Category Archives: Reflecting Realities

“I Will Not be Erased” gal-dem

Fourteen joyous, funny and life-affirming essays from gal-dem, the award-winning magazine created by young women and non-binary people of colour.
gal-dem, the award-winning online and print magazine, is created by women and non-binary people of colour. In this thought-provoking and moving collection of fourteen essays, gal-dem’s writers use raw material from their teenage years – diaries, poems and chat histories – to give advice to their younger selves and those growing up today. gal-dem have been praised by the Guardian for being “the agents of change we need”, and these essays tackle important subjects including race, gender, mental health and activism, making this essential reading for any young person.

Walker Books

The introduction to this book says “There is something in each of these essays that will speak to anyone who has ever wondered what they might say to their younger self…But it is our hope that these essays will especially speak to those of us from marginalised backgrounds…”. It really does cover every conceivable aspect of the teenage years, I want every 6th former in the country to read this book because they will recognise themselves in it (for me, it was Grace Holliday’s “The Uncool Girl’s Manifesto” in particular) and be inspired by the adults the contributors have become. They’re not saying their lives are all perfect, but that they want readers to “learn from our adventures, mistakes and heartbreaks so you feel less alone in your struggles and more at home in your joy.” The presentation of the essays is really smart, with illustrations by Jess Nash peppered throughout, and they are all really distinct and eloquent voices.

Jess Nash’s illustration for Niellah Arboine’s story “You Speak Well for a Black Girl”.

They made a fabulous short video, in this embedded tweet, and in amongst all the business made time to answer a few questions for us!

gal-dem started as a magazine, can you give us a bit of background as to how the book came about?

gal-dem magazine started when we were (almost) teenagers ourselves – we were in our very early twenties and feeling isolated at university and at the beginning of our careers. Much like with the book itself, we wanted to create something for our peers and for those younger than us, to make them feel less alone in their experiences. We are still a magazine which produces an annual print issue and online articles, but we also have ventured into the realm of events, takeovers and now books!

Can you share any favourite (recent or not) children’s or YA books?

YA is probably still my favourite ‘genre’, if you can call it that! Growing up I read everything from Philip Pullman to Jacqueline Wilson – The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and The Magicians Trilogy. Two of my recent faves have been The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

At the moment I’m re-reading Beloved by Toni Morrison and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the legacy and trauma of slavery, who believes in good and bad magic, and who just loves a beautifully told story.

What’s next from gal-dem?

At the moment we’re planning some really exciting events for over summer around sport! We’re relaunching our website and redesigning our print magazine. Big things ahead and always looking for more people to get involved and do some paid writing for us. Pitching details can be found here.

“I will not be erased” is out now from Walker Books (thank you for sending me a copy)

The Third Degree with Zanib Mian

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, with illustrations by Nasaya Mafaridik

You might recognise Omar, he was originally published as The Muslims by small, independent publishing house Sweet Apple, and I wrote a post about how much I loved it (not long after it won the Little Rebels Prize). Now, with new illustrations, Hachette are taking him to the mainstream into his own series of books. I enjoyed reading the proof copy I was sent (thanks Hachette) and noticed that although the story has changed slightly, the humour and everyday touches that I loved remain, and I was very happy to be able to ask author Zanib Mian a few questions about it:

Hi Zanib, thank you for agreeing to undergo the Third Degree!

You’ve written a number of picture books but this is your first book for older readers, what prompted you to write a longer story?

My writing is often inspired by my own children, so when they were younger, I wrote a lot of picture book stories. When I started writing the book that is now Planet Omar, my son was nine years old. He was growing up, which meant there were so many more dimensions to his often hilarious personality. I was compelled to write a character like him! But I wasn’t quite sure what kind of story I would write, until I began to notice how much young children were suddenly politically aware – discussing Trump in the playground and often overhearing adults discussing the news (usually involving Muslims!). The NSPCC reported a surge in faith-based bullying in playgrounds. Primary aged children were being called ‘terrorists.’ This was all very upsetting and the inspiration behind the book. I thought it was time that the world met a regular Muslim family, like Omar’s.

