The story of my life;Subject of the week;Literacy;Interview;Verna Wilkins

19th March 1999 at 00:00
Appalled by the lack of picture books showing black British children in everyday situations, Verna Wilkins set about publishing some, writes Elaine Williams.

Stories have an essential role in building a child's intellectual and social understanding of the world. Story and picture books that explore fears and joys, hopes and losses and the imaginative world of monsters, fairies and magic help children to make sense of their surroundings and culture and move forward with confidence.

Unless the children are black. When the pictures and words describe white children, white fairies, white witches; when the birthday parties show white children in beautiful white homes; when the lost pet is always a white child's pet, the chance of making sense of the world is slim. The harm this can cause is immeasurable, says Verna Wilkins, founder of multi-cultural children's publisher Tamarind.

Tamarind has just published six picture-book readers for key stage 1, sponsored by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers as its contribution to the National Year of Reading. the union has spent pound;75,000 on producing the books, on printing the Tamarind catalogue and distributing it this week to every school in the country. The books are based around everyday events - mum turning up late after school, a birthday, a brother and sister playing before lunch. But they feature black children. It is the black child's imagination, the black child's beautiful home in an average British suburb, the black child's loving mum.

These books are top quality, with clever texts and wonderful illustrations. Starlight, Gillian Lobel's story about Rosie, who gets a hobby horse for her birthday and flies off with him in her dreams, is accompanied by sensitive, colourful, well-constructed and sparklingly imaginative pictures by young illustrator Nic Wickens. Pamela Venus's illustrations for Elizabeth Davies's Mum's Late are full of carefully observed, expressive wash-and-ink drawings.

Malorie Blackman creates a witty tale, full of energy and light in Marty Monster, in which two younger siblings take an imaginative journey through their house to creep up on an adolescent "monster" brother.

Verna Wilkins, a former lecturer in business studies, set up Tamarind 11 years ago after bringing up two sons in Surrey. She and her husband, a psycho-logist, had all the aspirations of a professional family for their children's education and so were shocked to be told that their boys, both precocious readers, highly literate and communicative, were regarded as disruptive in school. They were "walking away from their reading books", their teachers said, "not doing anything" and causing trouble.

The shock brought about a road-to-Damascus revelation. Verna realised her sons could not see themselves in their books. "There was nothing to validate their existence as human beings. When I realised the dangers of omission I was frightened, and still am. I had to do something to redress the balance."

Verna started to write children's stories. When no mainstream publisher would take them on, she published them herself, learning the business overnight. She hawked the books around schools, talking to teachers and journalists. Eleven years on, she says the huge emotional and financial effort has paid off. One of her early titles, Dave and the Tooth Fairy (with a "drop-dead gorgeous" black tooth fairy), has sold more than 120,000 copies in the UK and abroad.

Verna Wilkins is critical of books about black people that centre on suffering and racism, or present their black child heroes as superhuman. She wants her books to focus on the joy that ordinary British black children (like all children) find in their everyday lives. Tamarind is also developing Black Profiles, a series of biographies for young readers on successful living British black people, such as the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, the barrister Lord John Taylor of Warwick and the orthopaedic surgeon Samantha Tross.

Malorie Blackman is both a Black Profiles subject and the author of two of the NASUWT-sponsored titles. She admires Verna Wilkins for involving her writers and illustrators in every step of the production process and for striving for quality in every detail. In Marty Monster, Malorie shows that black children, like others, are very imaginative, that "they take ordinary things and make them extraordinary".

Tamarind's new picture book titles are 'Starlight' by Gillian Lobel, illustrated by Nic Wickens; 'Zia the Orchestra' by Janet Burchett and Sara Vogler illustrated by Lynne Willey; 'Marty Monster' by Malorie Blackman, illustrated by Kim Harley; 'Dizzy's Walk' by Malorie Blackman, illustrated by Pamela Venus; 'Rainbow House' by Vivian French, illustrated by Biz Hull; 'Mum's Late' by Elizabeth Davies, illustrated by Pamela Venus. pound;4.99 each. Schools order number 0800 917 3201. Other enquiries 0181 866 8808.

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