There are few greater pleasures in life than opening a book and being transported to a different place. As a young black boy growing up in London I read many books where characters journeyed across magical landscapes or futuristic planets, but none focused on characters that looked like me. It was easy to feel completely locked out of these fictional worlds, and that can make it a struggle to imagine that a child like me could be at the heart of one of these stories; that they could be a protagonist rather than simply an observer.
This is a phenomenon the writer Darren Chetty noted in 2013, reflecting on almost two decades teaching in English primary schools. He observed that “almost without exception, whenever children are asked to write a story in school, children of colour will write a story featuring white characters with ‘traditional’ English names”. When fiction fails to represent them, children of colour can end up believing that they belong on the sidelines.
Stories belong to all of us, and every child should be able to see themselves in the books they read. This is what motivates me as a writer: I want my own stories to break down the barriers between other children and the imagined worlds I felt I could not fully access as a child. I want children who look like me to know they deserve to be the main character of any story.
I hope to publish sci-fi and fantasy fiction: I truly believe these are the stories that teach children to be ambitious, courageous and bold. They empower them to believe they are capable of anything they set their minds to. This is something all children deserve.
But I am faced with a publishing industry that has historically restricted the types of stories that writers of colour are able to tell. Certain genres are overwhelmingly white. When it comes to sci-fi and fantasy, black writers are far outnumbered by white ones. As the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found, only 1 per cent of children’s books published in 2017 had a character of colour as the lead – and many of the ones that did focused on social issues rather than fun and magic. Even established authors such as the former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman have felt restricted in the types of stories that publishers will accept. In June 2020 she tweeted that she “once pitched a fantasy story about black magical siblings”. However, “no publisher was interested as it ‘wasn’t believable’”.
This is deeply damaging for young readers. If characters of colour are only allowed to exist in stories of “gritty realism”, and aren’t given the freedom to explore the endless possibilities that fiction offers, it will impact the way young children see themselves. If publishers fail to see the potential for all children to be magical heroes, then those children who are excluded will be denied the opportunity to see the limitless potential they have within themselves, too.
The stories I want to tell are not niche. There are many black writers like me who want to break out of the genres they have typically been confined to – and there are many children who desperately need our stories. Every child deserves magic. It’s up to the publishing industry to ensure they get it.
Mayo Agard-Olubo is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.
A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.