Why do you feel that it was important to include so many details about the everyday actions of practicing Muslims?

I feel that prejudice arises from a lack of awareness. People may not understand our reasons for doing certain things – they are completely alien to them. For those people who don’t have any Muslim friends and are reluctant to ask questions, the book gives a nice insight into why we do things like fast during Ramadan, or wear hijab. It also includes lots of comical situations that go on in Muslim households that are related to our practices.

I loved Science Sundays! What made you decide that both his parents should be scientists?

That was easy! I am a Molecular Cell Biologist, who loves all things Science. I thought it would be a great way to inspire children towards the subject and show them how ‘cool’ and fun it can be. Making both Mum and Dad Scientists meant that I could really trickle it through the pages, as with Science Sundays, which I very much enjoyed doing!

‘Planet Omar’ was first published as ‘The Muslims’ by Sweet Apple publishers. When you were re-editing it for a larger publishing house did the process feel very different?

Yes, it did. It was the first time I worked with a larger publishing house, so it was very a very different, but hugely positive experience to when I publish books under Sweet Apple. My editor, Kate Agar, wanted to expand the book in areas where I had already felt needed more work, so I was happy to jump on it. Her suggestions and prompts were very inspiring, allowing me to imagine more scenes (just like Omar imagines!) and bringing out the best in my writing.

How did you feel about the illustrations being replaced? Were there any parts you weren’t happy with and asked to be redone?

The illustrations were actually the hardest part of the transition, at first. That’s because, as the book had had a life of its own, I had images in my mind of the characters as they were in The Muslims. Especially for Omar. Seeing him change completely was a bit of an adjustment! The creative team at Hachette were wonderful about getting my input and thoughts. I really have enjoyed working with the whole team there and was really touched by how much they valued my opinion on the artwork and cover. I asked them to make Omar’s face cheekier and the Mum a bit more quirky. They came back with more drafts until I was happy and now I’m in love with the end result!

Do you enjoy visiting schools to talk about Omar?

Oh yes, visiting schools around the publication of Planet Omar. I love seeing the children giggle in complete relation to Omar and his family antics. They seem to be very intrigued and inspired by Omar’s imagination, which is fabulous! One of the schools I visited had already read the book, so their line of questions at the end was very specific. I was extremely warmed by their concern that I might have written the book because I had myself been bullied or suffered a nasty neighbour. I reassured them that it wasn’t the case!

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I am reading Charlie Changes into a Chicken by Sam Copeland, because I want to read all the awesome books by my author friends. It’s hilarious. I’d recommend it to any kid who wants to have a laugh and likes poo jokes. For some adult reading, I’ve dug into Jonas Jonnason’s Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All – I love this author’s unique writing style. Makes me smile all the way through.

What’s next for Omar, and what’s next for you?!

Planet Omar is a series! Book 2 will be out in Febuary 2020, where you can read about more of his shenanigans! I’ve loved writing for middle grade and had a blast writing Planet Omar book 2.

Zanib Mian

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet is out now!

The Third Degree with Sharna Jackson

I reviewed High Rise Mystery last month and enjoyed it so much that I asked to send some questions to Sharna Jackson!

Hi Sharna, thank you for agreeing to undergo the Third Degree!

What or who were your influences when writing? How did Nik and Norva come into your head?

I loved the idea of transposing classic mystery genre conventions and seeing what happened to them when placed in a contemporary, city setting. I was thinking about Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, The Thin Man, books by Kathrine Woodfine and my lovely editor Robin Stevens, but also TV programmes like Luther, films like Attack the Block and the Nothing Beats a Londoner Nike ad.

Nik and Norva are both a bit like me. I love shaving my hair off and being practical like Nik, but I can also be dramatic and excitable like Norva. Norva is actually named after a ceramist I met in The Hague in the Netherlands at her exhibition one day. She was very cool.

What made you decide to pitch a murder mystery to a young audience? Was there anything you consciously toned down because of it?

