How two women are challenging the lack of diversity in UK literature by publishing culturally diverse books for children

When two friends who shared the same interest in books came together years after graduating from Oxford, the result was Lantana Publishing– an independent publishing company that aims to publish culturally diverse books for children. Created with the aim of tackling the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, Caroline Godfrey and Alice Curry launched their publishing company only  10 months ago and already, they’re well on their way to launching their first series of books. One of which is by acclaimed American-Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor.

We caught up with these two amazing women to discuss the current state of publishing and why it’s so important for children to have access to culturally diverse books.

 

Hi Caroline and Alice, could you please tell us a bit about yourselves?

We are two friends who met at university, both studying English Literature. Since our student days, we have always wanted to collaborate on something important. Our professional lives took us in different directions after we left university but through Lantana Publishing, we finally have our chance to work together to publish culturally diverse stories that children of any background or ethnicity can relate to – something we have always felt really passionate about.

How did you get into Publishing?

Alice: I started life as an academic and did a PhD in children’s literature before becoming a children’s literature consultant to various educational organisations where I compiled and edited collections of children’s stories from around the world and gained invaluable experience of taking books from concept to publication. During this time, I was lucky enough to work with many authors and illustrators from diverse cultural backgrounds and I became increasingly frustrated by the lack of opportunities open to writers of minority backgrounds – both in the UK where children’s publishing is thriving and in countries where the socio-economic situation is such that becoming an author or illustrator is near impossible. It was here that the idea for Lantana was born and became a driving purpose for me.

Caroline: My own background is in teaching and, over the years, I have worked with children at both primary and secondary age, who were desperate to be challenged and intrigued by books outside the remit of a ‘set text’. As Head of English, I finally had a chance to introduce more multicultural texts to the curriculum I was teaching and now, as co-director of Lantana Publishing, I have even more of an opportunity to ensure that schoolchildren can read books that are representative of a variety of different cultures and backgrounds.

 

How long have you been running Lantana Publishing?

We formed the company in August 2014. We feel like we’ve come a long way in that time – launching our website and social media pages, contracting our first four sets of authors and illustrators, and establishing ourselves as a multicultural publishing house not just here but also abroad – and we are excited about all that we can still achieve.

 

What inspired you to focus mainly on publishing culturally diverse books?

For both of us, reading has always been a window onto different worlds. Now we are lucky enough to have the opportunity to replicate this experience for other young people in the UK. Against this personal background, it was our professional experiences, outlined above, that provided us with the real impetus to start a publishing company with a focus on producing diverse books.

We also felt that this was a great time to venture into this arena given the huge upsurge in public support for diversity in children’s publishing in the last few months. Last October, for instance, The Guardian newspaper ran a campaign called ‘Diversity Week in Children’s Literature’ and a social media campaign initiated by the British publishing consultancy, Inclusive Minds, was launched to try to persuade mainstream publishers in the UK to publish more diverse books.  This campaign takes inspiration from the US initiative, We Need Diverse Books. Such initiatives have wide-ranging support (We Need Diverse Books has over 12,500 Twitter followers) and a range of high profile campaigners, most notably 2013-2015 UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, who in October 2014 claimed that ‘books were more diverse 10-15 years ago than they are now’ (The Guardian, October 2014). We wanted to make sure we did something concrete and practical to start to address this lack.

Lantana Publishing Co- founder- Alice Curry

Lantana Publishing Co- founder- Alice Curry

Lantana Publishing Co- founder Caroline Godfrey

Lantana Publishing Co- founder Caroline Godfrey

What’s been your experience so far?

Publishing is a very friendly industry and we have been overwhelmed by the amount of people who have been really generous with their time, offering us plenty of helpful advice and support. We believe that our ethos of ‘championing diversity in children’s books’ is a real call to action and luckily many other people seem to have been inspired by what we are trying to achieve.

We’ve also worked with a number of different authors and illustrators who have confirmed our own frustrations at the difficulty artists from minority backgrounds have when trying to secure a publishing deal in the UK. Many publishers are unwilling to take what they see as a risk in publishing a book on a ‘niche’ theme or about a ‘minority’ experience. By forming a company that focuses solely on addressing the lack of diversity in children’s literature and promoting our multicultural titles to schools, libraries and parents, we felt that we could actually start making a difference to authors and illustrators who have just as much right to share their stories with the world.

 

Can you share with us some memorable stories or authors you’ve come across since the launch of Lantana publishing?

Since we launched, we have been lucky enough to have worked with some fantastically talented authors and illustrators. We were delighted when Nnedi Okorafor, World Fantasy Award winning African-American author of Igbo heritage, expressed an interest in working with us and chose to publish her first picturebook with Lantana. The result is Chicken in the Kitchen – a story Nnedi used to tell her own daughter, Anyaugo (who also features as the main character in the book), about a cheeky nature spirit and a chicken masquerade. You can find out more about Nnedi Okorafor and her other award-winning books here: www.nnedi.com.

