Windrush. The carnival brings books we’d never find anywhere else. It’s making reading more relevant to children like mine.”
The carnival brings books we’d never find anywhere else. It’s making reading more relevant to children like mine
The Black Lives Matter protests in June, sparked by the death of George Floyd in the US, brought increased interest in Williams’s business. “My Instagram following jumped by more than 200 per cent in six weeks and I had more orders than I could cope with,” she says.
But whether that is an indication of systemic change is not yet clear. “It will be interesting to see the long-term effects and whether they equate to more people of colour being given the same opportunities as those who are white. I hope it’s a sign of genuine intent rather than merely wanting to be seen to be doing the right thing.”
Main image: Danika Lawrence