Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Publishing has an obdurate diversity problem that it is slow to address. The publishing industry in the US is persistently too white. In the UK, Booker prize winner Bernandine Evaristo has complained that there are still too few Black British novels published. The hastag #ownvoices which seeks to promote marginalised voices is only a recent creation.
This problem is plainly apparent in children’s literature. Indeed in the UK the first survey of diversity in children’s books was only conducted as a late as 2017, revealing that just 1% of books published in that year had a main character who was a person of colour. In the US there are more data, which also demonstrate a sustained lack of diversity that is only beginning to shift.
An important part of the diversity problem is the lack of attention given to African authors, publishers and writing. James Murua’s influential blog tackles that head on – and the fact that it had to do so, and gets so much traction for doing so – demonstrates the significance of the gap it addresses. I want in this blog to examine a particular type of children’s literature: books, published in English, which feature African main characters in African settings and are aimed at children aged 10-13. I shall call this type of book ‘African fiction for older children’. I began exploring this topic after writing my own book for this age group (called The Grymcat Conspiracy) that is centred on a Tanzanian family and storyline.
Books like this are really important. Fiction in which African children’s lives, dilemmas, issues, themes and settings are dominant, is vital for children’s creative and personal development. As Ruby Goka, the prize-winning Ghanaian novelist observed, ‘the more African children see themselves reflected in the pages of books they read, the more they will dream and know they can be anything they want to be.’ In preparing my book I sent a copy of the MS to children at a Tanzanian international school and one of them said ‘I want to read more because this is an African story’. Pule Lechesa complained that, ‘[w]e must be honest about it, many – if not most – of celebrated children’s literature in the western world leave our African children cold and disinterested’ (quoted by Raphael).
We must put this English literature in context. Many children will enjoy stories in their mother tongue, told by families and friends. There are amazing stories published in Swahili and Arabic. Novels written in English (or French and Portuguese), in languages of colonisation, will not be the only answer to children’s creative and imaginative needs. But books in English for children still matter. English provides access to some of the most powerful African literature not to mention multiple career advantages.
The production of African fiction for older children in the UK or US is not great. The two surveys which track diversity in these countries do not even record whether racial diversity features African characters. But it would be a mistake to think that the absence of such literature in these markets means that it is rare. Pule Lechesa went on to observe that ‘the great thing is that some African writers have managed to produce very fine work for African kids’ (quoted by Raphael). I have set out below a partial list of some of these writers who have written books for children from early readers to young adult.
From these authors, and hundreds of others, I have put together a list of nearly 700 works for older children that have been published since 1960 (available here). This will keep even assiduous readers busy for some time.
But it is also the case that there could be much more of this literature. Much of it is now out of print. There are currently around 20-30 titles in this age group published each year. Much of it comes from national presses based in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. The major international presses produce relatively little – in part because they have diversity problem.
The leadership demonstrated by African publishing houses with respect to publishing African fiction for older children is welcome. But I suspect that authors, and readers, would welcome more outlets. Authors would welcome opportunities to get their work to larger, international markets. And children beyond the continent need to read these stories too.
There are three reasons why this could be, and should be, a growth industry. First, because this magic age group (also called upper middle grade, or tween) represents the time in children’s lives when they read the most. For example, here are graphs of books read, and time spent reading, in the US and UK respectively.
We do not have similar data for African nations, but the available comparative data tell us that children in the US and UK in fact read substantially less than many of their counterparts. The peaks of reading reported in the US and UK may be higher and larger in other countries.
It is quite possible, therefore, that older children in many African countries are ceteris paribus already reading more than those in the US and UK. We do not have the data to tell either way. The point remains: the available data suggest that this is the age when children can be reading the most.
Second, the sheer numbers involved mean that publishers neglecting African markets risk being foolish. Currently there are 85.8 million children and young adults aged 5-19 in the combined markets of US, UK, Canada and Australia and New Zealand. By 2035 the young population in these five wealthy countries will have increased, just slightly, to 86.3 million. But in Anglophone Africa there are currently 200 million children and young adults. By 2035 this will increase to 256 million people (!) Neglecting a market of that size and growth potential does not really demonstrate the best business sense.
