Q&A with Jasmine Richards, by Cerrie Burnell
Published on: 10 February 2020 Author: Cerrie Burnell
As an author I always try to write with a sense of inclusion. I want to represent the world I live in, with all its diversity and wonder. I have always believed that every child deserves to see themselves in a story. While I was writing my latest book The Ice Bear Miracle, a wintry tale about two children who live in a frozen northern territory and have both encountered polar bears and strange folkloric myths, and whom - like my daughter - both happen to have brown skin, I was lucky enough to meet and work with the incredible founder of STORYMIX and author Jasmine Richards.
Jasmine is originally from London, has written many novels for children and lives near Oxford with her family. An important figure in the publishing world and ambassador for change, Jasmine set up STORYMIX with a wish to support diverse authors and create dynamic books.
Jasmine! You say you grew up in a library? This sounds magical… which library did you visit the most as a child? Was the library colourful and bright and welcoming, or serious and dusty and full of knowledge and secrets?
So, confession time (and you must remember it is a writer’s job to make things up for a living!) I actually grew up in a place called Chettle Court in Haringey, North London. It was a tower block on top of a big hill and at the bottom of the hill was a truly magical place called Stroud Green Library. It was a two-minute walk away (even with the little legs of an eight-year-old) and I honestly think the proximity of that library has a lot to do with my successes of today. I was there a lot. I remember the library smelling of books and that there were always warm and squishy places to sit and read. The thing that sticks in my mind most of all though are the librarians who always had the time to guide and encourage my reading.
What were some of you favourite childhood reads? Did you see other children in the books you read that looked like you or had a similar life to you? Was this something you noticed, and if so did it ever make you feel sad or left out or were you just carried away by the story?
I am a huge fan of Roald Dahl’s writing. The Witches, Matilda, The Twits... I love them all. Roald Dahl never talks down to children, and he doesn’t pretend that the world is always a nice place. I think it is that honesty that I connected with as a child and which I would like to convey in my own books.
I also greatly admire Phillip Pullman. I absolutely devoured his Sally Lockhart books as a child and when I was older the His Dark Materials trilogy. Like Dahl he doesn’t talk down to children and isn’t afraid to tackle big issues.
The books that I read as a child were almost always a window into other worlds but they were very rarely a mirror. The books that did feature characters that looked like me tended to be set in the past or were stories of struggle or adversity.
I longed to see contemporary characters that looked like me. Girls like me having fun, going to spy school, flying on broomsticks or vanquishing dragons. They didn’t exist then and not enough of them exist now. This invisibility did not stop me loving books but I was aware of my absence. Luckily, on TV there were some examples of families and people that looked like me and that helped offer a counter narrative.
How important do you think it is for children to have access to libraries, and to see themselves reflected in the books they read?
Books have the power to transform lives. They transformed my life – raised my aspirations and gave me the tools to navigate complex situations. Data shows us that children that read for pleasure are more likely to succeed at school and that is across all subjects! Libraries go hand in hand with all of that. They are the gateway to books. Take away libraries and you take away opportunity.
Inclusivity in children's fiction matters because you are letting that young reader know from the very start that we’re all of equal value and status in society. Exposing children to different points of views and experiences is fostering empathy and understanding in future adults and the world needs more of that. It’s also important to realise that if readers from underrepresented backgrounds continue not to see themselves in books then they will choose other media that reflects them better. These same children are less likely to grow up to be authors and the cycle of underrepresentation continues.
Obviously we have many lovely, classical books such as Peter Pan or Narnia where the children are predominantly white. Whilst we all adore the vivid imagination and brilliant storytelling in those beloved books, things have moved on and we need fabulous literature that includes everyone. Is this something you think about when you’re writing or are you just naturally creating diverse, gorgeous stories?
When I started writing I did not consciously think about making my books ‘diverse’. I just asked myself what a ten-year-old Jasmine would like to read and that is the same measure I use for the ideas I develop as a producer with my fiction studio STORYMIX.
What age were you when you first dreamed of writing a book?
