Reflecting a Diverse Reality in Children’s Books: New African Literature Partnership

In News by Hannah Johnson

Wanting to see more African characters in children’s books—both in Africa and internationally—publishers Sarah Odedina and Deborah Ahenkorah have formed a new partnership.

Sarah Odedina (left) and Deborah Ahenkorah are working together to build international recognition for African children’s book authors

By Hannah Johnson | @hannahsjohnson

Bringing African Authors to a Worldwide Audience
As conversations about children’s and young adult books are underway at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this week, a cross-continental publishing duo has launched a cooperation to mentor African children’s book authors and publish their books in the US, UK and across the African continent.

Sarah Odedina, an editor-at-large for Pushkin Children’s Books in the UK, and Deborah Ahenkorah, founder of Golden Baobab and publisher at African Bureau Stories in Ghana, first met at a conference in Singapore, and then again at the 2018 Pa Gya! literary festival in Accra.

During that second meeting, the two realized they shared a similar ambition to get more African writers published and recognized internationally, Odedina told Publishing Perspectives.

“Our meeting, which was scheduled for an hour, went on all day,” said Odedina. “We hatched the plan to work together on bringing African writers for young readers to a worldwide audience and we haven’t stopped since.

“Our mission,” she said, “is to reach as many writers working in the field of children’s literature on the [African] continent as possible and to find ways of helping some of those writers find worldwide publication.”

Both Ahenkorah and Odedina have impressive backgrounds in the book world.

Dismayed by a lack of black characters in books available to African children, Ahenkorah founded her literary nonprofit organization Golden Baobab in 2008 with the goal of supporting African writers and increasing the number of African books on the market.

To complement the work of Golden Baobab, Ahenkorah launched her publishing company, African Bureau Stories, in 2015, publishing African authors exclusively.

Odedina’s long career in children’s book publishing includes stints at Penguin Books and Orchard Books. She was the publisher at Bloomsbury Children’s for 14 years, during which time she worked on each of the Harry Potter books. She also helped launch Hot Key Books and now works on Pushkin Press’s children’s book program.

Plans for the Cooperation

Along the lines of the kind of author mentorship that Ahenkorah already provides through the Golden Baobab Prize, this new venture aims to identify and publish African writers from across the continent.

“We are discovering authors from Africa, providing mentorship, and then publishing their work,” Ahenkorah told Publishing Perspectives. “We put in the work to make sure that the books have a global reach but also a very African reach.”

Ahenkorah’s children’s book publishing company, African Bureau Stories, will publish the selected titles in the African market.

Through Odedina, Pushkin Press plans to publish some of the titles in the UK, and the pair is also reaching out to their network of industry contacts to find additional US and UK publishers for their chosen African titles.

Outreach plans, said Odedina, include meetings at book fairs, “talking with publisher friends, and all the usual ways of helping find co-publishers for the books. We will possibly appoint a sub-agent in the USA to represent the titles to American publishers and possibly the same in the UK. The main thing will to be to find all the authors we work with the right home.”

The Demand for Diverse Books

In recent years, the UK publishing industry, in particular, has made a broad and public effort to embrace diversity, both in terms of the books published and hiring decisions. Similar changes are taking place in other book markets as well.

“The demand is too loud now and too viable to be ignored, and the industry is responding.”Deborah Ahenkorah

But why now? What’s behind this recent rise in diversity-oriented publishing?

Ahenkorah attributes this recent realization of the importance of diversity to technology and online communication.

“The Golden Baobab Prize was started 10 years ago when Internet access was just penetrating the African continent,” she said. “We designed the prize to function completely online: receiving submissions, jury meetings, and even announcing winners of the prize. It was the only way we could be a truly pan-African prize, given that we were run by a small team.

“At the time we started,” said Ahenkorah, “there was no real conversation about diverse books happening anywhere. Then it started online … parents, readers, librarians, and book lovers who have for a very long time not understood why there were not enough diverse books, could talk to each other, organize, advocate, talk loudly; and all of that is what has crescendoed into the response we now see from mainstream publishing.

“The demand is too loud now and too viable to be ignored, and the industry is responding. We live in a capitalist world, and the easiest way to move the cursor of supply is with demand. It’s almost as if technology came and fueled demand for diverse books, which always existed but was latent.”

Odedina, looking back on her career, recalled a time when publishing wasn’t responsive to diverse stories or characters: “I remember two conversations very vividly. One when I was told by a salesperson that ‘books with black people on the covers don’t sell,’ and another by a publisher who said that she didn’t publish books with black children in them because ‘she didn’t get those kinds of texts.’”

“Both comments,” Odedina said, “indicated a total lack of respect and understanding of the audience that existed and exist for books with diverse characters. Fortunately (hopefully) those conversations are less likely to be had today because the audience is there and is demanding that books are available for them and their families. “And publishers can see the commercial reality reflected back at them.”

African Stories for All Readers

Despite the rising desire for stories told by diverse authors, Ahenkorah and Odedina believe there is still a lot of work to be done to meet that demand.

“I have read world literature for as long as I can remember because I want to read about the world.”Sarah Odedina

Ahenkorah said she feels “a deep frustration and disappointment with the fact that children are not being given windows into the world as it really looks. Without diverse books, what we are telling children is, ‘Hey look, the world looks only like the people you read about.’”

A few of the African authors the pair has on their radar right now include Ruby Goka, “who writes fabulous books for teens and young adults,” said Odedina; Dela Avemega, writer and illustrator of books for preschool children about life in Accra; and Bontle Senne, South African author of middle-grade books “the world should watch out for,” said Ahenkorah.

Odedina added, “I have read world literature for as long as I can remember because I want to read about the world. African writers from Buchi Emecheta, Amos Tutuola, Ama Ata Aidoo and Ousmane Sembene as well as more contemporary voices like Ayesha Harruna Attah, Ayobami Adebayo and Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi are a fantastic part of our global literary culture.

“But there aren’t enough voices in that canon for children to enjoy. That’s what ww’d like to work on to change.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on diversity in publishing is here and on Africa is here. More on the ongoing Bologna Children’s Book Fair this week is here.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.