Where were the black British YA authors during my childhood?

The first time I walked into the newly decorated, revamped ‘Teenage’ reading room in my local library in 2005, was the day that changed my relationship with books forever.

That room might as well have been my second home between the ages of 11 and 15 years old. I found myself in this section of the library, often several times a month, staring at the shelf deliberating what books to take home that day.

The room was pretty much perfect. It was by far my favourite part of the library, in part because it felt like a hideaway of sorts. Inside it was a slow, but stable, Windows computer; two or three large, bright beanbags that sat comfortably in a corner by the window; a little maroon sofa; a generously sized table surrounded by stackable chairs and of course, all the books, comics, graphic novels and magazines that my heart desired at the time. This room had a special place in my heart because it was where I discovered many of the books that I adored growing up. Occasionally I spent some of my pocket money in bookshops but I sourced most of my reading material from the library. By the time I was 16, I had read at least 70% of the library’s Children’s and Young Adult (YA) collections.

Back then, fewer things gave me more pleasure than reading about the fictional lives of regular British teenage girls. The fiction that I devoured during my early teenage years included countless novels by Dame Jacqueline Wilson, my favourite childhood author (I was absolutely obsessed with her Tracy Beaker and Girls series). Other titles that had an impact on me included the Mates, Dates and Truth, Dare, Kiss, Promise series by Cathy Hopkins, The Confessions of Georgia Nicholson books by Louise Rennison, Cathy Cassidy’s Chocolate Box Girls series, the Gossip Girl novels and Before I Die by Jenny Downham.

Some of these addictive books gave me my first glimpse into the world of dating, snogging and boys. This world was largely unfamiliar and intimidating to my young teenage self. I felt as though I was living vicariously through the characters as they got up to all kinds of mischief with their friends, entered their first romantic relationships and had their first kiss. Around the time I was reading these books, I had not yet reached that stage of going on dates with boys, and it would a be a little while before I kissed someone for the first time or had a boyfriend of my own.

A selection of books I loved reading as a teenager, all of which I discovered at my library

With the exception of topics like dating and sex, I could immediately relate to the novels I was reading over a decade ago. Even though the main characters in those books were almost always white girls, I was drawn to the themes of friendship, puberty, self-image, school and other teenage concerns that often kept me awake at night in my own life. I had a special affinity with the more awkward, introverted and self-obsessed characters but also idolised those that I wanted to befriend or had qualities I wished I possessed at the time.

I’ve always loved reading and writing since I learned to do both as a child. Growing up, I knew plenty of other black kids, black girls especially, who shared my love of books and reading. Today, I don’t feel like that’s changed much. I was pleased to see that some of my thoughts surrounding this were validated in a 2016 report by the National Literacy Trust. More than 32,000 children aged eight to 18 years old participated in the charity’s annual literacy survey in 2015, and the findings are fascinating.

69.5% of black girls surveyed claimed an overall enjoyment of reading, more than any other ethnic group. Black girls were also more likely than other ethnic groups to have a favourite book and agree with the statement “reading is cool”. 13% of all participants said they hadn’t read a single book in the last month compared to just 6.2% of black girls saying the same. Finally, while 31.6% of all participants said that they read for fun every day outside of class, this applied to 44.4% of black girls; a number considerably higher than any other ethnic group.

Looking at these findings, it’s clear that black girls in the UK love to read. Our tremendous appetite for literature is evident, and it doesn’t seem right that there remain so few (children’s and YA) books being published by us and for us. Today, whenever I browse the shelves in a bookshop or scan Bestseller charts online, I hardly see any Children’s and YA titles written by non-white authors or featuring non-white children as main characters.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

When I sat down and thought about the first time I saw myself reflected in a book, my mind almost immediately turned to black American authors. To my disappointment — and a lesser extent, embarrassment — I struggled to name a single book by a black British author that left a lasting impression on me when I was growing up. The first time I experienced that feeling was in 2015 when I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

I paid little attention to the fact that virtually all of the books I loved reading as a young girl didn’t feature characters that looked like me. It dawned on me when I read The Bluest Eye for the first time at 20 years old.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more saddened and moved by a book in my life. Of the many themes in Toni Morrison’s first novel, the one that struck a chord with me the most was that of internalised racism and associating whiteness with beauty. Pecola’s wish for blue eyes reminded me of my own childhood wishes for softer, straighter hair and slimmer facial features. I was convinced that these aspects of my physical appearance made me ugly, or at least, nowhere near as beautiful as my non-black counterparts. I strongly empathised and sympathised with Pecola throughout the novel, recognising the shame and self-hatred that she felt. I wanted to uplift her and protect her from those that made her believe she was ugly and worthless.

