Dapo Adeola has urged delegates at The Bookseller Children's Conference to "open the doors" and look for grassroots talent if they are serious about addressing diversity.
Speaking at the conference on Thursday (1st October), the illustrator and co-creator of the Look Up! picture book series from Puffin said the key to ensuring diversity was collaboration across publishing in actively seeking talent, and cultivating "trust and loyalty" in creatives.
Joined by Look Up! author Nathan Bryon in a keynote, hosted by agent Sallyanne Sweeney,the duo reflected on their partnership. Last year, Puffin acquired three books in the picture books series in a deal brokered by Sweeney. Touching on the acquisition, Bryon said: "I came into the publishing industry on a complete whim, I never intended to be an author, so this is amazing plot twist."
Adeola was suprised by the press's response to the book. "My expectation was that we would have to convince publishers to take a gamble on our book," he said. "What's happened since has been crazy, I'm working across five or six different publishers and having different experiences. They're all positive experiences, but they're very different."
Adeola has appeared alongside Ken Wilson-Max, highlighting their joint experience as among the handful of black British illustrators currently being published in children's books in the UK. Commenting on the lack of career advice offered to art students, he said: "Illustrating is taught as craft, not as a career—you're not equipped for a career in art at all—you end up in this weird space where there is no way of translating what you're learning into a viable career opportunity. That's doing a disservice to so many arts students."
Emphasing the importance of publisher-creative relationships, Bryon said he was loyal to Puffin and it was important for all authors to feel that their press returned the same confidence. Adeola said the most important aspect of any industry relationship to him is "trust in [his] ability as a storyteller. It's absolutely essential."
Discussing racial inequality in the industry, Adeola urged publishers and industry professionals to work together to find solutions. "It can't be fixed by one publishing house. I'd like to see publishers collaborating to solve the problem rather than coming up with individual schemes, because no one publisher can solve this. It [the industry] can only solve the problem together.
"From where I'm standing it's such an easy and simple solution. I don't say that to dismiss people's efforts. I do understand things take time, I'm not asking for something to happen overnight. But where the frustration comes in is there are simple steps that can be taken, but aren't being taken.
"Rather than waiting for the talent to come to you, go out there and find the talent. Open the doors, have open doors. Don't make it a prize, don't make it a scheme, don't make it anything. Just open the doors."
Looking to the future, Bryon hoped the series would reach wider audiences. "I'd love to tell stories about young black protagonists for ever, and for our stories to be translated in as many different languages in as many different countries—not for financial gain—I just want kids in those countries to recognise themselves."
Adeola added: "The potential for the future is almost limitless. It's not at all what I imagined even half a decade ago. "