Tiana, 8, hopes a book about her afro hair will inspire others to love themselves

An eight-year-old girl who wrote a book about her natural hair hopes others will be inspired to love who they are, amid calls for better black representation and more ‘identity-affirming’ characters in literature for children.

Tiana Akoh-Arrey, from south-east London, wrote her first book aged seven called My Afro: Twin Best Friends, which was published in December 2021 and is about her and her best friend who had the same type of hair as her, “whereas everyone has straight, silky or curly hair”.

Speaking during Black History Month, which takes place in October in the UK, Tiana told the PA news agency: ‘I wanted to show that people who have my hair type have challenges and sometimes struggle to love the texture of their hair as well as the whole struggle of making it look good.

Tiana Akoh-Arrey published her first book when she was seven (Dorothy Akoh-Arrey/PA)

During the first year, Tiana took part in a writing program called Mrs Wordsmith which gave her the confidence to start writing her own “little books”.

She entrusted her work to her mother Dorothy, 39, who contacted Conscious Dreams Publishing.

With the publisher’s help, the book has sold over 700 copies, which Tiana says “meant a lot to me,” and she plans to publish more.

“I had a lot of comments on social media and also little girls from all over the world showed pictures of my book saying they loved it and felt empowered to wear their afro hair to school, so it makes me really happy,” she added.

Although she was “surprised at first” that her book would be published, because of her age, Tiana said she wants other young girls to find the courage to “follow their passion”.

“Follow your passion and just use your imagination as something that can help you in life, because you never know where you can go in life, even if you are a child,” she said.

“Most importantly…love yourself and accept others – we are all unique.”

Woman looking at camera and holding books in her hands
Enomwoyi Damali said a book should be like a mirror (Enomwoyi Damali/PA)

Enomwoyi Damali, an educational psychologist and author who lives in Lewisham, south London, spoke to PA about the importance of having diverse characters in children’s books.

“A book should be like a mirror,” the 59-year-old said.

“When you hold a book, you should see something positive about you.

“Now, if day after day, week after week, and year after year, what you do is pick up books and see characters that don’t look like you, it will consciously or unconsciously affect your sense of well-being, your feeling identity and sense of what you think you can aspire to achieve.

“And so it’s really important that we have a positive portrayal in the books…so when you, as a young black girl, pick up a book and you see that mirror that’s thrown back at you as a young, black, positive character , it is an affirmation of you and your identity.

The author has published three children’s books so far, which she was inspired to write after the death of her 78-year-old father, Cornelius Yearwood.

books in the sand
Enomwoyi Damali’s children’s books have a central character who is young, female and black (Enomwoyi Damali/PA)

The books feature a young black woman central character called Nzingha and her diverse group of friends and explore themes such as friendship, kindness, identity and loss, with the author adding that she wanted to have a central character. who “looked like me in terms of their skin color and shared my cultural heritage”.

“The books I loved when I was growing up – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The Adventure Series – didn’t have any characters that looked like me or lived a life like me,” she said. declared.

“And I felt subconsciously as a kid that there was something wrong with that – it just didn’t sit well with me, so when it came to writing my books, I was determined to change that.”

She added that the “best” comments she has received about her book have come from children, with the “best of all” being from a girl who said Nzingha looked like her.

“You know, she’s never seen a book with a character with brown skin and dreadlocks, and the pleasure and pride on her face when she said that made me think, that’s what I wanted to achieve through my books,” she added. .

The journey to get his books published was not easy.

“I contacted about a dozen traditional publishers and either got no response or told them ‘that’s not what we’re looking for,'” she said.

“Although I felt a bit discouraged, I believed in the messages of my books and then I heard about Danni and Conscious Dreams Publishing through another published author’s launch, and found someone who also believed in my stories, and it was the start of a long and fruitful partnership, which is destined to continue with the publication of three more books by Nzingha.

Daniella Blechner, 42, from West Norwood, south London, founder of Conscious Dreams Publishing, said she initially helped budding authors as a ‘labor of love’ by ‘putting them in contacting publishers, composers and illustrators and mentoring them throughout the publishing process”, while working full time as a teacher.

woman wearing a red hat
Daniella Blechner said she first helped aspiring authors as a “labor of love” (Daniella Blechner/PA)

“I thought I loved mentorship and literature, so why not merge the two, and then Conscious Dreams Publishing was born,” Ms Blechner said of the 2016 launch.

“It wasn’t something I had consciously planned to do, but it was realizing that so many people weren’t being heard, their voices were being diluted, or their stories were being told in a way that didn’t wasn’t authentic, that I decided to create a platform for these untold stories and voices.

She added that the publishing industry is overwhelmingly “middle-class white men and women” with a lack of “bottom-up diversity”, and needs to change.

“While we wait for that change to happen, we’re here making our own change, but it’s not happening fast enough in consumer publishing,” she said.

“Even now, after the peak of black authors in 2020 after George Floyd and the campaigns to publish more black authors, that figure has now dropped by 23%, and in 2018 only 1% of main characters in fiction for children came from Bipoc (blacks, natives and people of color), which now only represents 7%.

“Reflecting the reality of the diverse society we live in is crucial for the benefit of our future generation; their stories matter. Representation matters.

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