From the poet's heart;Reviews;Arts;Books

25th June 1999 at 01:00
BENJAMIN ZEPHANIAH. By Verna Wilkins. Black Profiles series. Tamarind Books. pound;6.99

Benjamin Zephaniah thought he was a failure. Tom Deveson looks at a book that tells a different story.

The story of Tamarind Books is the story of Verna Wilkins's faith, hope and hard graft. Her belief in a true notion of inclusion - that all children should have the right to be represented in the books they read and the pictures they see - might seem self-evident to many teachers, but she has learned both as a publisher and as a writer that the invisible barriers are the hardest to by-pass.

The gratifying growth of this excellent imprint shows that her message is at last beginning to be heard. Books like Dave and the Tooth Fairy and I Don't Eat Toothpaste Anymore have been seen on TV or won awards. Now a new series of profiles sees her move from children's fiction into the world of adult fact.

Verna Wilkins had written a life of Martin Luther King for a mainstream publisher. Her admiration for King and her enjoyment of the task was tempered both by the fact that King was American and dead, and that she was not asked to write about, say, Queen Elizabeth I. Her response to this tokenism and stereotyping has been to produce her own books celebrating black achievers.

Benjamin Zephaniah's story is told with a vivid warmth to which readers at key stage 2 will eagerly respond. The ills that Dr Johnson allotted to the life of the "young enthusiast" - toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail - are shown to be as real in late 20th-century as in 18th-century Britain. More than 30 pages out of 48 have passed before Zephaniah can think of himself as more than a failure, a hero only to his mother whose sustaining faith in her son is one of the most engaging parts of the narrative.

It was important for Verna Wilkins that children not just read the book, but also be aware of how it was produced. She tells with compelling animation how the book came to life in a talk at a school. A colleague faxed the cover (a bright triple portrait of the subject) to an excited class; the next day the man himself appeared to speak and dance his work.

The next books in the series will not take the predictable path of honouring sporting and musical heroes. They will deal with two members of the House of Lords (the lawyers John Taylor and Patricia Scotland), the orthopaedic surgeon Samantha Tross, the entrepreneur Jim Braithwaite and award-winning writer Malorie Blackman.

Benjamin Zephaniah has spoken of the need to "publish in people's hearts". These new books are certainly doing that, but they are also about real people who have faced real obstacles and achieved real success. They deserve a prominent place in our libraries and classrooms.

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