Diversity in children’s books: a conversation with Mariam James

The Student speaks to children’s book author, Mariam James. 

Published author and mother of two kids, Mariam James, writes children’s stories that promote a positive self-identification for children of colour. The two books that she has published so far that are titled “We are all Special” and “Imagine a World”; are also two out of a series of five that she has committed to write in the coming years. 

Centering around the themes of innocence and the celebration of differences, her books aim to inspire young kids, and help them to feel empowered by seeing themselves in the books that they read and that their parents read to them. At an age where kids tend to be more malleable and open to the world around them, Mariam James believes that they need to be able to associate, as well as to identify, with the world around them. 

“I want them to feel empowered. I know they might not know what that means, but I want them to be able to first of all see themselves in books; so when they read it, I want them to associate with the first obvious thing. That there is a black person in that book, and they can, therefore, identify with that as it is the most obvious thing for a young reader. I want them to take away just the theme of being unique and to be happy about who they are, and the differences that they have. To love life and love themselves in the end.”

Three years ago, Mariam James realized that there was a lack of representation for black children in storybooks when she would read stories to her son, realising that none of the characters actually looked like him. Of all the books that they had in their home, there was barely, if anything, that her son could identify with. 

When she noticed this, she decided that she wanted to do something about it. At that point, she had already served as an English teacher and later on decided to switch to be a stay-at-home mum. Now, along with being an author, she also runs a play group for toddlers and babies. 

With all her experience as a teacher and parent, she related to us that this is where she gets most of her inspiration for her stories. Her books have all been centered around her own children and the children that she has had the pleasure to work with. 

During the process of getting her first book “We are all Special” published, her journey was long and arduous. Having gotten the initial idea to write a book from reading to her son, she never thought anything she wrote would get published. However, she wanted to make a tribute to her son and thought this would be the best way to do so. After speaking to one of her friends who had gotten her book published, she decided to take a chance. 

After a year or so of trying to get her book published, and being met with rejection after rejection, she decided to take one more chance and send her manuscript in to a publisher through a friend’s recommendation.

Then, six weeks later she got a call with the offer of a contract. When interviewing her, she spoke about that moment and how flabbergasted she felt. Having never thought something like this could be possible, it was an amazing feeling when she was finally met with a yes; she finally got her first book published in 2018. 

The project that James is currently working on is a collection of five stories, that she says is inspired by her kids and her faith. Her second book that came out recently, “Imagine a World”, is based on our perceptions of the world and how we see people. She has three more books that will be coming out soon. 

When asked if being a stay-at-home mum makes it difficult to find time to write, James answered by saying that there are times when it is hard to find peace and quiet, but she makes it work. She schedules her work around her kids; all of the writing gets done when they are asleep. 

As her books encourage the promotion of representation in children’s books, we asked her how important representation was for PoC in children’s books. 

To this Mariam replied: “I think It’s really important, and I think the reason why I wanted to write books like that is because of my children. They were the very reason why I do what I do. I wanted to read books to them that they can see themselves in. My son and I read lots of books together at night, and he’s always asking me to read a book to him. We’ve got so many books in our house, and not one of them look like him. It’s difficult to see a black boy on the cover of a children’s book. Especially in terms of British literature, I don’t think I’d ever actually seen it.”

She added: “It really worried me because it made me think, our children are growing up in this society and there’s not really a reflection of themselves in any books. Not only brown skin, but also different ethnic minority children.”

“When I was younger, I hardly saw any black characters in books. There were barely any black people on TV, but we’ve come a long way from there now. It’s just society and the generation now that they are growing up in it feels like this needs to be normal. This needs to be something that they just see every day. Black people in books, black people on TV, black people in the media, it just needs to be something normal because it is a representation of our society at the end of the day.”

Mariam identified Sally Lloyd Jones as one of her influences, a Christian writer that focuses on children’s books. By reading work and about her life, Mariam realized that it was where she would like to see herself, as someone who makes a difference in children’s lives in one of the most significant ways there ever was. 

To anyone who wishes to be a published writer one day, Mariam offers this advice: “If you want to publish a book then do it because the sky is truly the limit. Something like this has come into your mind for a reason and you can do anything with hard work, determination, and a community of people to support you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, make mistakes, and get rejected. I think that’s what forms us as human beings and you might not always get what you want the first time around.”

She urges inspiring writers to stay persistent and consistent; and if you do so, she believes that anyone can get what they want. It is her belief that we all have a unique purpose in this world, and it should be our volition to discover that journey and what our purpose is. 

Images: via Mariam James

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