Alongside the thought of murder mystery in the city being interesting, I was also keen to see young black characters being sleuths – being clever and cunning.

I did tone down some of gory aspects of finding Hugo’s body. I took it a bit too far.

How did it come to be published by KnightsOf?

I knew David Stevens from conferences – and Twitter – and was delighted that he and Aimée Felone – his business partner – had launched Knights Of. What a fantastic thing! I had been speaking to them about other matters and one day they said, why don’t you write? I thought about it for a hot second, said yes and pitched High Rise Mystery to them. I described it to them as “PIs in the Projects, they sent back two black girl detective emojis and that was that.

In your day job you’re concerned with social engagement in the arts. Is The Hub, or indeed any character, based on places or people you have worked with?

The Hub is based on community centres I’ve seen across the UK – flexible spaces used by people in the area to use. I’m the Artistic Director at Site Gallery in Sheffield, and have worked with museums and galleries across the world, and have met some interesting people. Hugo is definitely an amalgamation of some people I’ve met along the way!

What do you think is most important about community spaces such as The Hub, and how are they faring in the face of austerity?

Community Spaces are incredibly important as they allow people in the immediate areas access and spaces to use in ways that are directly relevant to their needs and wants. Unfortunately austerity has a knock-on effect on everything – especially the arts. There is less funding for artists, and less money for the public to spend on events.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’m just about to start Ghost by Jason Reynolds – can’t wait!

Have you done any author visits to schools and/or libraries yet?

Not yet – my first visit is on Thursday 11th at the Basil Griffith Library in Sheffield and then Waterstones Durham on Saturday [13th April]. I’m excited – and nervous!

When can we hope to see more Nik and Norva?

Soon I hope!

Scholastic Voices

A series of gripping adventures that reflect the authentic, unsung stories of our past.

The series so far!

Last year Scholastic announced the launch of their new series of books, Voices, a series bringing to life BAME figures from British history, who’s stories are rarely told. I have been lucky enough to be sent the first two, both of which are fantastically paced, evocative, believable, heartbreaking, exciting, thought provoking, rage-inducing, and full of historically accurate information ripe for discussion. They are both brilliant stories in their own right, I expect to see them on topic reading lists in primary and secondary schools and in every school library, and I am really looking forward to finding out what is next in the series!


The world is at war and standing on the shores of Dunkirk, a young Indian soldier fights in defence of a Kingdom that does not see him as equal.
My trust in the kindness and decency of others ended. It seemed I had reached a point of no return...”

Bali Rai’s Now or Never

Bali Rai wrote the first, Now or Never: A Dunkirk Story, about a period of time that every British school child has to learn about, but an aspect of that historical event that has been brushed under the carpet by the history books. Faz is one of hundreds of Indians that volunteered to join the British army during WW2 and who were then so badly treated. Scholastic interviewed him about it here. It has been out since January.

When Eve and her mother hear that one of the African divers sent to salvage the Mary Rose is still alive, and that another wreck rich with treasures lies nearby, they set out to find him.

“The water was my destiny. I knew it…I breathed in slowly and slipped over the edge of the boat into the water.”

Patrice Lawrence’s Diver’s Daughter

The second book is Diver’s Daughter: A Tudor Story, from Patrice Lawrence, makes it clear that black people have been in Britain for a lot longer than the Windrush generation, and focussing on another oft-taught about feature of English history: Henry VIII’s flagship, Mary Rose. Her author’s note says she didn’t want to focus on slavery, but it is definitely clear that people of African descent were not safe despite it being illegal on English soil at that time. It is being published in May, look out for it.

Diver’s Daughter brought to mind Catherine Johnson’s many (and brilliant) historical novels…maybe she’ll do one of the future books in the series (fingers crossed)?

The Third Degree with Justin A. Reynolds

From debut author Justin A. Reynolds comes Opposite of Always, a razor-sharp, hilarious and heartfelt novel about the choices we make, the people we choose and the moments that make life worth reliving.

