Books play a powerful role in shaping our ideas about the world and ourselves – particularly when we encounter them at a young age. Which is why its so important students have access to a diverse range of writing.
By now, you might have heard about Lit in Colour, a campaign from Penguin and race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust which aims to help schools diversify the teaching of English literature in the UK, and help young people connect with more books by writers of colour.
As part of Lit in Colour, we've asked a host of Penguin authors to look back on their own school days and pick a book they wish they’d been assigned as a young student, from established literary stars like Bernardine Evaristo and Diana Evans to new authors like Natasha Brown and Yomi Sode.
Bernardine Evaristo: ‘I think a lot of young people would find it really interesting’
If I was to choose one book to put on the school curriculum, it would be Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga. It’s a history of Black Britain, and it’s an amazing book that’s fascinatingly told. I think a lot of young people would find it really interesting.
Derek Owusu: ‘It allowed me to intimately relate to a culture that wasn’t mine’
Rashmi Sirdeshpande: ‘I didn’t study voices like these at school’
SLAM! You're Gonna Wanna Hear This is a powerful anthology of poems from a richly diverse range of spoken word poets. Collected by Nikita Gill (my absolute favourite), these poems explore place, culture, identity, language and more in a collection that is vibrant, thought-provoking, and just so real. The way we studied poetry at school made it feel inaccessible, elite. Something for Other People.
This collection turns that idea on its head. I didn’t study voices like these at school. I didn’t know they existed. I didn’t know what was possible. If I had come across this book back then, it would have blown my mind. It would have said to me and to so many other young people: Your voice matters. You can write, you can make art, and you can do it your way.
Emma Smith-Barton: ‘It was the first time I saw myself reflected in literature’
The book I wish I’d read in school is Anita and Me, by Meera Syal. It’s the book that changed me, both as a reader and a writer. I’d always loved reading; I love escaping into fictional worlds and making sense of the world through story. And I started writing when I was 11 for those very same reasons.
When I read Anita and Me, many years later, it was the first time I saw myself reflected in literature: a brown-skinned girl straddling two worlds that she fiercely loved, afraid that one world might cancel out the other; a girl who spoke two languages, wore different clothes inside and outside home, and ate both curry and fishfingers. Seeing myself reflected made me realise my story mattered. It made me realise that I matter. And as a writer, it showed me that I could tell my story; write from my view of the world. It changed my journey as a writer. It changed me.
Avni Doshi: ‘The ideas and the feelings are extremely complex’
One book I would love to see on a curriculum would be Akhil Sharma’s novel, Family Life. The reason I think it’s a brilliant novel for all students to read is that it tells the story of a family from India living in the US in plain, simple language, but the ideas and the feelings are extremely complex. There’s a lot of depth that he’s able to achieve using very simple prose.
Natasha Brown: ‘A masterclass in using language to convey an intangible experience’
Diana Evans: ‘Any writer of any level can learn something from him’
Things Fall Apart might be the most well-known of Chinua Achebe's African Trilogy, but it also includes the subsequent novels No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God. I would have relished and hugely benefitted from being introduced to Achebe's work as a secondary school student. His writing is so masterful and striking in its poetic reach, its idiosyncrasy of phrasing and tender, yet dramatic treatment of character, setting, narration. Any writer of any level can learn something from him.
The story of the insidiousness and irreversible impact of the colonial project and Christianity on the six Nigerian villages of Umuaro is timelessly relevant, shedding light on our modernity in relation to identity, race, nation and faith. Published in the mid-20th Century and set during the period of the 1890s to the 1920s, this is a trilogy to be treasured and remembered – storytelling at its best.
Yomi Sode: ‘The process of learning would be on my own terms’
Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is a book I would have chomped all the way through in secondary school.
I know this because I remember the landscape I was in at the time. Aside from the literature being very white, I was also learning a lot about other cultures and feeling very lost in relation to my own. Asking my aunties or uncles ‘Do you have any book recommendations?’ could land you in a loving 30-45 minute lecture on why reading is important, without a single book actually being mentioned.
Children of Blood and Bone explores magic, colourism, oppression, and tradition, amongst various other themes. Digging deeper into themes like tradition and oppression would have led me to orishas/colonialism. I would have read a book and not felt like I was being spoken down to. The process of learning would be on my own terms.
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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin