When I was a kid I read everything. My Aunty Pearl took me to Dudley library, and told me, “Boy, go on and sign up at the counter.” So I signed up at the counter and I was there once a week for years and years, coming out with an armful of books every week.
I was friends with Jennings, Just William, Billy Bunter and Grimble. I solved mysteries and went on quests with The Famous Five, Emil and the Detectives, all the Narnia books and, of course, The Hobbit. I inhaled everything! And I loved it; I loved the adventures I went on with books.
But there was rarely somebody that looked like me in those stories (no Black Hobbits). Black kids didn’t feature (no brothas in Narnia). They didn’t go on those adventures with me. I know that those stories were compelling and gripped me with their ghosts and action, excitement and derring-do, but I would have loved a story that spoke to me personally. Years later, when I became a father, I read to my daughter almost every night. We didn’t see ourselves in the books we read together then much either. (OK, there was that kid with dreadlocks who commentated at the Quidditch matches, but that was it!)
Reading is such a magnificent pastime for all of us, whatever age we happen to be. Through reading and looking at illustrations and chatting together, children begin to recognise the world around them. Little kids look at the pictures and laugh because they’re silly. Older kids begin to understand the idea of narrative and plot. But children of every age need to see themselves in these stories.
I sit here writing wearing tracky bottoms, with unkempt hair in what I’m calling my den. There are books all around me and an upright piano (to be as good as Professor Longhair is my ambition—I’m still at the Les Dawson stage, I’m afraid). I’ve always been known as a comedian, writer and broadcaster, but I feel I’m about to embark on a whole new adventure of my own, writing children’s books with a broad appeal that speak to all children. I just can’t wait to contribute and to get out and about sharing my own stories, starting with The Boy with Wings this October.
I am delighted to be part of this special edition of The Bookseller, and if there is the perception that we are seeing a new pantheon of Black British writers creating stories for children and adults from all backgrounds, I respectfully ask to be in that gang, please. Here’s to it.
I better get back on my horse and write some more… hey, this is fun…
Sir Lenny Henry is one of Britain’s best-known comedians, as well as a writer, philanthropist and award-winning actor. He is co-founder of Comic Relief. A strong advocate for diversity, Henry co-wrote the book Access All Areas: The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond. The Boy with Wings will be published by Macmillan Children’s Books on 14th October.