When Jack and Kate meet at a party, he knows he’s falling – hard. Soon she’s meeting his best friends and Kate wins them over as easily as she did Jack.

But then Kate dies. And their story should end there.

Yet Kate’s death sends Jack back to the beginning, the moment they first meet, and Kate’s there again. Healthy, happy, and charming as ever. Jack isn’t sure if he’s losing his mind. Still, if he has a chance to prevent Kate’s death, he’ll take it. Even if that means believing in time travel. However, Jack will learn that his actions are not without consequences. And when one choice turns deadly for someone else close to him, he has to figure out what he’s willing to do to save the people he loves.

I was given a copy of OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS at the CILIP YLG London Macmillan event in January, it was one of the books they told us about that I loved the sound of, so when I was given the opportunity to ask Justin some questions for the blog I rushed it to the top of my TBR pile, and boy am I glad I did! It isn’t your classic YA love story, it isn’t your classic teen angst story, but it is your classic teenager trying to deal with what life throws at him. Jack is a great protagonist, making terrible decisions and bad jokes while his family and friends stick by his side through thick and thin (so refreshing). It is funny and moving and totally engrossing, and I finished it in a day.

Hi Justin, welcome to TeenLibrarian and thank you for giving up your time to undergo the third degree!

‘Opposite of Always’ is your debut novel, was it a long journey to publication or was it snapped up?

Great question. The answer is actually a combination of both. Opposite of Always is my third or fourth completed manuscript, after drafting my first back at university; so, yes, it’s been a long journey in that sense. In fact, at one point, right before beginning this draft, I’d considered giving up writing altogether. Of course, now I’m glad I kept going. Once my agent took the story out on submission with publishers, we had immediate interest the very next day, and it was a whirlwind from there. I was very fortunate.

Do you still have a day job? How have you managed writing time?

Currently, writing is my day job, which is something I’d always dreamed of—writing full time. I do often think of my former occupation, though, with a special fondness; I was a registered nurse and had the privilege of assisting so many awesome patients get back on their feet. It was a very different job than writing, but both revolve around stories, on shaping a narrative. And both require a great deal of humility and empathy.

What has been the best thing so far about being published?

The best thing has been the opportunity to meet so many fantastic people! The young adult book community, as it turns out, is smaller than I thought; which has been nice because it’s afforded me the chance to get to know other writers. They’ve shared their personal stories of perseverance with me and they’ve given me great advice throughout this entire journey; it’s been a tremendous (and unexpected) help!

You say in your introduction that it is your “refusal to say goodbye” to lost loved ones. Did you find yourself using any real memories in the story or is it all fictional?

So, I actually struggled with the idea of writing a story that stemmed from those personal losses. I wasn’t sure that I had the right to include those personal memories because they were no longer around to share their opinions; because of that, I did not use any specific memories in OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS. But the characters are certainly composites of people that I love; people that have loved me.

Jack has extremely supportive parents, something often missing in YA and very much missing from his friends’ lives, was that the case from the very first draft?

I love this question! The answer is yes! It was absolutely the case from the very first draft. There were a couple of things about this story that I knew from the beginning beginning—one was that Jack’s voice would be the focal point, and another was that he would have a very loving and dynamic support network—the center of which would be his parents. Not only was it important to me that their love for Jack be front and center, but that their love for his friends would feel the same. I think much of the parents’ instincts to love and support Jack (and company) stems from their deep (and sometimes super affectionate haha) love for each other.

You reference ‘Groundhog Day’, were there any other time travel influences that you’d recommend?

I love the movie ‘About Time’! If you haven’t seen it yet, please do yourself a favor and correct that immediately!

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I just finished a great book called ‘Let Me Hear a Rhyme’ by Tiffany D. Jackson; at first glance it may appear to be a departure from her previous work—stories intent on drawing attention to the disregarded and giving voice to the overlooked—but at her newest novel’s core is the same heart and urgency present in all of her stories. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves music, values friendship, and enjoys superb storytelling.