These numbers mean that growth will be much easier here than in the older markets. Thousands of new children’s/YA books are published each year in the US. This is for a market of 61 million potential readers. There is clearly an opportunity to grow demand for more books if only 20-30 African fiction books for older children are currently published every year. It is unlikely that this market is saturated.
A sceptic may be suspicious of these numbers, if high levels of poverty mean that these large numbers of children do not create effective demand. I would encourage such sceptics to be more sceptical of the data which underpin those beliefs. Data on wealth and economic activity in many African nations can be inaccurate. Ghana and Nigeria famously revised their economic status from low income to upper middle income overnight following improvements in government statistics. New research also shows that even respected data on poverty systematically ignore important assets in which rural people are investing (such as their children’s learning). Given that reading for pleasure obviously makes you cleverer, it is likely that families investing in their children’s education (and there are many of these) will also want to buy books.
The idea that there is insufficient effective demand also does not accord with the historical pattern in the production of African fiction for older children. As the graph below shows, this first peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s (when effective demand was lower than it is now). It then declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The patterns here suggest that major publishers have difficulty comprehending the potential in these markets. For instance the most successful series on the continent which catered for the needs of younger readers is Pacesetters. But its creator, Agbo Areo, an editor with Macmillan Nigeria, had to write the first book in the series to convince his (UK) bosses that there was demand for these works (!) Marie Umeh describes how Flora Nwapa was marginalised by her publisher for being a ‘Third World’ author and had to establish her own publishing press to distribute her pioneering works.
Third, there is the fact that markets for children’s literature can be self-reinforcing. Demand grows demand. This is visible partly in the sheer numbers of books sold. In apparently saturated markets such as the UK (shown in the graph below) demand for children’s books is growing stronger and stronger. The population of book buyers in the UK is not growing, but the book market is.
It is also visible in the way that literature trends work. Writing about one particular topic does not make it harder for others to do the same, it makes it easier. H.G.Wells invented time travel – and whetted public appetite for more. No one seems to have thought, after Tolkein, that there is no more space for works featuring dragons, wizards and dwarfs. The Worst Witch made it easier, not harder, for J.K. Rowling to invent Hogwarts. So as more African fiction for older children is produced, demand for it will grow accordingly. This is already visible in the flourishing of new genres like Africanfuturism.
The resurgence of publishing for this age group in recent years suggests that this need is beginning to be recognised. There are new global initiatives, and schemes in specific countries, which are finding ways of bringing exciting books to children who can access screens more easily than printed text. Prizes such as the CODE Burt Award for Young Adult Literature awards (now ceased), the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, the MacMillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, the World Reader Inspire Us Project and the Children’s Africana Book Awards have raised the profile of these books and their authors.
African authors will be writing the vast majority of African fiction books for older children that will be published. But they will not be writing all of them. Authors from many backgrounds will join in; I hope to be among them. But it is ground we, who are not #ownvoices, will need to approach incredibly carefully. Particularly for authors with European or North American backgrounds, writing about African characters and settings is replete with dangers of appropriation, mis-representation and white gaze. We have to recognise the biases and predilictions we bring to our subject matter.
In my own case, I have found that despite decades of learning about Tanzania, of working there as an anthropologist in remote rural areas, despite living there as a family, despite learning Swahili (and speaking it at home), despite working on research projects with colleagues across the country for years – all that still does not ‘deal’ with my white gaze. It doesn’t work like that. White gaze does not go away; we unlearn it very very slowly. Writing brings out deeply concealed prejudices because writing is such an intimate task. It lays us bare. We best to recognise this reality, the better to address it as it appears.
Writing about people who are not like us is essential to fiction. I find support in Zadie Smith's frustrations with 'cultural appropriation' (here and here) and in Kenan Malik's writing on the same (here). But these writers' argument is premised on the fact that any such must be really good, and deserves to be published. That takes a huge amount of work and research.
As publishing companies wake up to the possibilities that abound in African fiction for older children, who knows what amazing stories, series and books will emerge. This field could lead to a flourishing of rich and varied representations, of empathetic characters and settings in which older children across the continent delight to immerse themselves. The more books like this that come into existence, the more demand there will be for them – and the greater the number of new authors who will be forged by the enchantments they read.
Glossop, Dec 2020