As a nine-year-old, I definitely remember having the aspiration of being a novelist and I even had a special notebook that held all my poems and stories. That notebook went everywhere with me! As I got older, I think the idea of becoming an author got buried – after all there were not that many children’s authors of colour to act as role models. It was only after I started working in publishing and saw that authors are just normal, approachable people with a story to tell that I started writing.
When did you begin your author journey and what was the first book you published?
My first novel, The Book of Wonders, was written in the evenings and on weekends whilst I was working as a children’s fiction editor. It was published in 2010 by Harper Collins in the US but I actually had the idea for the novel when I was nine-years-old. As a young reader, I loved the tales from The Arabian Nights and how Scheherazade always ended her stories on a cliff hanger so that she could live for another day. However, even as a child, it annoyed me that the sultan (who has a habit of beheading his wives) gets a happy ending. I wondered whether there might be a different version of this story and that was when the idea for The Book of Wonders was sown.
There is a theme of mythology in your work - what is it about myths that you love and why is it important to you to share them with contemporary readers?
I was a huge fan of world mythologies when I was a child. These stories allowed me to grapple with questions like: Who am I? Where did I come from? What is the universe? How did it all begin? Mythologies give children the opportunity to explore these questions through a colourful cast of often flawed, and certainly larger than life, characters. They provide stories that are full of peril and sometimes, but not always, a moral. I’m excited that today there are more books focusing on mythologies beyond the Greek and Norse pantheons. I think this is fertile ground for children’s books of the future.
You’ve worked in publishing for many years. What was your motivation for setting up STORYMIX and what are your hopes and goals?
In 2018, only 4% of lead characters in children’s books were from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background. When this is stacked up against the fact that 33 % of schoolchildren are of minority ethnic origin the scale of work that is needed to make children’s books more representative becomes very clear! On a more personal level, it was when I sought and failed to find books for my own child who was learning to read independently that I decided to act. I realized that I could complain or I could use all my skills as an editor, author and writing tutor to launch STORYMIX and proactively create stories where every child gets to be the hero.
STORYMIX is a children's fiction production company with a focus on inclusive representation and fabulous storytelling. It originates young fiction series for publishers and works specifically with authors and illustrators from BME backgrounds.
My long-term ambition with STORYMIX then is that the readers of today will become the writers of tomorrow. I do a lot of work in schools around creative writing and encouraging all children to write themselves into the story. Kids from BME backgrounds don’t always find it easy because they haven’t seen enough characters that look like them.
Thanks to research from BookTrust we know that fewer than 2% of children’s creatives are from a BME background. Therefore, another long-term goal is to increase that number. If STORYMIX writers go on to secure their own publishing deals after writing on one of our series then I will feel like I am meaningfully changing the makeup of the publishing landscape.
Who is STORYMIX for? And what can an author do if they have brilliant idea but aren’t sure how to get in touch? What’s the process when you’re working together?
STORYMIX is for writers from BME backgrounds who want to learn more about writing for children, don’t mind working to brief and care deeply about telling a great story. I am not a publisher. STORYMIX originates all of its own ideas and writers work to a very detailed storyline – it’s a great apprenticeship and you get a lot of editorial support and guidance. There’s a lot more information on the website but If you are an author with a specific question about publishing I can normally point you in the right direction as I have worked in the industry for a long time!
We are always looking for creative to add to our database and so do get in touch if you are interested in writing or illustrating for children!
What are you most looking forward to in the future of the book industry? Are there any books you’re particularly excited about coming up soon? I’m super excited about the idea of immersive storytelling experiences for kids through audio and other technologies and how that will integrate with and support a love of reading.
I’m really looking forward to reading Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds published by Little Tiger.
Lastly, what are you working on at the moment?
Ooh so many things! I am working on reanglicising my middle grade books that were published in the States originally and sharing with publishers in the UK. In terms of STORYMIX, I have dragons, sorcerers from West Africa, a grandmother who is not what she seems and a superhero crew with a difference all on the development slate!