Any plans to come to the UK?

I definitely want to visit the UK! Is this an invitation? 😀

I’m afraid we can’t stretch the budget to airfares, but I know a lot of librarians that would definitely love to meet you if you do come over!

OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS is out in the UK on the 4th April 2019.

High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson

If you think finding a body is a fun adventure, you’re 33% right.

fantastic cover art by Wumzum


There has been a murder in THE TRI, the high-rise buildings where know-it-alls Nik and Norva live. Armed with curiosity, local knowledge and unlimited time – until the end of the summer holidays – the dogged and determined detective duo take it upon themselves to solve the complicated mystery.

Sharna Jackson’s debut novel for children is set in a tower block (surprisingly enough) on a SE London estate. Our detective duo are sisters Nik and Norva, aged 11 and 13, living with their dad on the estate. He is the caretaker of the block and, also, becomes the main suspect when the sisters find the body of their art teacher. Luckily they’ve been honing their detecting skills and are ready for a bigger mystery to solve!

It isn’t only brilliant because it is the first Black British children’s detective series for 9-12s, it is brilliant because it is one of the best children’s detective mysteries I have ever read.

I enjoyed reading this *so* much. It is pretty long for a “middle grade” book (I say MG, but it could easily be enjoyed by older teens as well…and indeed adult readers), but the pages flew by as the investigation continued. Really pleased that it is the first in a series, I want as many of these as there are Poirot novels please!

HIGH RISE MYSTERY is beginning to appear in shops now!

(huge thanks to Colour PR for asking me if I’d like a copy to review)

Kick the Moon by Muhammad Khan


Fifteen-year-old Ilyas is under pressure from everyone: GCSE’s are looming and his teachers just won’t let up, his dad wants him to join the family business and his mates don’t care about any of it. There’s no space in Ilyas’ life to just be a teenager.
Serving detention one day, Ilyas finds a kindred spirit in Kelly Matthews, who is fed up with being pigeonholed as the good girl, and their friendship blows the social strata of high school wide open. But when Kelly catches the eye of one of the local bad boys, Imran, he decides to seduce her for a bet – and Ilyas is faced with losing the only person who understands him. Standing up to Imran puts Ilyas’ family at risk, but it’s time for him to be the superhero he draws in his comic-books, and go kick the moon.

Waaay back in July 2018, I mentioned Muhammad Khan‘s debut novel in my review for The Muslims by Zanib Mian (soon to be republished by Hachette, with some tweaks including new illustrations by Nasaya Mafaridik, as Planet Omar), so feel I should give him his own space this time to explain why his second book is already looking to be one my my books of the year 2019!

Ilyas has to be one of my favourite characters in UKYA, full stop. He is a teenage boy who is committed to his Muslim faith, proud of his mother, loves comics and drawing, hates violence and misogyny, friend to Kelly, and (with her help) a burgeoning feminist. The inclusion of bits of comic strip drawn by Ilyas (actually by Amrit Birdi) is a brilliant hook, and his character Big Bad Waf is actually brilliant. His school is well imagined, the banter is honest, and his thought processes are totally believable as he tries to walk a path between what he wants, what his family wants, and what his ‘friends’ want. It is definitely one to have in every secondary library, and it covers so many “issues” in a non-preachy way that it is a great one to discuss with students.

Kick the Moon‘ is out now from Macmillan (thank you so much guys for hosting our January CILIP YLG London event and giving me a copy!)

Breaking New Ground

Today at the London Book Fair (one day I’ll go…), Speaking Volumes have been sharing BREAKING NEW GROUND, a new brochure of British BAME authors and illustrators for children, in advance of their partner BookTrust’s new project BookTrust Represents, officially launching in April.


This project will:
support and subsidise authors and illustrators of colour to promote their work and to reach more readers through events in bookshops, festivals and schools
offer training and mentoring
launch an online community to support the next generation of great authors and illustrators of colour

The brochure, part of a joint initiative also involving Pop Up Projects, includes articles and excerpts from a range of contributors, and I’m really looking forward to what comes next!

