by Niall Walker
"If kids don’t see themselves in a book, they won’t think of writing one themselves."
Stories matter. If they didn’t, their characters and worlds wouldn’t still whisper through our minds, many years after we have read them. Their morals and warnings take root in childhood; the most powerful remain imprinted on our souls throughout our lives.
Stories matter. If they didn’t, equally, they wouldn’t have evolved an array of gates, walls and financial barriers around themselves. Fiction, and its publication, are lucrative endeavours - and where there is money and power, there will typically be exclusion.
“If you’re a gatekeeper, you're going to respond most to people who sound and look like you." Tucked behind a shelf in a slightly cramped bookshop in Brixton Village, I meet Eishar Brar. Eishar is the Editorial Director of Knights Of, a radically inclusive children's publisher looking to burrow a tunnel under the industry’s walls.
Their aim is to promote marginalised groups seldom represented on young people’s shelves. As of 2018, only 1% of children’s literature contained a BAME central character, despite over 20% of the population identifying as an ethnic minority.
Breaking the class ceiling with open submissions
Their shop, naturally, is called Round Table. “It’s one of the first questions I asked Aimee and David (the company’s founders) too,” laughs Eishar. “At the Round Table in Arthurian legend, everyone’s equal in terms of access and space. Aimee’s idea is that no writer, too, should have any more or less.”
It isn’t only on the page where underrepresentation occurs, after all. Succeeding as a writer remains perilously difficult if you aren’t from a privileged background. “In traditional publishing, you have to be agented. But there aren’t enough agents to go around and it’s hard to reach them if you don’t know the process,” explains Eishar.
To remedy this, Knights Of operate a truly innovative system for reaching out: open submissions. Writers and illustrators from marginalised backgrounds can set up a video call with the publishing team themselves, foregoing the conventions that prohibit so many eager voices from finding their feet on the ladder. As Eishar explains,“this means we can give advice to try and match them up with an agent, tell them how publishing works, and offer as much transparency as possible”.
It is a tough, time-consuming method. Yet for the Knights Of, founded three years ago by publishers Aimee Felone and David Stevens out of frustration with their industry's dominant middle-class whiteness, these methods are essential. “For me and Aimee, when we were growing up, there was no one to represent anyone of colour apart from Malorie Blackman. It was just all white characters,” says Eishar. “If kids don’t see themselves in a book, they won’t think of writing one themselves." It was this cycle of disempowerment that the company have begun to take on.
Tackling austerity, illiteracy, and violence through storytelling
Their principles have so far reaped rewards. Along the shelves at Round Table stand a vivid spectrum of books, rich in creative diversity. One of them is High Rise Mystery, one of the publishers’ most successful productions. Written by Sharna Jackson, the 5-time award nominated murder mystery novel is set in stairwells and corridors of a London tower block. It follows Nik and Norva, who find their art teacher murdered and decide to put their detective skills to the test.
The story tackles issues of funding cuts, family conflict and violence through the imaginative eyes of the protagonists. By promoting diversity and inclusion amongst staff and writers, I ask Eishar, can we begin to have conversations with young people that are typically seen as more...adult?
‘It’s interesting you say that these are adult themes," she says. "Because things like austerity, death, and gentrification all affect kids. If we are coddling them, why would they even want to read a book?”
It is a valid question, one that strikes a particularly resonant chord in Britain today. 4.5 million children live in poverty in a nation with the worst literacy levels in the developed world. We remain in the throes of the Govian reforms to school reading syllabuses, and their emphasis on the virulent, tub-thumping patriotism dominating our political landscape today.
In this context, the work of Knights Of seems even more urgent. “We don’t want to be the only ones, the niche publisher who does this. We want the whole industry to move along with us,” says Eishar. Yet, despite some positive steps, this remains elusive. "To be hitting the same roadblocks now is really frustrating. Big publishers are doing their best to be inclusive, but too often it is being done in a tokenistic way."
"We can't fail at anything."
This has given Knights Of the ability to compete on an uneven field. “Some voices we can give a platform to that other editors wouldn’t know what to do with,” Eishar explains. Yet where the big fish have the luxury to experiment, Knights Of remains hamstrung by the typical insecurities of independent publication: "We can’t fail at anything."
The hurdle they are tackling seems monumental; yet there are encouraging signs. This year, central characters in children’s books from minority backgrounds increased to 4% - still insufficient, but a four-fold increase on the year before. While adult readers may have a tendency to resist radical transformations in the composition of fictional subjects - just look at the backlash to a female Doctor, or a black James Bond - young audiences tend to lack such prejudices.
However, there is something tangibly powerful in the way children consume fiction. Well-written characters feel so close that they reach through the page; the bonds between them become nearly familial, blurring the boundaries between the real and imagined we only construct as we grow older.
Stigma, of course, remains. As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Eishar which voices continue to struggle to reach the pages: “There are no trans voices in children’s books, other than the ones coming out of the US. Similarly, while there’s representation on some levels of disability, like Ade Adepitan’s brilliant Paralympics-inspired series, there remain issues around accessibility for authors who cannot travel easily."
She adds: “You have to invest in it, you have to develop the infrastructure, so you can creatively access it regardless of your background”.
Stories matter. Everyone deserves to find the magic that lies in them. The conquest of these knights goes on, and with every step forward they take, the world of children's literature will open up more.
Eishar Brar is Editorial Director of Knights Of, a radically inclusive childrens' publisher in the UK. Find out more
Niall Walker is the founder of the Radical Art Review. For all editorial enquiries contact radicalartreview [at] gmail.com