“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,”Tony Morrison
So many amazing Black women are currently smashing the concrete ceiling right now and navigating historically hard to reach sectors. Area’s that are notoriously white and elite & who have not held space for Black or Ethnically Diverse women.
One woman whose passion, skill and courage has enabled her to do just this is Cabbi Charles. I pass her almost every day in the school playground. We say hello, ask ‘how are you?’, share a joke or two in passing, but unbeknown to me she is a hidden talent.
A local trailblazer, a changemaker.
Cabbi is a writer and illustrator of children’s books. But her story is special as she has ultimately & boldly found her way around the systemic barriers to Black women (children’s books) authors in the very nuanced and complicated world of publishing.
Not only did she self-publish but she wrote ‘My great granny was a super hero’ during the pandemic lockdown, whilst suffering the grief of losing her mother in St Lucia and the trauma of not being able to say goodbye at her funeral.
‘Trevon and Nina love ice cream’ is her second book following her debut ‘My Great Granny was a Superhero’. Having grown up in a multicultural and diverse community, Cabbi writes and illustrates characters inspired by the communities in which she still lives. After teaching for many years, writing and publishing is a new and exciting venture which gives Cabbi the freedom to tell unique stories in her own voice and style.
I ask her what inspired her, how she achieved her goals, why her message is so important and what it means to be Black and British in 2021.
Read below for the full interview.
What is the book ‘My great granny was a super hero’ about and what inspired you to write it?
The book is about Kemi and her great granny who is a superhero in ways people may not realise. Great Granny Addo is part of the Windrush generation, like me and my friends’ mums who immigrated to the UK between the 1940s to 1970s. I wanted to tell a story of these young women who arrived in the UK and some of the things I know they experienced in the 70s and 80s. Also, I love to draw and being able to illustrate this book using my memories was a big motivation. My favourite page is of Great Granny Addo as a baby floating in a wooden house which was actually my own granny’s house back in the West Indies.
How & why is it important to you to get your message across?
There is a Toni Morrison quote which kick started me into thinking about writing My Great Granny was a Superhero. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,”. As a parent it is important to me that children’s books feature Black and brown protagonists which I was not seeing ten years ago. As I researched, I realised that I also wanted to tell more unique stories that reflected the diverse communities where I grew up and still live today. Thankfully things are changing, and we are seeing more books with diverse characters on covers but I also want to bring an authentic voice within my books and illustrations.
Does the story relate to you? Is she the real Granny Ado?
Granny Addo is inspired by my own mum who passed away during the first lockdown. I wanted to tell some of her story to my daughter as I felt the journey of the Windrush women needed to be told. There is no way I could tell everyone’s immigration story, but I hope I captured the pioneering spirit it took to leave their place of birth to make a life in UK. It really does take superhero strength!
Did face any issues when considering using a publishing house (e.g. editing example, white female elite particularly in regard to children’s books)?
I started following illustrators, agents and publishers a few years ago and couldn’t see where I fit in as it was not diverse at all. It was rare to see Black children in books and certainly not as the main character. After the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) report in 2018 highlighted the lack of representation in children’s books I started to see illustrators adding Black children on Instagram, then publishers talking about diversifying the industry increased after the murder of George Floyd. I can see there are more Black illustrators, children’s book authors getting picked up by big publishers, and hope it continues. I am looking forward to children’s book publishing becoming more diverse with Black agents, editors etc if the industry is striving to be truly inclusive. I see myself self-publishing for the foreseeable future. After working in similar spaces where I would be the only Black woman, dealing with microaggressions/gaslighting, I now prioritise my wellbeing.
Where/how did you get it published?
I started by assuming I needed an agent and a publisher to be an author. Then I did a self-publishing short course at London’s City Lit College, and I immediately felt this was the route for me. It is hard work and a steep learning curve but so rewarding when I finally finished and uploading my book. There are various ways to self-publish but I opted for Amazon direct. It’s also free. There is other print on demand platforms like Ingram Sparks and of course you can publish with both. There are also publishing companies which will charge fees to edit, proof, print and distribute your book. The big traditional publishers like Penguin, don’t charge you fees but take a percentage of your book profit and rights. Of course, the big advantage is they give you access to a bigger market, higher quality production and wider distribution. There are many newer small indie publishers who also don’t charge fees, but you will need to research each publisher as they will either have a commercial or niche remit and your book will need to fit their criteria to get taken on. Whichever route you take the story is always key.
