‘For me, creating a book with black characters was a no-brainer,’ says author of Riley Can Be Anything
In my 15 years as a journalist, I’ve met plenty of fellow media professionals who longed to write a book. I was no exception.
It had long been one of my ambitions to enter the world of literature, but I had no idea what type of book I wanted to write. It was only as my children – now aged three and four – started to appreciate being read to that the idea of writing a children’s book entered my mind.
As I began to entertain the idea more and more, I thought about the type of story I could tell. I wanted to tell a tale that my children would enjoy, but I also wanted to create something they could relate to. One of the easiest – and most obvious – ways to create a relatable story for my children was to make the characters black.
And so, Riley Can Be Anything was born.
An inspiring rhyming story, Riley Can Be Anything follows Riley, a young, black schoolboy, who, with the encouragement of his big cousin Joe, comes to realise he can be anything he wants to be.
For me, creating a book with black characters was a no-brainer. As the former entertainment editor of The Voice, Britain’s leading black newspaper, I’d written countless articles about the need for black representation in the arts and had many conversations about the importance of positive imagery for black children.
I’m also well aware that books with black characters are hugely underrepresented in the children’s book industry and that is something I wanted to do my bit to address.
But even without being professionally involved in debates about diversity, I understand, as a black woman, the complexities of racial identity.
I vividly recall (as do many of my black female friends), my childhood practice of putting a towel on my head in a bid to pretend I had long, straight hair like my white school friends. I remember as a teenager, frying plantain in my Home Economics class and my white friends looking in the frying pan with bewilderment.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and I recall being temporarily speechless when my four-year-old daughter came and told me that she and her brother were the only children “with brown faces” in their new (and temporary) nursery in Canada. At just four years old, she noticed that she and her brother were “different” to their nursery peers.
Identity issues might not matter much to people when they find themselves in the majority, in school, at work or in society at large. But when you’re in the minority, ethnically or otherwise, you tend to notice – just like my daughter did.
To put it in simple terms, nobody wants to feel like the odd one out, least of all children. And just as we can sympathise with the child who is always picked last in the P.E. class, we should also be able to recognise how damaging it can be for a child to not see themselves reflected, be it at school, in the books they read or in society at large.
A child that never sees themselves reflected will, understandably, feel excluded. And that exclusion will cause them to question why they are always excluded. Why does nobody in the book look like me? Is there something wrong with me?
No child should be made to feel that way, especially when reading books – that should evoke joy and excitement in their young minds.
This is why I penned Riley Can Be Anything; to allow black children to see themselves in the narrative and to inspire all children to realise that, with hard work, the possibilities are endless.
Originally posted by Hackney Gazette in June 2017