Verna Wilkins: How Children Helped Me Write a Multicultural Book

Verna Wilkins is the author of over 30 books for young people and is the founder of Tamarind Books, a publisher which aims to redress the balance of diversity in children's fiction. Her latest picture book is A Visit to City Farm, illustrated by Karen Littlewood, published by Firetree Books and written in collaboration with pupils from Chalkhill Primary School. This approach has resulted in a book which represents the diverse nature of modern classrooms. Importantly, the inclusion of children of different nationalities happens without their backgrounds taking centre stage in the story. As we found out when we caught up with Verna, this type of 'unselfconscious inclusion' is at the heart of her approach to writing.

Cover of A Visit to City Farm

Firetree Books have kindly made copies available for you to win by entering our simple competition - check it out at the foot of this blog post!

Tell us a little bit about your previous work with Tamarind and your previous work as an author.

When I set up Tamarind in 1987, I had no idea about how publishing worked. I began by writing a simple book and asking the advice of teachers. I needed to know the type of book they chose for their pupils. In schools all over the country there was a captive audience of thousands of children, so it was the obvious place to check out what would work. In public and school libraries I looked for the children’s favourite books. In those libraries I saw first-hand, the dearth of books which included BAME characters. It was then that I knew I had to become a publisher as well as a writer. Somehow I needed to bypass the gatekeepers.

I noticed the dearth of books that included BAME characters

With the help of my family I set up Tamarind. At the time, ‘multicultural education’ was in the air. Teachers wanted ‘multicultural resources’. I realised and was also told by teachers that the books might not stand on their own, so I went back to the kitchen table and devised puzzles to go with the books. We did recipe cards to go with a book about a boy making cakes, and a counting puzzle for our numbers book. We did cards depicting the sequence of events of one day in the life of Kay, a five year old girl, and these sequencing cards depicted the similarities in the lives of all children. This initial work got our books into schools and with one eye on the curriculum, we began to grow the list.

In retrospect I can see my work as an author and publisher are very different in style and execution.

Tell us what 'unselfconscious inclusion' means in books.

Reflecting the world of children. Children of colour are in the world majority. As an author and publisher, unselfconscious inclusion means redressing the balance in publishing for children by producing books which reflect the real world.

When we did the ‘sequencing cards’ which depicted a day in the life of a child, many teachers remarked that all children could work well with the cards because of the similarities in what happens during their day. Similarities and differences were presented in a non-combative way so that children would learn to deal with difference without fear.

Why did you and Firetree Books take this particular approach in creating the book?

Teacher in hijab with students
Because of the success of two previous books done with and for children. This book, A Visit to City Farm, is the third book. The first book, Abdi’s Day, came about when Harrow Multicultural Services asked me to take part in a meeting with Somali parents and local teachers. The only book they could find which featured a Somali boy showed him as a sad ‘in-comer’ whose home was not England. Most of the children in the area were born in the UK, so the parents asked for alternatives. We found none so I was asked to comment and I suggested a picture book where the Somali children were in a large multicultural school just unselfconsciously getting along and doing ordinary and extraordinary things. The children and a couple of parents were involved from the start and it was successful.

The second book was A Very Busy Day, which I did in Uganda. The books they had were all donations from abroad, so I suggested working with the children to do a book with them and about them. I had to depend on the children for information as I had no idea whatsoever about their village or their way of life. That book too was very well received and now used by many schools. At a teacher’s annual conference in Brent, I spoke about my work on the two books and I was invited to Chalkhill Primary to repeat the performance with their pupils. The Year 5 children participated actively on a picture book for Year 1 and Reception.

What did you learn from the children when you visited Chalkhill Primary?

One of their many responsibilities in the project was to name the characters in the book. 86% of children in the school have English as an additional language and although in the group we worked with, the percentage was higher, they all gave the characters English names. They had to be actively encouraged to use names like theirs.

multicultural children eating lunch
I learned that they needed some support to acquire a sense of self, personal value and inclusion in books.

I learned from their questions. 'Verna Wilkins, can anyone be an author?'

I learned that the project was successful when, at a Christmas Fair where the book was on show, one of the pupils came to the stand with this friends and said ‘this is our book’.

Are you optimistic about the future of diversity in children’s books? How much more work do we still have to do?

I am an optimist. After 30 years in the business, I have seen these debates on diversity come and go with little change. I have seen conferences, initiatives and charters that have made very little improvement in provision. I hope this time around the talking is less and the delivery of diversity is greater.

 

Win a copy of A Visit to City Farm

Firetree books have kindly made two copies of the book available for two lucky readers to win! Just answer the question below:

What is the name of the primary school whose pupils helped Verna write A Visit to City Farm?

Send your answer to chris.leslie@scottishbooktrust.com. The competition closes on Wednesday 25 January at 5pm. Entrants must reside in the UK.

 

If you want to introduce your pupils to stories from other cultures, our Authors Live Storytelling Relay event includes tales from around the world. Watch the event here and check out the learning resource when you're finished!

Verna Wilkins

Verna Wilkins is the author of 30 picture books and biographies for young people. Her books have featured on National Curriculum and BBC children’s television, and been chosen among the Children’s Books of the Year. She was born in Grenada and lives in London.