Do you have any advice to other Black Authors who want to publish?
Don’t focus on writing just one book and pursuing one route to publishing. Many traditionally published authors have self-published and some return to it. It’s a big learning curve but there is lots of online support as so many people are doing it and making an income, it’s worth looking at which genres sell best. Keep writing, find courses, join a crit group, find a crit partner, and share your work, it’s the only way you will improve. Not all your family and friends will take you seriously or be actively supportive but don’t let that put you off. I feel sometimes it’s hard for us to see ourselves as authors because we have not been seeing it in the mainstream media and bookshelves for so long even though Black authors have always been here which is all the more reason to preserve and change it for our children.
What does it mean to you to be Black British? What is your heritage?
The best thing my parents did for me was when I was 9 years old, I spend the summer with my extended family in St Lucia. Back then to see Black police, shop owners, teachers, basically a whole island of Black people doing jobs I didn’t see them doing in UK told me that I was more than what the history lessons in school or shows on tv depicted at that time which were mainly racist. I very proud to be a St Lucian, west Indian of African descent, south London Brit.
What would this story/characters look like in five years’ time OR if we had real equity for Black and Ethnically diverse individuals?
If I was to write this book five year from now, I feel it would be exactly the same as it’s based on truth and facts. Our history needs to be recorded for us by us. As a character Kemi will always carry her great granny’s legacy by becoming a vocal advocate for herself and community and being proud of who she is as a Black girl.
What age group is the book for?
With traditional publishing, children’s books need to be aimed at an age group in terms of marketing but since I’ve chosen to self-publish, it is something I’ve been able to be more flexible with. Although My Great Granny is a Superhero is a picture book, the topic would suit up to 10-year-old as I wanted this book to appeal to reluctant readers who may struggle to move onto chapter books for a variety of reasons but still need a content which leads to discussion and links to extended learning. I am currently writing a book series specifically for younger children (2-6) but again I do add images that appeal to older children where reading is a struggle who with support can develop a richer vocabulary around the images.
More books! I am currently working on My Great Grand-dad was a Super Hero for next year as well as a series about siblings Trevon and Nina the first of which was recently published. With Trevon and Nina Love Ice Cream. I want to weave in tales of children with special needs, especially hidden disabilities, into one of the characters without it being the focus of the story.
I want to keep getting better with each book, find my readership and inspire people with a story to tell, to start writing and get publishing. Gatekeepers come in all guises and it’s important to not let them stop you. You don’t need a large following or contacts to just get started and share your work, it’s still of value even if it’s just your family and friends who to read it, it will be worth it.
Title: My Great Granny was a Superhero
Author/illustrator: Cabbi Charles
Book summary: Little Kemi’s great granny was a real-life superhero. Kemi learns how Granny Addo arrived in 1960s and made a new life in the UK. The reader has opportunities to explore their thoughts and feelings as well as our modern history. The illustrations are from the author’s childhood memories and oral stories. This book celebrates the Windrush generation and all who have immigration as part of their family and cultural history.
Title: Trevon and Nina love ice cream
Author/illustrator: Cabbi Charles
Book summary: Trevon and Nina (his unique but annoying sister) written and illustrated by Cabbi Charles; author of My Great Granny was a Super hero.
Trevon does not like his green vegetables but he is willing to eat them so everyone can get to eat their favourite dessert. Ice Cream! Nina sees her green vegetables very differently including an imagined world of dancing broccoli who are just too good to eat. Trevon is not at all happy with Nina. Maybe no one will have dessert!
This is the first in a series of books about Trevon and his little sister Nina who is not your typical child and sees the world in a different way.
Website: https: zuribooks.com
Books available on Amazon and noordinarybookshop.co.uk