An artist who illustrated the first British children’s picture book featuring a Black main character almost 50 years ago says not enough Black children’s writers or illustrators have come to prominence since then.
The Jamaican-born illustrator Errol Lloyd was nominated for a Kate Greenaway medal for his illustrations for My Brother Sean, written by the late British-Surinamese author Petronella Breinburg.
Published in 1973, the book follows a Black child who starts at nursery school. It was the first British children’s picture book from a mainstream publisher to be written and illustrated by Black British creatives and to feature a Black protagonist.
“A cursory trawl through the shelves of the children’s books section of Waterstones or WH Smith, for instance, is not encouraging,” Lloyd said. “Another disturbing observation is that there appears to be few new children’s literature writers or illustrators coming to prominence in recent years.”
He named Malorie Blackman, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah as among the few Black British authors to have broken the literary glass ceiling.
Lloyd said there needed to be greater recognition that the Black British experience is integral to British cultural and political life. “With the goodwill generated by the Black Lives Matter phenomena, things will improve, at least in the short term, and we may well see the emergence of a new crop of writers enriching the sector,” he said.
Lloyd’s comments come before the launch of an exhibition, Listen to This Story! Children’s Books and Black Britain, which will celebrate the history of Black people in British children’s books over the last two centuries. The exhibition is a collaboration between Seven Stories, the National Center for Children’s Books, Newcastle University and Newcastle city library.
The exhibition aims to recognize Black poets, writers, illustrators, Black-owned publishers, and librarians who have pushed for the visibility of Black British children on the page and on shelves.
Among the individuals the exhibition will pay homage to is Una Marson, the Jamaican poet who became the BBC’s first Black radio producer and presenter in the 1940s, and who influenced Black children’s literature in the UK.
“This exhibition will showcase and celebrate the contribution of Black people to the culture of Britain, and shed light on the ways that Black Britons have resisted oppression, persisted in creating a literature of their own, and insisted on the value of Black British literature and history for all readers,” said Prof Karen Sands-O’Connor, a co-curator of the event.
Rare books and never before seen material including illustrations by Lloyd and handwritten manuscripts by the Afro-Guyanese writer John Agard, whose poetry was often the first way British-Caribbean children encountered patois in a classroom, will be displayed.
Last year, the Center for Literacy in Primary Education found that 15% of children’s books published in the UK last year had a minority ethnic character, with 8% featuring a minority ethnic main character. About a third of students recorded in the school census in 2021 are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Among the many Black authors involved in the exhibition is the British-Jamaican writer Catherine Johnson, the author of several historical fiction books for children and young adults. She highlighted Malorie Blackman as a pioneer whose fantasy and sci-fi fiction “began the slow charge” helping Black children’s fiction into the mainstream.
Johnson said there had always been amine of Black British authors writing about the Black experience that was not anchored to suffering and slavery, including Malaika Rose Stanley, whose first book, Man Hunt, published in 1996, followed the story of a mixed-race boy , Max, on a quest to find a man for his single mum.
“These books were always there if you knew where to look – specialist sellers like Letterbox, community bookshops like Centerprise in London,” Johnson said.
The exhibition will open at Newcastle city library and the Philip Robinson library at Newcastle University on 20 October.
Recommended reading from Black authors
Catherine Johnson’s Race to the Frozen North, a novel about the African American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson and his treacherous journey to the north pole.
Ken Wilson-Max’s Astro Girl, an educational picture book for young space enthusiasts, about a young girl named Astrid who loves space and wants to be an astronaut.
Sharna Jackson’s High-Rise Mystery, about sisters Nik and Norva, two young detectives plunged into an investigation to find the murderer of their community art teacher.
Ifeoma Onyefulu’s A is for Africa, a photographic odyssey of rural village life in Nigeria, where the author grew up.