Glancing through the catalogue, it is a wonderful mixture of long published (contemporary) and yet-to-be published authors and illustrators, familiar names and unknown, with an indicator of the age of their target audience. Lots of overlap with the list Matt started here years ago (and we’ve both added to since) but each list has some that the other is missing…

Our list of British based BAME authors and illustrators

Jason Reynolds – event review

I wasn’t able to attend the event that Waterstones Piccadilly hosted on Friday 30th November but I told a colleague about it, having recommended his books to her, and she jumped at the chance to go, saying “I couldn’t get Michelle Obama tickets but this will do!”. I asked her if she’d write a few words about the event for us (thankyou Tracey!)

Attending this author event was very different to most I have been to because Jason Reynolds didn’t actually read from his book For Every One, but had a conversation with the audience and Mark Maciver who chaired the talk. He spoke about his journey as a writer, his mother, travelling around England and meeting a few unicorns (basically Black British people who were young and wrote poetry). It was very clear that he was soaking up cultures, conversations and experiences on his book tour and he was definitely reflecting on how important it is to be truthful. A very poignant moment was when he described how he didn’t enjoy classic literature and his mother had said who actually made that a classic? This led onto him to simply saying that if you don’t see yourself and your life reflected in literature how can you engage with something so different to your life. Rap music was so important to him as a young man and that was never part of the literary narrative of any character in a book, so to take an interest in Shakespeare was not on the agenda. Once you engage with stories that you get, then you are open to new experiences and able to appreciate what others may see. His honesty about not knowing things that authors are supposed to know, such as what are semi-colons for – which obviously made the audience laugh – was truly refreshing. For Every One is probably the best book by Jason Reynolds to read first if you are not familiar with his work, as it is beautiful, poetic, accessible, and very short.


His other title recently published in the UK, Long Way Down, is on the current nominations list for both the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards – Carnegie for his writing and the Kate Greenaway for the wonderfully evocative illustrations by Chris Priestly. Knights Of will be publishing his 4 book middle grade series, The Run, next year.

‘Cultural Appropriation, Unconscious Bias and Colonial Aspects of Collections’ – YLG conference session

Anyone who has ever attended a professional conference knows that such events are a mix of the good (catching up with friends after one of you has moved on, being able to look round the room at other attendees and know that you share a passion for the same type of work, FREE STUFF), the bad (trying to sleep in an unfamiliar bed in a room next to the lifts, being reminded of the ever-increasing pressure of working in your field, endless queues for tea and coffee), and the ugly (a full buffet breakfast is inclusive but the packed schedule means you’ve no time to linger and enjoy the spread). Few aspects of the conference experience, however, are as dreaded as those two little words:

BREAKOUT SESSION.

The horror of potential interaction with our fellow attendees – being forced to participate in ice-breaker activities, being asked to share anecdotes, being close enough to the facilitator to make eye contact – nothing can make one break out into a cold sweat faster. Or maybe that’s just me?

It was, therefore, a relief to find that the first breakout session I attended at this year’s YLG Conference (Reading the Future, at the Mercure Manchester Piccadilly, 21-23 September 2018) required none of these things. Titled ‘Cultural Appropriation, Unconscious Bias and Colonial Aspects of Collections’, this session took the format of a panel discussion followed by a Q&A, introducing me to creators whose excellent work I had not previously encountered. Ably guided by academic Chloe Germaine Buckley, Senior Lecturer in English and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University, authors Candy Gourlay and Miriam Halahmy each introduced us to their most recent novels before engaging in a discussion of why and how, even nearly two decades into the 21st century, publishing and libraries still struggle to present readers with a choice of books that accurately reflect the enormous diversity and reality of the world in which we all live.

