Some of my favourite memories from childhood include recollections of my mum plaiting my hair in the mornings before primary school, adorning my hair with pretty ribbons, and winding down for bedtime with a story, whether it be a fairy tale or picture book. Getting lost in the worlds which children’s books transport us to and dressing up like the heroes and princesses from our favourite stories are a part of childhood which should be preserved and savoured by children and parents alike. After all, to be young and caught up in the magic of it all, with the guilelessly innocent notion that someday the hero or princess in the story could be you, should be a shared experience among all children, shouldn’t it?
As I attended The Bookseller Children’s Conference 2021 at the end of September (21st–23rd), I was captured by the inspiring work and zest displayed by the company Woke Babies, a monthly children’s book subscription service which places black protagonists at the centre of their stories. For Kelly-Jade Nicholls, the founder of Woke Babies, finding a fairy tale character that looked like her as a child proved to be a hopeless task. Born out of “frustration for the lack of diversity there is in children’s books,” Nicholls described how her initiative was created for black children to finally see themselves represented in the books they are reading, rather than the archaic heroes and heroines of traditional fairy tales.
The Woke Babies’ website notes that in 2017, children’s books that had a black protagonist made up only 1% of the books being published within the UK and, currently, still only 2% of children’s book heroes are diverse—figures which undoubtedly appear somewhat regressive in today’s society. In turn, while we live in a world full of diverse people of all different ethnicities, these statistics beg the question: why are we not seeing the same diversity reflected in children’s books?
Earlier this year, Woke Babies teamed up with Tangle Teezer, a haircare brand sold worldwide, to produce gift sets with classic fairy tales reimagined by author Trish Cooke as Hairytales. As a customer and lover of the Tangle Teezer products, I was delighted to see such a far-reaching and impactful campaign for diversity in children’s literature, using something so interconnected with identity as hair to represent individuality and a world of escapism for all. With the accompaniment of the animation for Zel Let Out Your Hair during Nicholls’ case study, the attendees of the conference entered an enchanting world of beautiful, winding tresses that span for miles, where opportunity and imagination abound. Rather than “just catering to social issues,” Nicholls and her team wanted these books to be imbued with a celebratory and uplifting tone for their young readers, and I think they successfully achieved exactly that.
Woke Babies is a beacon of positive change, inclusivity, and diversity in a world that desperately needs all of these things. Yet, in highlighting Woke Babies’ admirable efforts to diversify children’s literature, we must also acknowledge the progress still to be made in publishing. As October marks Black History Month in the UK, there has never been a more fitting time than the present for further change to be actioned.