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Added: Wednesday 13th December, 2017

To see themselves in the books they read by Katrina Gutierrez (Lantana Publishing)

In this blog Katrina, director of Lantana Publishing, writes about her mission to publish more diverse and inclusive books so that all children can see themselves in the books they are reading. 

So imagine if you couldn’t see yourself in any of the books you were reading. If the characters or situations had almost no connection to your experiences or your understanding of the world.

Imagine believing you could only be a princess if you had blonde hair and blue eyes.

The quote above comes from the ethos of Lantana Publishing, of which I am a proud director. Whenever I read it, I am reminded of the personal stake I have in our company’s mission to produce beautiful children’s books that reflect the diversity of our world. For a long time, I believed that the most special adventures were reserved for girls who looked nothing like me. Only princesses could ride a talking dragon, become a powerful sorceress, or find true love. And I could never be a princess because I am Filipino, with black hair, dark eyes, and brown skin.

There is a story behind that quote. It happened one summer day when Lantana’s founder Alice Curry and I were still academics, and publishing books was still a distant dream. We were talking about the books we read growing up, and it turned out that we enjoyed many of the same fairy tales and fantasy books. The difference was that I felt shut out of these stories that I loved. Black-haired girls were never the heroines – except for Snow White, but that was no comfort because, well, she had ‘skin as white as snow.’ And worse, storybook Asians were often stereotypes and hardly felt like real people.

Alice founded Lantana Publishing in 2014 with a commitment to opening up a space for diverse voices in children’s publishing. I joined her brave venture a little over a year ago and every day I am thrilled at this chance to make the kinds of books I wish I had when I was a little girl. No longer do I feel relegated to the margins of stories. Now, I know there is a place for me, my voice, my experience. And being surrounded by many passionate voices that see diversity as a way of life and not merely an issue validates this feeling. Our team is very international, with authors, illustrators and staff from almost 20 countries. In 3 years we have published 14 books between the US and the UK, and we are thrilled that several have received awards and accolades. Our very first book, Chicken in the Kitchen by Nnedi Okorafor and Mehrdokht Amini, won Best Book at the Children’s Africana Book Awards and was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal. This year, our title Sleep Well, Siba and Saba by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn made it onto Kirkus Reviews’ list of Best Picture Books of 2017. This book was also nominated for the 2018 Kate Greenaway Medal, as was our other title The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu and Manuela Adreani.

We have always had an eye towards supporting diverse experiences closer to home, and so I have been very excited about our Spring 2018 list, which features a mix of debut and established BAME authors and illustrators from the UK and abroad. Kaya’s Heart Song by Diwa Tharan Sanders and Nerina Canzi is a joyful story set in the jungles of Malaysia about a young girl in search of her heart song, the song that happy hearts sing. Nimesh the Adventurer by debut-author Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini takes us on a fun-filled walk through an ordinary London suburb with Nimesh, a young boy with a BIG imagination. And You’re Safe with Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry is a beautiful bedtime story inspired by Indian folklore and art.

People often ask me why I’m in children’s publishing. I often answer this (silly) question with a flippant, “Why not?” But after writing this piece, I know my real answer. I know I have always wanted to make children’s books – but the kind that open young readers’ eyes to the big, wide world, open their ears to a multitude of voices, and open their minds and hearts.  I am in children’s publishing for the little girls like me who long to be the dragon-riding princess, and for the little boys who never see themselves in the hero. Because all children deserve to see themselves in the books they read. 

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