Buckley began the session by quoting some hard numbers, drawing from data collected and reported by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE): of the 9,115 children’s books published in the United Kingdom during 2017, a mere 391 – just four percent! – of these featured Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) characters. Even more shocking, over half of this paltry total were what is often referred to as ‘social issues’ books – giving the strong impression that BAME characters and lives aren’t thought of by many authors – and therefore, many readers – as ‘normal’, ‘mainstream’ or otherwise ‘unremarkable’, but rather disrupted by racism, violence, or other incidences of social disorder. After allowing a moment for the audience to fully absorb this information, Buckley introduced Miriam Halahmy, author of numerous books, poems and short stories for children, teens and adults.

Those who follow the Youth Libraries Group blog on the CILIP website may recall Halahmy’s recent opinion piece ‘What is on our Bookshelves’, in which she discussed her experience as Head of Special needs in a Camden secondary school during the period in the early 1980s when The Rampton Report ‘on the education of children from ethnic minorities’ was published. The recommendations of this report had far-reaching effects on, in particular, school libraries across the United Kingdom; librarians and teachers, horrified by the exaggerated and stereotyped depictions of children from non-Anglo backgrounds, discarded enormous numbers of books in their attempts to embrace a multicultural society, but often did not have the funds to adequately replace these castoffs with new books reflecting positive depictions of other cultures and peoples. Halahmy says that the question is often asked, is the lack of BAME representation today because ‘[her] generation of teachers threw them all away?’

Of course, the real answer is much more complicated; overcoming the current deficiency of representation will require the cooperation of authors, literary agents, publishers, media reviewers, readers and librarians. Halahmy is certainly doing her part: as a Jewish woman with four Polish grandparents, married to an Iraqi Jew, different languages and cultures (including Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Arabic) have always been a part of her life – in her words, she ‘cannot help but write multicultural characters because this is the world I inhabit.’ Halahmy’s beliefs complement my own primary philosophy as a librarian – that all children deserve to be able to see themselves reflected in the pages of a book. Her newest book, Behind Closed Doors, is about two teenage girls on the verge of homelessness for very different reasons, and features a cast of characters from a range of backgrounds, including Black British schoolboy Dom and Japanese-American swimmer Jordan.

Next to speak was Filipino author Candy Gourlay, whose 2018 novel, Bone Talk, originated when the author was conducting research into Filipino immigration for a non-fiction book on the subject, and came across a photograph from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. This photo, depicting a woman dressed in the customary Edwardian fashion of the time, standing alongside a man naked but for a G-string, piqued her interest, for alongside the spectacular displays of scientific and technological progress – including the first electrical socket, incubator, x-ray machine and Ferris wheel – the sights advertised by the Fair’s organisers also included ‘exotic peoples’. Gourlay went on to explain how the subjects of these grotesque living exhibits included a number of displaced people; in this case, the man in the G-string was a Native Filipino, a member of a group of highland people known at the time as the Igorot – but better known to Americans as head-hunters. [Note: in my research for this piece, I learned that the exonym ‘Igorot’ is considered somewhat of a pejorative by the people whom it describes, and that the tribal people of the Cordillera region prefer a number of other terms; hereafter, I shall use the term ‘Cordillerans’.] A number of Cordillerans were brought to St Louis following the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), in anticipation of the World’s Fair; once there, the Native Filipinos duly reconstructed a mock village as part of the wildly popular ‘Philippine Exhibition’, in which they lived in plain view of gawking fairgoers, staging daily shows for the entertainment of their Western audiences.

Gourlay’s research into these people and how they came to be part of the 1904 World’s Fair took her from archives in St Louis all the way to the mountain provinces of the Philippines, where she made two important determinations. Firstly, the story of the Cordillerans was one she wanted to tell; secondly, although she herself is Filipino, this was not her story – and writing it as such would be cultural appropriation. Gourlay went on to clarify this point, saying that to an extent, ‘all fiction is cultural appropriation’; however, the problem with writing a story from the perspective of the Cordilleran people at the turn of the twentieth century is that no authentic record of their voices survives – only American versions. For this reason, although Bone Talk takes place amongst the Cordilleran community – specifically, the people of the Bontoc – it does so during the period of the Philippine-American War, thus enabling Gourlay to draw from those American chronicles of life amongst the Bontoc people at that time and thereafter as she constructed her work of fiction.

