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Changing the landscape of black literature

CHALLENGING PERCEPTIONS: Angela Simpeh

WHEN EMPLOYMENT lawyer turned author, Angela Simpeh, struggled to find the children’s books she wanted for her daughter she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Subsequently ‘Adventures of Sky’ was born, a series of books told from the perspective of Sky, an inquisitive young black girl who loves stories.

Angela Simpeh speaks to The Voice about law, creating mirrors and the importance of writing our own narratives.

How did you get back into writing?

A couple of years ago my cousin introduced me to a book called “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron which is about reconnecting to your creativity. That was a life changing book for me because it freed my creativity and got me writing again.

How do law & writing literature differ and how, if at all, are they similar?

Law is about understanding the system of rules that govern a particular country so it has an inherent structure. For me writing allows me to be much more fluid and creative. I appreciate having both law and writing in my life as it’s given me space to express different parts of me.
Describe the journey behind putting together ‘My Curly Hair’ (2016), the first book in the ‘Adventures of Sky’ series?

I wrote ‘My Curly Hair’ around the same time that the Disney movie ‘Frozen’ was at the height of its popularity and I remember my 4-year-old daughter saying that she wanted hair like princess Elsa. To which I said, ‘her hair is beautiful, soft and curly like clouds and candy floss’. She liked the idea but was not completely convinced. The lawyer in me started thinking “if I could present her with further evidence it would bring her around to my way of thinking” and that was the inspiration behind my first book.

This book explores issues of heritage and identity. What can black families, in particular, do to instil a greater sense of cultural pride, identity and awareness in children?

I think it’s important to know our personal family histories as well as our collective history. When my daughter was born I was really keen to capture our personal family history. So I started putting together a family tree.

I also sat down with my grandfather and asked him to talk me through his life from when he was a boy to now and wrote it up as an autobiography. It was a really magical experience and I know he enjoyed talking to me as much as I enjoyed listening. Through that experience I learnt so much about him and our family that I didn’t know. It also gave me a much stronger connection to him and though that a stronger sense of identity.

‘Blast Off’ is the second book in the series which introduces the theme of discovery and infinite possibility as Sky and her brother explore space. Both books have been well received by children and adults alike. “Blast Off!” sold out days after its release. How did that feel; was that expected?

I was really pleased by the response to “Blast Off!” There are very few children’s books that centre black boys. I think that in itself speaks volumes about the need for more representation in children’s literature. So I knew I wanted my second book to introduce Sky’s brother, Ocean.

With Ocean I wanted to go against some of the stereotypes that are associated with young black boys. For example, so often you hear about young black boys wanting to get into sports and music and there is nothing wrong with that but I think if that’s all young people are exposed to it narrows their imaginations.

I wanted to depict a different narrative and it started with his name. I just loved the idea of him being called Ocean and the association with water and nature. I also wanted to show his curiosity and that was where the idea of him wanting to be an astronaut so he can discover new planets came from.

Why do you think that children's literature in the UK lacks diversity?

I think the publishing industry moves slowly and isn’t always reflective of the diversity in society or buying trends. I think there is definitely a market for greater diversity in children’s literature. I believe all children benefit from seeing a diversity of characters in the books they read.

We can see a shift happening in TV and film with more diverse voices reaching a mainstream audience. I think that the publishing industry will follow suit.

How can this be addressed?

It’s really important to write and tell our own narratives. Everyone has a story. Since I started writing children’s books so many people have approached me and said ‘I have an idea for a children’s story but I have never written it’ and I always encourage them to get it down on paper and get it out into the world.

One of the benefits of the technology age we are living in is that there are so many different ways and platforms to find and connect with your audience.

What is your motivation for writing children’s books?

First of all, I want every book I write to teach children something, so with ‘My Curly Hair’ they learn about Africa and part of the history of cornrows and with Blast Off! they learn about our solar system. The books are aimed at children between 4 – 8 years old so they explore these ideas at an introductory level but my hope is that the books act as a spring board for further conversations on these topics.

Secondly, I want the books to expand children’s imaginations. I think children have the most amazing imaginations and it’s something that should be developed rather than stifled. I think part of that is having children’s books with a diversity of characters and books which introduce them to new ideas.

Children are like sponges the way they absorb information and I think introducing them to books that expand their imagination in positive ways can be quite a revolutionary act.

Angela is currently working on the third book in the ‘Adventures of Sky’ series, about a deep sea adventure.

‘My Curly Hair’ and ‘Blast Off!’ are available to buy online

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