Could you tell us a little bit about your background in teaching and educational publishing? How have your work experiences influenced the creation of the Jericho Prize?
I worked yonks ago as a teacher in a London primary school with a high-minority ethnic population, so not only have I read countless children’s books, I’ve also experienced first-hand why broader multicultural and multi-ethnic reading experiences are crucial during this formative phase. The power of connecting young children with books that celebrate their cultural and ethnic identity is undeniable. Their enriched engagement with reading and writing is always a bonus but I’m much more interested in the whole child: the positive effect reading inclusive texts has on their long-term aspirations, self-worth and self-confidence. If children of colour are exposed solely to reading material hailing white protagonists by white creatives, what message are we feeding them about their place in British society and, equally, what are we telling white children? In The Good Immigrant, Darren Chetty has articulated issues around this much better than I ever could in his brilliant essay based on his observations as a primary teacher. I know what he’s talking about because I’ve encountered similar pupil responses too!
I think there are increased challenges nowadays around access to inclusive texts. Tighter school literacy budgets and, perhaps, teachers’ lack of confidence in independently sourcing and using Black material might partly explain their tendency to stick to tried-and-trusted books written from white perspectives. And, although there are plenty of books featuring Black characters, we need more own-voice picture books and fiction by Black-British creatives in the 4–6 and 7–9 age ranges. Finding emerging Black writers who are passionate about creating quality own-voice stories that can be used by schools is at the heart of the Jericho Prize.
Working in children’s publishing was my lifelong dream but I didn’t pursue it when I left school because, growing up, most of the books I’d read were by white creators and I didn’t think the book industry was meant for me. It wasn’t until my 30s, after teaching, that I finally plucked up the courage to try for an apprenticeship with Random House. But during my second-round interview as I waxed lyrical about Malorie Blackman, Jamila Gavin, Trish Cooke and John Agard to an all-white panel, my confidence waned again (I didn’t get the role).
Soon after, I landed a wonderful job at a well-known educational publisher, making print and digital resources for teachers and children. Even though I was quickly promoted, deep down I still felt like an outsider as only one of two editors of colour (on reflection that was quite progressive back then). So, I guess the Jericho Prize is my way of showing Black-British talent that publishing is for them as I’d hate for anyone else to delay or deny their publishing dreams as I did. I want to support their ability to access the industry in some form. Also, when Black children read Jericho Prize winning books, I hope they too will see that making books is a realistic career choice, hopefully becoming our Black authors, editors, illustrators and booksellers of the future.
You are also a book blogger – Candid Cocoa – and as part of your blog, you analyse black children’s books and link them to the English primary national curriculum. Could you talk us through this process?
As well as primary-level books, I review texts for under-fives including babies and toddlers as, in my view, the early years are the bedrock of everything. I match books with children’s innate interests and fascinations, suggesting planned and child-led activities if they occur to me organically. Then I reference areas of learning from the early years foundation stage (EYFS curriculum) within which these activities or children’s spontaneous play may occur.
As for the primary national curriculum links, I used to reference text-level reading objectives and suggest natural cross-curricular ideas to give teachers a start in incorporating specific texts into their literacy/topic planning. However, this work was time-consuming, and I’ve recently streamlined the process to devote more time to managing the Jericho Prize and job-hunting. In any case, I’ve realised many teachers just want lists of ‘diverse’ books, which worries me as lists feel a bit meaningless without critical reflection. Anyway, I now put all the information into my Black Children’s Books directory, categorising all the books I’ve read plus suggestions on suitability for school/home, age ranges and subject/topic links. Teachers can refer to this list in conjunction with my reviews.
I have to say that as my Candid Cocoa following has grown, I’ve struggled with the whole book blogging concept, because my main aim has always been to seek out high-quality Black books that can be used as core texts in schools. One of the duties as a teacher is to critically evaluate educational resources, including books, to check they are fit for purpose. Being more involved in the public-blogging world means I feel compromised at times. I’ve learnt it’s not the done thing to make negative comments if you’ve been invited to take part in a new book’s PR launch for example, which is quite an honour and I’m always thrilled and surprised to be asked. However, this mismatch between children’s publishing sales drives and my training as a reflective educator makes me uncomfortable at times.
That said, I’ll never say a book starring Black characters is great simply because it was created by a Black writer or illustrator, or white creatives for that matter. And I don’t recommend all the books I’m sent, only those that score highly on ethnic representation and overall quality. I use a set of criteria to assess each book, giving it an overall score that I don’t make public. So, for example, if it has a great story but the Black characters feel superficial (no real influence on the narrative) or inauthentic (without cultural or ethnic anchoring), the illustrations are just off, or there are problematic or predictable tropes then I deduct points. Likewise, if it’s badly written or I spot factual errors, but the representation is good, I won’t recommend it. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) recently publicised their own comprehensive guidelines exemplifying good practice in their latest Reflecting Realities 2020 report and it’s well worth children’s book creators and educators taking a look.
