'Books have the power to include, to exclude and to create heroes'

In 1987, I started Tamarind Books to publish books for children. I had no experience in publishing. What made me enter this cost and labour-intensive risky business was simple. My eldest son came home, after his first few weeks at school, with his This is Me booklet. On the cover was a large circle for his face, with his name underneath. His face was painted a peachy white.

Worried, I offered to give him a brown crayon so that “it would really be you!” He quickly retrieved the book and said: “It has to be that colour, mum. It’s for a book!” Both of my sons loved books but all of the books in their classrooms, in the school library and in the local bookshops, ignored children “like them”. At that early age, when the personality takes shape and attitudes are formed, the unspoken message was that children like him did not qualify for entry into the wonderful world of children’s books. White children did. Animals did. He did not.

On the kitchen table, with the support of my partner and our sons, we began a business which lasted for a quarter of a century. I was aware of the discourse on race and cultural diversity as early as the 1960s, in response to the UK’s growing population of immigrants from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with discussions abounding about “multicultural education”. So I went to schools and spoke with teachers; there was a captive audience of hundreds of thousands of children, attending schools that were advised to produce an inclusive curriculum. At that time, I was also working as a lecturer.

Bookshops were the obvious target, but I was turned away from many. Some independents, such as New Beacon Books in north London and Newham Books in east London, were great. My local bookseller in Surrey declared in his shop window that
he supported “local” authors, but when I presented my books, he told me to: “Take those somewhere else... maybe Brixton?” Some simply said “No thanks”; others said black people never came into the shop.

I took my son on a trade mission to Canada. We visited a bookshop that supplied many schools. Its entire window was stacked with The Gruffalo, a picture book. The proprietor praised our books for their quality, and the list for its excellent and much-needed work, but commented that she wouldn’t order from us because her “clients did not look like the people in our books”. A sharp nudge from my son, and we left disappointed. On the pavement outside, he said: “Mum, you were about to say, ‘Oh, you must have lots of Gruffaloes living around here, then?’” I might have.

It was extremely tough, but the list grew bigger and better. Now that our classrooms are becoming more diverse than ever, I am back on the road with Firetree Books, building on the strong legacy of Tamarind. All children should be seen. No child should have to qualify for entry into the world of picture books. They are powerful. They have the power to include, to exclude and to create heroes.

Verna Wilkins founded Tamarind Books, which became part of Random House Children's, and is now at Firetree Books.