Now, I'm pretty diverse, especially in the context of the literary landscape of the UK. When you think about intersections, I like to think you might bring up one or two of my own identities. I'm mixed race (English, Swedish, Somali and Kenyan) and stand one foot in and one precariously out of the Brexit equation. I'm nuero-diverse as well as fighting chronic pains. I'm a woman and of Muslim heritage. But one thing I think I’ll have in common with most of the people reading this is the fact that books were my first true love.
As a child, I grew up in a household with two dyslexic family members, and once the books I favoured became too complex for my mother to enjoy with me, it could have been the end for my connection. But the opposite ended up happening. Play and stories fit hand in hand, and staging adventures I’d seen in books was just as fun as sitting alone and getting lost in a story full of new and exciting characters. I spent every free minute I could as a child surrounded by all characters I grew to know and love—those many white, cis, straight, able-bodied and abundantly male characters. And while I wouldn’t change a minute I spent with them, I can see now how important it is for young people to see a larger array of worldviews and receive a little more information on the experiences that exist in the world.
‘Diversity’ is a popular buzzword but sometimes people in books don’t stop to think about exactly the impact that it (or the lack of it) has. The kids we know today are going to be the adults of tomorrow and for one, I want them to have the tools of understanding that arise from stories featuring and created by diverse people. I want kids to not just dream big but achieve big, whether they want to be an author, illustrator, scientist or economist. Just look at the schoolgirl-organised protests on climate change we’ve seen recently. We need to put our energy into reaching and molding these engaged young people to affect positive change on the world, with books as our leading tool for cultural change.
We can all agree that education is at the forefront of change, and that change is something that is badly needed in our country which is often still privy to xenophobic, ableist, homophobic or transphobic abuse. Entertainment is key to any good education—which is why literature is so powerful too. I learnt my morals as much from Beatrix Potter as I did from my school teachers. Literature serves as a window into the culture of our society, for children and adults, whether we use it as evidence to pick apart past civilisations or use it to mirror the ideas spreading around us today.
But it took me years to notice that the window I was looking through as a child had no reflection. I wasn't seeing myself in any of the characters I cherished and looked up to. Maybe it was a bit of an ask to have seen myself two decades ago when I began reading, in the picture books my mother could still help me with or the chapter books I graduated to. But it’s because I know how important it is for not just me but others to see those depictions that I crave it so much in the fiction I’m selling today.
As an individual, my reach is limited, but books don’t have that problem. They’re not quiet. A book is able to bypass distance, it can travel in your backpack across borders and doorframes to reach anyone and everyone. All it needs is a push. For me, books bypassed parents who couldn’t understand them and built a love and curiosity for a child who couldn’t live without them. When working as a bookseller in Forbidden Planet I saw that books could bypass all ability barriers; every race, gender, ability and orientation passed in and out of the store, all of them leaving with books I'd recommend and was sure they’d love. But as I sold to this abundant audience it just made me more aware that there were so many gaps in the experiences our books explored. For instance, hearing impaired customers, for whom so few books on the shelves mirrored or even tried to include their lifestyles, were a sizeable amount of the comic and fiction fans in our store.
I’m hoping that, both for the marginalised and the majority; the people who might one day suffer oppression and the ones who might fall to being oppressors; our shelves can show a true reflection of our world today and the world we want to see in the future. That’s why I’ve been delighted by the positivity surrounding the opening of Round Table Books, the first permanent bookshop from inclusive children’s publisher Knights Of, this Thursday. Not only were there so many backers of the crowdfunding campaign, but an inspiring number of people have already emailed or messaged about their interest in visiting the store as soon as it opens. There's also the amazing help and mentorship we're undergoing with Herne Hill bookshop Tales from Moon Lane, who share our thirst for diversity in children’s books. So many people seem genuinely eager to see us succeed with the community of Brixton and the Greater London area—and to support us anywhere else our pop-up projects might take us. This response gives me great hope for our future.
I suppose my biggest hope from this endeavour is that very soon Round Table Books won’t just be considered a ‘inclusive’ bookshop but simply…. a bookshop.
Khadija Osman is a Creative Writing graduate from the University of Essex and published poet. She runs the new diversity-focused children's bookshop Round Table Books in Brixton.