When Aimée Felone and David Stevens opened their pop-up children’s bookshop in Brixton in October, featuring only books with black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) protagonists, they had one reaction they weren’t prepared for: a customer burst into tears. “I went and asked her if she was OK,” says Stevens. “She said she’d never seen anything quite like it, she’d picked up six books in a row and they all had brown faces on. All I could say was, ‘I’m sorry it took so long.’”
Felone and Stevens, who have just launched a crowdfunding campaignto open a handful of inclusive pop-up bookshops around the UK and Ireland, aren’t usually in the retail business: they’re independent publishers. They decided to open their #ReadTheOnePercent shop in response to a damning report from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), which found that of more than 9,000 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, just 1% had a BAME main character.
Knights Of, the independent publisher Felone and Stevens left Scholastic to found, sets out to publish books that open “windows into as many worlds as possible”. Felone says: “It was necessary and it was needed. If not us, then who?”
The CLPE report prompted the pair to celebrate Knights Of’s first birthday with the pop-up in Brixton, south London. They put £2,000 into it, repainted the shop inside and out, and had people “knocking on the window to get in before we had unpacked any books”. They sold out of their stock in two days and had to reorder.
The #ReadTheOnePercent shop has now reopened until 23 December. Felone and Stevens are now attempting to raise £30,000 to hire a bookseller to run a permanent shop in Brixton, and open #ReadTheOnePercent pop-up stores “in as many cities as possible”. They have already received invitations to spaces in Liverpool, Birmingham and Edinburgh, as they search for more opportunities around the UK and Ireland.
“We’re using independent bookshops as the source, so it’s not just us going to communities saying, ‘Hey, books are great,’ and leaving. We’ll run partnerships with independent bookshops, liaise with them so there’s a lasting relationship once we’ve gone,” says Stevens.
On this cold December morning, the Brixton shop – run in partnership with local children’s bookshop Tales on Moon Lane – is ready for business. Just around the corner from the underground, on Coldharbour Lane, it’s nestled between newsagents and cafes, the sun pouring through huge glass windows on to tables piled high with books. There are heaps of Malorie Blackmans (“I think we’ve got everything she’s ever written,” says Felone), Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and Alesha Dixon’s Lightning Girl. There is Knights Of’s own Knights and Bikes, an adventure series featuring two girls on an island, piles of board books – Sophy Henn’s Playtime with Ted teeters on top – and plenty of picture books. The glaring difference to other bookshops is that hardly any of the faces emblazoned on these brightly coloured titles are white.
“We’ve had a lot of kids coming in saying, ‘Mum this is me, this is me!’ Every one of those moments was affirmation of why we’re doing this. Inclusion matters,” says Felone. “The fact that only 1% of children’s books have a BAME protagonist is disastrous and shocking. It’s mad.”
According to the CLPE report, just 4% – 391 – of the 9,115 books published in 2017 featured any BAME characters, compared with the 32.1% of schoolchildren of minority ethnic origins. “If in their formative years, children do not see their realities reflected in the world around them or only see problematic representations mirrored back at them, the impact can be tremendously damaging,” the report warned, telling publishers that “to redress imbalances in representation is not an act of charity but an act of necessity that benefits and enriches all of our realities”.
Felone says the success of the October pop-up showed that demand for diverse children’s books is there. “We proved it was commercially viable. We sold over 500 books in five days, to local people and to people who came along specifically. All without being booksellers,” she said. “The response to it from Brixton was amazing. We had lots of people coming in who didn’t know who we were, but we’d explain and they’d say it was exactly what Brixton needs.”
The current version of the shop stocks books that are “more representative of class, gender and disability, less race-specific,” says Stevens. “The first time round it was just to make noise about the report, this time it is inclusion across culture.” It’s still, he admits, hard to find a wide range of titles to stock, and they have delved into backlists, into the stock of tiny publishers and even into self-published books.
A week into their crowdfunding campaign, to which all profits from the December pop-up are going, they’ve raised more than £8,000. Felone says they are quietly hopeful that they’ll make their goal of £30,000. “Looking forward to bringing our girls to a store where they can easily find themselves in the books being offered,” writes one supporter. “As a disabled child, I was desperate to see myself represented but all the books I brought home were medical … Thank you and good luck,” says another.
“We’re not looking for massive chunks,” says Stevens. “It’s coming in from lots of people, which proves it works, rather than one person writing a big cheque.”