A chance encounter led to Alice’s meeting with Jérémy Pailler, our illustrator for Dragon Dancer. Two years ago, Alice booked to stay at Jérémy’s house in France through the website Airbnb and was struck by the quality of the illustrations that were displayed around his house. A few years later, after forming Lantana, Alice went back on the Airbnb website to find Jérémy again, and we were delighted when he agreed to illustrate Dragon Dancer. Looking at his finished illustrations now, we are sure our readers will be as blown away by Jérémy’s illustrations as Alice was the first time she saw a sample of his work.

 

What do you look for in a story?

We love to find contemporary stories with strong characters and modern values. If these stories are infused by cultural elements – glimpses into the spiritual or historical understandings of that culture, for instance – even better. It takes a lot of skill for an author to do this, particularly when they are writing for very young children, but it is what really allows a story to resonate with people of diverse backgrounds, particularly if they live in a diaspora and want to retain some of the traditions or beliefs they left behind. One of the reasons we fell in love with Chicken in the Kitchen is because it combines a very modern scenario with elements of West African culture – the New Yam Festival, for instance – that are largely unfamiliar to many UK readers. Another one of our picturebooks, currently in production, features a young Hindu girl who reaches out to Lord Ganesh for moral support by Googling him on her computer!

 

Can you tell us about some of the books coming out soon?

Chicken in the Kitchen, written by Nnedi Okorafor and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, is a hilarious story about a Nigerian girl who gets more than she bargained for when she finds a giant chicken in her kitchen one warm night in Nigeria.

Phoenix Song, written by Tutu Dutta and illustrated by Martina Peluso, is a heart-warming story of a young Malaysian boy who learns that the old tales his grandmother told him shouldn’t be so easily dismissed when his brothers go missing in the bamboo forest behind their home.

Dragon Dancer, written by Joyce Chng and illustrated by Jérémy Pailler, is a beautiful coming-of-age story about a boy who dances with a dragon on the eve of Chinese New Year – a dragon who may or may not be real.

Looking for Lord Ganesh, written by Mahtab Narsimhan and illustrated by Sonja Wimmer, is a sweet and funny story about a young girl, recently immigrated from India, who finds creative ways to get the attention of Lord Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god.

 

Why do you think it’s so hard for authors from BAME communities to publish their work?

The problem is that everybody in the industry tends to blame somebody else for this situation. If you ask a publisher this question, they might respond by saying that they don’t think the reading public will relate to diverse titles. In our experience, there is a real desire in children (and their parents) to read more diverse stories and that’s why we have taken the decision to try and balance things out, by only publishing books by authors from diverse backgrounds.

There is also the problem that few people from BAME communities work in publishing. Some publishers are starting to address this, including Lee and Low Books in the US, who have recently started a petition to encourage publishers to be transparent about the cultural background of those who work for them. Hopefully this is the start of a long process, which will culminate in established publishers recruiting a more diverse workforce.

 

How do you think we can encourage more publishers to publish ethnically diverse books?

At a time when social media plays such a key role in many people’s lives, consumers are finding their voices heard like never before. I would strongly urge anybody who wants to see more diverse books published in the UK to join the conversation on Twitter using the #weneeddiversebooks. Those who feel really passionate about the subject can even approach the big publishing houses directly to tell them that they want to read more multicultural titles!

There is a tendency to think that talking doesn’t really change anything, but organisations are succeeding in leveraging interest on social media sites to campaign for action. In the US, We Need Diverse Books has gone from a social media movement to a well-respected nonprofit in a matter of months and, in the UK, Inclusive Minds recently held a discussion workshop, A Place at the Table, bringing together all those in the industry with the capacity to make changes in current publishing practice.

 

How can we ensure such books as published by you reach more children who need them, particularly in regards to the British education system?

We have started marketing directly to schools to bring our books to the attention of both teachers and librarians. Trialling proofs of the books in schools and observing children engaging with our books, has also been a very important part of our preparation on the road to printing. Unlike some publishers, we have also taken the time to develop a range of educational resources to go with each of our books, in order to make these texts a more attractive proposition to busy teachers struggling for time to develop new schemes of work from scratch. With the added bonus of a free bank of resources to support the use of our books in schools, we hope that teachers will embrace the opportunity to teach more diverse texts. In time, we also hope to develop our educational programme further by providing teachers with the opportunity to finish a unit of work on one of our titles with an immersive educational experience that brings to life the cultures represented in the texts.

We are also firmly aware of the importance of reaching school librarians and the suppliers who sell directly to these professionals. A school library really is the heart of the school and the books stocked in these spaces really should represent all the children browsing the shelves!

 

Where can we buy books from Lantana publishing?

All our books are available to buy from our website www.lantanapublishing.com/books and priced at £6.99. Although they are not out until September, you can pre-order all three titles now.

 

Where do you see the company in 5 years?

Quite simply, we’d like to be able to showcase a large portfolio of books that we can be proud of – books that have been instrumental in ensuring that texts by authors and illustrators of diverse cultural backgrounds move from the margins to the mainstream.

 

What’s your favourite children’s book?

Most book lovers would find this a difficult one to answer. However, both of us have agreed that two of our recent favourites are books by Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Witch, an African school of magic story akin to Harry Potter, and Zahrah the Windseeker, an exciting adventure story set in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle of a futuristic Nigeria.

 

 

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