Ruth Awolola on why it’s important for young people to read work from people they can identify with
Ten years ago, I remember it being World Book Day. This was the highlight of my academic year for several reasons: the book fair came to the school; we didn’t have maths lessons; and we were encouraged to go into school dressed as our favourite book characters. My brother however, who preferred running to reading, was not as enthused about the event. Two years earlier, before I joined the school, he had chosen to go as Kipper from the Biff, Chip and Kipper series. He returned home feeling defeated that day as a teaching assistant had told him he didn’t look like Kipper because Kipper wasn’t black. Every year after this he wore his latest football kit to school and cited he was a character from a book about sport that I knew he had never read. I was angry at him for not putting in any effort, sure that if he had read enough he would have found a character that looked like him. It wasn’t until I was eight years old and, despite having spent all my free time reading, couldn’t think of a black character I liked enough to dress up as, that I realised my brother wasn’t the problem.
I still struggle to think of many books with black protagonists and I assumed this was because there weren’t enough black writers. This played a role in why I initially found it so hard to start identifying myself as a poet. So few of the writers I was being encouraged to read or that we studied in class looked like me and so I developed a complex that I could not be one. It wasn’t until I was welcomed to the poetry community that I saw how diverse it really was and I met poets from all around the world. I found poetry that addressed issues I related to and I started to connect to writing more than I ever had before. I couldn’t help thinking, why couldn’t I have found this sooner?
I was, therefore, so excited to feature in Rising Stars: New Young Voices in Poetry a collection for young people. The poems aren’t all related to being from minority backgrounds – they cover a range of different topics and themes, from love to big cities, with each poet beautifully implementing their own style. It is so important that young people get to read work from people they can identify with, whether that be writers that look like, sound like or have shared similar experiences to them.
This World Book Day, I’d go as the narrator from Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s poem ‘Afro Hair Haiku’, which features in the book. I remember when I was younger struggling to accept that my hair was different to all my friends. Reading a poem that not only acknowledges this but celebrates it was so impactful for me now and I can’t imagine how much it would have encouraged my younger self.
I was initially daunted about writing for a younger audience as I hadn’t really written to a brief before. The best advice I received, which applies to all writing, is to write about what concerns you. There’s no use trying to produce something that relates to people if it doesn’t relate to you. I had to remember that the person I was five years ago was still me, with similar interests and concerns. The children’s books I enjoyed reading the most when I was younger, I still enjoy now. Following a conversation, with some of the young people I tutor about immigration, I wrote the poem featured below ‘Mainly About Aliens’, which appears in the book.
Mainly About Aliens
I’m looking up into the sky
And I am thinking, how can it be this big?
Why is there so much of it?
How do we all fit?
I am thinking all these things
But I am mainly thinking about aliens.
Wondering whether there is someone or something
Doing the same.
Hoping or knowing there is life out there.
I wonder if we’d welcome the aliens,
Respect their alien ways,
Watch when they show us new colours,
Listen when they talk about their part of the sky.
I wonder if they’ll say, “We come in peace,”
If they’ll even have a word for peace on their planet.
Maybe they don’t have guns
Or maybe they are running away from it.
I’m looking up into the sky
And I’m thinking, why is it so big?
How there can be so much of it?
If we can all fit?
Thinking about how we treat each other,
Thinking about how we’d treat aliens,
Thinking mainly about aliens.
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