'I found myself staring at whitewashed bookshelves': Ruby Lovell on the importance of diverse reading

Published on: 18 June 2018 Author: Ruby Lovell

When Ruby Lovell was growing up, she was disappointed by the lack of books featuring children that looked like her. 30 years later, realising not much had changed, she decided to do something about it...

Ruby Lovell

Stories played a huge role in my childhood growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Every night, my grandmother would create incredible bedtime stories based on our adventures throughout the day that helped teach us about our cultural heritage.

But when I moved to the UK at eight years old, I found myself hugely disappointed by the lack of inclusive books I could find. Going from vibrant, diverse stories about people who looked like me to those that only featured white children left me feeling isolated and unwanted in my adopted country.

30 years later, I went out to buy books for my own mixed-race children (who are half English) and found myself staring at same whitewashed bookshelves of my childhood. Hardly any books on the shelves represented my children's British Asian background, their skin colour or their experiences of being mixed race.

Diversity is essential

I almost became resigned to this, until one day Diary of a Wimpy Kid came on TV, and my kids were ecstatic when one of the main characters was a young Indian boy.

The delight they found in seeing a character their age and from a similar background was hugely moving to me.

It was then and there that I realized just how essential it was for them and other children of colour to see themselves represented in the books they read. It makes them feel included, gives them a sense of identity and builds their confidence, too. From there, I became determined to do something about it for the sake of all children of all ethnic backgrounds.

Taking matters into my own hands

Ruby Lovell and her sons in Colombo Park

Ruby Lovell and her sons in Colombo Park

I decided to write my own children's book featuring a mixed-race character exploring their cultural heritage for the first time. And so Ruby Rides an Elephant was born: a diverse and inclusive picture book that tells the story of a mixed race, British Asian child who goes to Sri Lanka for the first time to explore her father's homeland.

Just as my grandmother had drawn from real life, I pulled inspiration from my trips to Sri Lanka with my children. The elephant in this book, Rani, is the same elephant my sons and I met at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage during one of our earliest trips.

After the text was written, fate stepped in. One morning as I was picking up my sons from school, I met the incredible illustrator Zara Merrick at the school gates as she collected her own children. Both our sons were in the same class.

We got to talking about my project, which Zara was hugely excited about, and the rest is history. Zara's bright and colourful illustrations brought Ruby's story and the vibrancy of Sri Lanka to life in a stunning way: children and parents have been hugely positive in their responses to this book. The readings I have done at local schools are also another major indicator of how captivated children become when hearing the story and seeing the pictures on the book.

Children crave representation

Ruby Rides an Elephant

When I showed my own children the book, they loved the stories and were so excited to share them with their friends. They finally got what they had been craving – true representation of their lives in a medium designed for them.

I did a reading in my youngest son's class a few months later to test the waters beyond my own complimentary children. My son proudly declared to the whole room that the book was based on him, and he was beaming throughout the reading.

I am still so proud that I was able to give my son this experience of pride and representation through my own work.

The other kids seemed to really enjoy it too, and it sparked so many conversations about different racial and cultural backgrounds that showed me just how important diverse reading is to help develop children's empathy and tolerance.

Now, I'm going to continue to write more about Ruby's adventures in Sri Lanka. The second book is currently being illustrated and will be coming very soon! And then who knows? Maybe a new adventure for Ruby back in the UK...

Ruby Lovell is the author of Ruby Rides an Elephant, a new picture book for children ages 3+ out now (hardback, £6.99, available at Waterstones and Amazon).

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