Gourlay’s mention of cultural appropriation reminded her audience of our reasons for attending this session in particular, and the subsequent discussion between the authors was fascinating, so much so that I must admit I rather abandoned my note-taking. Particular highlights, though, include:

  • Gourlay’s explanation of what she calls ‘The Lack’ – specifically, the something-that-is-missing at the beginning of every story, which is filled in over the course of the narrative – and how it is our job as librarians and authors to help promote authentic voices to fill that missing element;
  • Halahmy’s reminder that authors have to ‘murder [their] darlings’ – characters should have more purpose than just ‘representation’, and if not furthering the plot, they are just weighing it down; and
  • Gourlay’s discussion of how her writing critique group is made up of cisgender white people authors, and how she had to ‘knock back’ certain aspects of Bone Talk as a result.

Halahmy pointed out that ‘we are very much on the cusp of change’ in terms of elevating lesser-known voices within libraries and publishing, though there still exist ‘a lot of barriers to be broken down’. Gourlay concurred, going on to say that what will really help increase diversity is ‘not having diversity panels’ but instead making the effort to ‘move in the realms of the people you want to invite in’ to the conversation; Halahmy nodded in agreement, musing, ‘the number of book launches I go to where I’m the darkest person in the room…’ before declaring that ‘this is not a box-ticking exercise’, a statement that was met with applause, and brought the panel to a close.

I could not agree more with these sentiments. After nearly two decades of librarianship, I have learned that establishing diverse representation in my collections and avoiding (as much as possible) unconscious bias in my reading is only possible through hard work, constant education, and an open mind. As a white man – and an American one, at that! – stories about people like me have been front and centre for far too long; it is my responsibility to use the privileges afforded to me as a member of that demographic to elevate and promote the voices of those who may be overlooked, and who may struggle to find and connect with readers or books featuring people like themselves. I was still in grade school when Dr Rudine Sims Bishop, children’s literature scholar and Professor Emerita from The Ohio State University, published her seminal essay ‘Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors‘ (Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, No. 3. Summer 1990), in which she introduced teachers, librarians and other educators to a framework with which we can build and foster multicultural literacy. Nearly three decades later, I firmly believe in Sims Bishop’s philosophy; our primary duty as librarians is to provide as many different mirrors and windows as possible, in order to enable all of our users to both see themselves reflected, and to learn about other cultures. Gauging by the number of my colleagues who attended this panel, I am not the only one.

As a first-year judge for the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Medals, I was especially gratified to see so many of my fellow judges in attendance; frequent readers will recall that CILIP has recently released the final report summarising the Independent Review of the CKG undertaken from June 2017 and has, or will shortly be, implementing a number of changes to the process as a result of these findings. I feel enormously lucky to have joined the judging panel at this point in time, as the various training opportunities made available to us will be of great use to me both personally and professionally; indeed, I can already identify a subtle shift in how I evaluate this year’s nominated titles against the awards criteria. (Time spent on said evaluations – and the sheer scale of the 2019 nominations list – may explain why this piece is being published some two months after the annual conference. Oops?) My heartfelt thanks to Chloe Buckley, Candy Gourlay and Miriam Halahmy for their time in presenting this panel, to all of the conference organisers for a fantastic experience, and to Caroline Fielding for the extremely late submission of this report….

Emerson Milford Dickson

Emerson is a secondary school librarian living and working in NE London. He represents London as a judge for the 2019/20 CKG Medals, and tweets about libraries, politics, cats and more at @microfichetaco

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the ‘mirrors and windows’ theory to another individual, when in fact it is Dr Rudine Sims Bishop to whom we librarians owe a debt of gratitude for her lifetime of scholarship in the field of children’s literature. I wholeheartedly apologise for this error, which I hope will serve to remind all reading that no matter how much effort any of us may put into ‘getting it right’, our work is never truly done! – EMD 19/11/2018