Hair politics and diversity in fiction - why black girls need to see girls that look like them on book covers
When I was a little girl I could never find a book with a brown girl on the cover. Admittedly back then, I didn’t question it because I always assumed that this was the way it was supposed to be.
I had acclimated to a society whose white centric narrative made me believe that there was only one type of person that should represent the human race in every aspect of life. And history books don’t lie.
Black people have spent much of their lives fighting for their freedom, for space, for acknowledgment and for equal inclusion and representation. When I was offered the opportunity to read and review Mylo Freeman’s Princess Arabella series – books that feature a young black princess as the protagonist – I quickly fell in love with the books.
Not only does Mylo’s books put black girls at the forefront of her narrative but her stories are diverse and inclusive of everyone.
We sat down to chat to Mylo about being a writer and illustrator, diversity in literature and the joys of storytelling.
1. When did your love of illustrating and writing first start?
As a child I loved to sing and play the piano but after finishing the art academy I decided to pursue a career in illustrating. I made illustrations for magazines and such, but I really found my creative calling after the birth of my son David.
I started drawing pictures for him and decided to send them to a publisher. This resulted in my first picture book Potty! which was an instant success and that was it.
Because I make up the storylines, I prefer to write them myself also. It’s nice to be able to tell a story in your own words.
2. Which comes first – the story or the illustration?
It differs. Sometimes I have an image in my head that later translates into a story and sometimes there’s a subject I really love to write about. However I always start with drawing. Usually I design the cover first so I have a clearer image in my head as to how the book should look.
Then I continue to write the story. It doesn’t have to be finished in detail, but the outline of the story has to be there before I start illustrating. After that it’s sketching the whole book and then writing the story.
Usually I write for about an hour in the morning and after that I do my illustration work.
3. When did little Arabella’s voice first materialise for you?
It was when I heard a story a friend of mine who teaches drama to children. She told me a heartbreaking story.
It was about a little black girl called Jahkini who refused to play the role of a princess the teacher had planned for her.
When asked why she refused, Jahkini answered, ‘I can’t play a princess because they don’t exist. A real princess is white and has blond hair and blue eyes. I’m brown and my hair is nappy, I just don’t look like a princess…'
I was shocked to hear this story of course and my heart went out for Jahkini, but I was also shocked that I as a story teller, also had never thought of the image of a black princess.
Growing up as a mixed-race child with my white mother and grandmother in a time that there were also no black role models to be found - to me the image of a black princess had never entered my mind.
It was then and there I decided to make a book about a black princess!
I love the series, not because it’s so great for little black girls who don’t get to see themselves on the cover, but because I’ve seen narratives where people often imply that being pro-diversity or pro-black automatically means you’re anti-white. And your books, even as it celebrates little black girls are inclusive of everyone.
4. Is that a narrative you strive to lean into with every book you write and illustrate?
For me it’s essential that every child in the series is a prince or a princess. Arabella lives in an imaginary village where everyone is a royal. And her best friends are from every different ethnicities possible.
It will encourage children to feel empathy towards each other, no matter what race they are.
5. What has been the most rewarding part of the Princess Arabella series?
There have been so many rewards!
Black parents are writing and thanking me because they have finally found a book where their children can recognise themselves in.
Not only that, but a really big reward is also the fact that Princess Arabella is loved by all children, no matter what race they are.
She is a well known character now in schools and recognised as a princess. Well, except for that 4 year-old white girl who had doubts about princess Arabella being a real princess.
For her a real princess should wear a pink dress and not an orange one!
So, I’m hugely excited about the Princess Arabella series by Mylo Freeman. My aim in today’s post is not to talk about princess books in particular (because wanting princess books and wanting non-princess books are both totally fine - my focus is just on the precocious Princess Arabella today). I’m hugely in love with the diversity featured on these covers and in the books. Little black girls don’t often get to see themselves on covers like these, which is why I’m so thrilled that to be seeing these. Not only that, but these books are a celebration of diversity in all forms – and focuses on promoting and celebrating friendship across racial lines. Yay! I’ll be giving a closer sneak peek to show you some of the gorgeous illustrations featured in the books closer to release date, but for now, make sure you get these on your to read list for your little ones. Best thing about this is that the author will be in South Africa in September and I’ll be chatting to her about the importance of diversity in books for both young and young at heart – for both Parent24 and W24. Huge thanks to @panmacmillansakids @panmacmillansa for sending these beautiful reads. #books #bookstagram #princessarabella #mylofreeman #booksofinstragram #igreads #kidslit #bookblogger #sareaders #bookdragon #childrensfiction #booklover #bookaddict #diversityinfiction
In an article you wrote for the Guardian, one of the biggest things that struck me was that American publishers had issues with Arabella’s hair. It hit home because here in South Africa there’s been a lot of racism and policing of black girls’ hair.
Your series is wonderful in that it wholeheartedly celebrates black hair, but it’s clear that we still have a long way to go in order to combat the negative stereotyping about black hair.
6. The problem is that the onus always falls on women of colour to educate others about hair and identity, but how else do we combat this when it’s clear that this affects girls’ self-esteem from a very young age?
Developing self-esteem starts at a very young age. Aside from the love your parents give you, you also need to see yourself reflected in the world around you.
Even though I think every woman should have the liberty to choose her own hairstyle, it is essential that young girls should start out loving the hair they were born with and not mirror themselves after white beauty standards.
READ MORE: A history of misconceptions on black hair
7. What are some of your favourite books featuring diverse characters?
One of my favourite books is A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It was created in the sixties and as you can imagine very special, since in that period there were zero books with diversity to be found.
8. How do you think your books will help to create empathy in young readers – especially readers who don’t necessarily identify with Princess Arabella?
When children from a different ethnic and diverse backgrounds learn to identify with each other at a very young age in books, the only thing that matters is the story it tells.
It will become a story of ‘us’ instead of 'them.'
9. What adventures lie in store for Princess Arabella? Are you working on anything new in the series?
At the moment I’m about to start at the princess Arabella book number 12.It will be about princess Arabella going to the royal hairdresser!
She will try out many hairdo’s but will eventually decide she likes her own hair the best.
Also I’m working with a company on developing an app with Arabella games and such. It’s really exciting stuff to see how she translates to the digital world.
10. Finally, what advice do you have for budding illustrators who want to illustrate children’s books?
First of all make sure you draw every day! The more you draw, the better you will become. It’s a profession (yes, it is!) where you can grow and develop all your life.
I consider it a gift to be able to explore my imagination every day and making a living out of that!