Reading The Bluest Eye made me realise the extent to which racism and anti-blackness can ruin lives and destroy the psyches of people with disastrous, tragic consequences. Growing up, I was vaguely aware that race, gender and class-based discrimination exist but I hadn’t thought deeply about these issues prior to reading the book. Morrison’s ability to convey the vulnerability of children so tenderly and beautifully made this story all the more powerful to me. I was especially moved by the way the author demonstrated the effects of these prejudices on the youngest members of our society.

A year or so prior to reading The Bluest Eye, I had begun a personal journey towards complete self-love and self-acceptance. I wasn’t aware of this in the beginning, but an important part of that journey was about resisting the white beauty standards that I held in high regard as a young girl and unlearning the notion that my blackness meant I was ugly, thus permanently disqualifying me from being seen as beautiful. Pecola’s story in The Bluest Eye brought back uncomfortable memories and feelings of ugliness, low self-esteem, inadequacy and awkwardness from my teenage years. I related to being a young girl who hated the way she looked and yearned to look like someone else. Someone less black, who possessed thinner lips, a narrower nose, fairer skin and longer, softer, straighter hair. Even though this book made me feel emotional and uneasy at times, I’m grateful that it was written.

After reading The Bluest Eye, I felt compelled to read more black writers, specifically black women writers. In the months after finishing that book, I familiarised myself with the prolific work of bell hooks and fell in love with novels by Alice Walker and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among others.

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

Upon finishing this book, I found it increasingly difficult to shrug off the fact that I hardly saw anyone who resembled me in the books that I had grown to love so much as a teenager. It wasn’t just the overwhelming whiteness of the characters in those stories but that, at that time, I wasn’t aware of black British authors, or British authors of colour writing children and YA fiction.

In 2018, Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold published a study that revealed that only 8% of the 8,500 YA titles published in the UK between 2006 and 2016 were written by non-white authors. Interestingly, 132 of non-white authors published during this period were American and just 40 non-white authors were British. Ramdarshan Bold’s research also confirmed that white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender main protagonists were featured in 90% of the bestselling YA titles of 2006–2016. This is unsurprising considering that, during this period, 90% of YA books published in the UK were written by white authors.

By the time I entered my 20s, I was calling myself a feminist and thinking a lot more about race, through the lens of my own experiences and the conversations I was having with people at the time. I became increasingly interested in, and angry about, the numerous inequalities that existed in the world. When I started paying closer attention to the (mis)treatment of black women within society, it prompted me to read and listen to the stories of more black women writers.

Reading the work of black women helped me to make sense of my own experiences and better understand my own black womanhood. Over the years I have found much joy, comfort and knowledge in the words and stories of black women. For example, I became enlightened about topics such as intersectionality, misogynoir and colourism thanks to the work of black women. These are just a few reasons why black women’s stories will always be important to me.

Now, aged 24, I make a conscious effort to buy and read books by black writers, especially black British women. Non-white authors of children’s and YA fiction just weren’t on my radar as a child, so it’s important for me to support black British female writers of the past, present and future. Now, I love discovering children’s and YA books by black female authors that I know my younger self wouldn’t have been able to put down.

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

Black women remain virtually invisible in the book publishing industry. We are severely underrepresented as subjects, authors and in the publishing workforce. My decision to read as many black women writers as I can is an intentional one. If I had read more children’s and YA fiction by non-white authors, black women authors especially, my reading experiences would have been even richer.

The UK publishing industry has much more work to do around inclusion and representation across the board. It’s extremely important for younger people to see themselves in the books that they read. It shouldn’t be a rare occurrence for children who aren’t white to pick up a book in a library or bookshop and see main characters that look like them. Further to this, stories featuring non-white characters should, wherever possible, seek to normalise those characters doing everyday, mundane activities. It’s not, and shouldn’t always be, a necessity for a character’s ethnicity or cultural heritage to take centre stage or be a defining factor in their story.

This is ultimately my hope for black female characters in YA fiction. I look forward to reading novels with black female protagonists just living their lives; falling in love, travelling the world, getting up to shenanigans with their friends etc. Yes, we go through hardships and experience oppression but our stories don’t always have to be centred on our suffering and pain.

For me, my local library will be remembered as a place that started my love affair with YA literature. If I was a young teenager browsing that Teenage/YA section today, I hope I’d be able to find at least one or two books with a main character that looks like me, written by a black woman.

If I have a daughter one day, I hope that she sees herself reflected in the books she reads much sooner than I did. I want her to be able to go into a bookshop and pick up a book that feels like it was written for her. I am optimistic that when she reaches her twenties, she won’t have to ask the question that is the title of this essay like her mother did.

Tenelle Ottley-Matthew

Written by

Writer based in London, UK. My work focuses mainly on arts and culture, gender, race and media. https://www.tenelleottleymatthew.com

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