Now, we would like to know a little bit more about the Jericho Prize. What was the driving force behind creating this prize?
I’ve been asked this a lot and there are so many reasons. The main one is my son who is now the driving force behind everything I do. Jericho is his middle name in fact. When he was born, six years ago, I was determined he should be exposed to inclusive books that reflected his Jamaican-English heritage and other cultures, but when I initially looked, I couldn’t find many new Black-British books for younger children and those in existence were mostly by white creatives.
I ended up buying a few from the US and a copy of an old favourite So Much by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury. I’ve since discovered Alanna Max and Lantana Books, small indie publishers who make excellent inclusive books for young children – I wish they’d existed when I was teaching. Then, when he started nursery and then school, I reconnected with what was happening in schools, and I was stunned that his reading material and learning experiences were largely white-centric.
It felt like things had taken a step backwards from when I was teaching, and I was frustrated and disappointed, wondering what I could do.
At first, I thought it must be just a borough-specific quirk as I’d moved to a new area. But, when I started book blogging, I was inundated with messages from parents and teachers from all over the country asking for Black-book recommendations. It seemed there was a wider issue around variety in the primary literature curriculum which had been exposed following the recent resurgence of the Back Lives Matter movement. The CLPE’s 2020 report showed that ‘in 2019, 33.5% of primary school-aged children were of minority ethnic origins, but only 5% of children’s books published contained ethnic minority main characters’, so this confirmed my fears. Then, Black writers started to send me their self-published children’s books to review, many of which had potential. Eventually, I decided that I really wanted to do more to support these emerging writers while helping to raise the status of Black children’s books, and, soon after, the Jericho Prize was born.
Who are some of your favourite Black children’s fiction writers and illustrators?
Well, I like to shout about Black-British creatives so that narrows it down a lot although, inevitably, I’ll leave amazing people out. Writers I’m most excited about are Kereen Getten and Sharna Jackson. There’s an intensity to Kereen’s writing that I love and, so far, both of her books speak truths about Jamaican life and culture that children would benefit from reading, and Sharna Jackson blew me away with her concept for High Rise Mystery. Also, I love Atinuke, who has been around for many years. Her own-voice stories are inspired by her Nigerian childhood and are full of humour. Catherine Johnson’s historical-fiction novels are also truly masterful. As for illustrators, for me, it’s all about children’s picture books rather than illustrated fiction and there are some incredible new Black-British illustrators on the scene. I adore the vibrancy and attention to detail in Diane Ewen’s work and Dapo Adeola is doing exciting things to challenge stereotypes in an unforced way. I think we’ve only seen a fraction of his range. I’m going to cheat and mention some US illustrators, as the work of Gordon C James, Kadir Nelson and the brothers Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey is outstanding.
What other resources does the Jericho Prize offer?
We have inspiring videos made by established writers and editors offering invaluable hints and tips from their personal and professional experience in children’s publishing. We were thrilled to work with amazing authors, such as Patrice Lawrence, Candy Gourlay and SF Said, in creating this fabulous content. The videos along with the accompanying articles are freely available for all writers to access via our Jericho Prize website and YouTube channel – it’s not just for competition entrants. We’ve started adding downloadable crib sheets to our bank of resources, too. We’ll be publishing content each month in the run-up to our August submission window to guide writers through each stage of the writing process from concept through to pitching their final manuscript, so they should check back on our website regularly for updates.
How can anyone reading this interview help to spread the word? Are you looking for more involvement to widen prize offerings etc.?
Absolutely! The most helpful thing people can do is shout about our competition so those who need to hear about it do. We’re always on the lookout for manuscript readers and people who’d be interested in volunteering content, particularly videos about picture book creation.
Although it may seem like we have a big publishing machine behind us, we don’t. Our partners have generously provided very targeted support which I’m extremely grateful for, but as for day-to-day project management and PR, it’s just me with a bit of help from my husband and an editor friend.
I feel a huge personal and professional responsibility to make the Jericho Prize a success. I’d love the project to have longevity and I hope we can foster a community of Black-British writers who feel supported and nurtured beyond the life of the prize. It would also be great if we could provide our shortlisted writers with introductions to agents and help our winners get their work published. If anyone can help with any of that, my DMs are always open!