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Zetta Elliott is bringing diversity to childrens' books

WRITER: Zetta Elliott CREDIT: Valerie Caesar

Q: How did you develop the concept for this book?

A: In 2010 I wrote an essay called “Decolonizing the Imagination,” in which I reflected on my childhood fascination with British fantasy fiction even though Black children rarely ever made an appearance. Books by E. Nesbit and C.S. Lewis made a lasting impression on me, and it was painful to revisit those books as an adult and find so much bias.

I wrote several historical fantasy novels as a way of “talking back” to the books that erased me as a child and when I saw a photograph of Sarah Forbes Bonetta on Facebook, I decided to write a novel about her. I loved stories about princesses, knights, and castles when I was a child, but the characters in those narratives never looked like me. When I found out that Prince Alemayehu was also a ward of Queen Victoria, I decided to place the two of them together at Windsor Castle. I wanted to write a book that allowed kids to engage with, rather than escape from, the lasting effects of British imperialism.

Q: How did you get into writing, and what is it about children's books specifically that draws you in?

A: I was the baby in my family and so I didn’t have an audience at home; I used to tag along after my siblings but I also spent a lot of time alone, inside my head. I started telling stories to friends at school, and there were always opportunities to write in English class. When my 9th grade English teacher told me I could be a writer just by deciding and dedicating myself to writing every day, I was sold!

The Ghosts in the Castle

Q: It's pretty rare to see black characters represented in children's books. How do you think we can further our representation in the literary world?

A: That depends on how you perceive the “world” of literature! I’m an advocate of community-based publishing—organic writing that originates within the community and is produced by cultural insiders. I don’t need the approval of industry insiders who are too often not from my community and demonstrate limited competency when it comes to my culture(s). Everyone has a story to tell, and so I encourage storytellers to consider ALL of their options.

I don’t think we can afford to wait for the traditional publishing industry to “act right.” There’s so little diversity in the publishing workforce and until WE become the gatekeepers, progress will be minimal. If you already have a manuscript, give yourself a timeline—six months to find an agent, one year for him/her to sell it to a publisher. If that deadline expires and nothing has happened, consider using a POD site (I use CreateSpace) to publish your book yourself. It doesn’t take long and you don’t need a lot of money upfront because you only pay for the books you print.

Q: What was one of the highlights and one of the challenges of working on this particular book?

A: The highlight was definitely coming to London twice and touring Windsor Castle. I don’t really take vacations—most of my travel involves research—but since I get to direct that research, it can still be fun.

The challenge, of course, is that most of the novel was NOT written in the UK and writing from a distance is challenging. You can’t take photos inside Windsor Castle and despite my notes, I often had to rely on internet resources. I was also very aware of the fact that I was writing as a cultural outsider, and that causes some anxiety.

Q: What would you like children to take away from reading this book?

A: My goal is always to empower rather than to embitter youth. At the same time, I want them to think about ethics, and I find that kids have a keen sense of justice. The past can’t be undone, but the characters in Ghosts find a way to “liberate” an African child by reminding him of his cultural heritage. I hope children think about what it means to belong; I hope they ask the elders in their families and communities to share their origin stories. I hope children—especially kids of colour—understand that magic can happen to anyone, anywhere! It’s time to look beyond wands and wizards…

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