I live in the UK, a country which has welcomed in people from many cultures over the centuries, so it always shocks me to realise that until all too recently diversity in children’s books was not the norm. Publishers are getting better at it, and progress is being made, but there is still a long way to go, particularly with bringing more ethnically diverse writers into the UK industry. Last year I interviewed Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, (who has done much to address this situation during her Laureateship) and I will never forget her telling me how she was never able to find any kids like her in the books she read as a child, and how it never even occurred to her that a person of colour could be published until she read Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple.
So you can imagine that I thought about it very hard before I accepted the job of retelling the wonderful story from Taghreed Najjar and Hassan Manasrah’s picture book Why Not? for the UK market. Originally published by Al Salwa in Jordan but bought by Orion Children’s books for the UK, it tells the story of Samia, who has a very special job to do just before Ramadan starts. This was not my culture, nor my religion. Shouldn’t someone from that ethnicity retell the story for a British audience, I asked myself? But Taghreed was positive about me doing it, and so I accepted, determined to get the spirit of the original across for a slightly older-than-picture-book audience, as Orion had decided to publish the book in their Early Reader series. Above all I wanted to be respectful in my treatment of Taghreed’s story and her culture, and to work with her and our editor closely on what was now called The Little Green Drum to make sure both she and my publisher were happy with the end result.
Once I’d written the first draft, I met with Taghreed at Bologna Book Fair to talk it over. I’d got a few things wrong, and she gently corrected me, and pointed me in the right direction (I’d used Abu for ‘Father’ and the correct term would be ‘Yaba’, forinstance). There was also the matter of Lifta, the original setting for Samia’s story. Lifta, now long deserted, is in what was Palestine, and it was where Taghreed’s family had originally come from. She wrote the story as a memorial to happier times there, and it was important to her that some mention and acknowledgement was made of the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians which had made her family homeless. We agreed that there would be a part in the back of the book explaining that, and also explaining what Ramadan was, for those who might not know.
This year, I was delighted to find out that Taghreed and Hassan’s story had been chosen from children’s books published all over the world for the prestigious White Ravens 2014 list, run by the Internationale Jugendbibliothek – a huge honour. And I should say here that Hassan’s joyously wonderful pictures are a very important part of making the book what it is – never forget the illustrator! I saw the full list at Bologna Book Fair this year – and it’s pretty impressive!
I’m very proud to be associated with this book. It’s a story about a girl doing a job traditionally associated with a man, it shines a positive light onto a culture that is all too often in the news for all the wrong reasons, and I hope it’s a small but important step on the road to diversity in children’s books here in the UK. Maybe it will encourage a child reader from our Muslim community to take up her pen and write a story, and then another, and another, because she sees herself in brave Samia. That would make my heart shout out a loud and joyful song, just like Samia, Ahmad, Ada, Arya, Omar, Fatima, Adnan, Bahira and Samira do in the book.