I Write Children’s Books Feat. Diverse Characters So Girls Of Color Feel Represented In What They Read

By Avril O’Reilly

For a very long time I have been working on a book project that I didn’t think anyone would want. I felt that my books had a fundamental flaw. They were books about black children written by a White Irish woman. The idea started in 1991 in London. That was a time when the “brain drain” out of Ireland was was at one of its many peaks.

As a young woman arriving in London I didn’t give much thought to the whys and wherefores. London was an opportunity and I was lucky enough to be able to grab it.

I was lucky because my aunt had helped me pay to do a course in advertising and I landed a series of enviable jobs in three of the top agencies at the time. The trend then was for head-hunting and job-hopping and no particular loyalty to the generous providers of well-paid jobs. Ah well, I was young. Unfortunately the disloyalty went both ways and after three hectic years I was let go. My confidence was shattered and I knew I never wanted to return to the industry.

I hoped that my love of photography might lead me somewhere. A gallery in Brixton was putting together a group to create positive images of Brixton. I took black Barbie dolls to local hair salons and photographed the results. The photos were kindly received and my career took me to newspapers where I happily stayed, glad not to be living the stressful life of a freelance photographer. I was able to commission photographers to take travel pictures for me.

As my career got back to life I remained eternally grateful to the people who responded well to my photos. Throughout my career as a Travel Photo Editor on a national newspaper I was constantly working on my “Fairy in the Family” books.

I wanted to make my books for the kids in Brixton who I felt did not have any books with girls on the cover who looked like them. As an Irish child in the 70s I understood what it felt like when all the girls in books were ‘not like me’. The girls in my books were white, yes, but not white Irish. They were British like our wealthier next door neighbor. And yes, there were black girls in books, but they were mostly American or Africans in faraway Africa. Identity is not just color but place too. The Brixton children deserved a London heroine and Bekki the Fairy star of A Fairy in the Family is a perfect urban girl.

The first book tells a silly story about a little black girl who is the only fairy in a family of normal people. She realizes one day that her fairy costume is a mess and she visits the Head Fairy to investigate this injustice. The Head Fairy encourages her to “Remember, remember, cast your mind back” to the naughty spells she did that affected her costume. The story is told in lavish studio photos with all the models in costume with make-up and hair done.

The sequel has mum and dad going on a romantic date. They struggle to find a baby-sitter as Bekki has developed a reputation for doing embarrassing spells on the baby-sitters. Geeky Mikita turns up but she is very boring as she just wants to study physics. All the role models are positive but that doesn’t stop Bekki having a giggle at their expense.

The books took years to produce. A team of people was drafted in to help as over the years. Co-workers modeled and professional models were found. A neighbor’s son with a winning smile volunteered. I was able to afford one shoot, then there would be a pause, then another shoot. The experience was great fun. It was a labor of love and even though books don’t often make money I had a job so I didn’t worry. I had no clue about marketing. I was glad to donate my book to schools, libraries and charities. Not worried.

At least not until I was bullied out of my beloved job. In this case my years of loyalty to a company was met with brutality during a takeover by new owners.

Times were hard for newspapers and I fought for years to keep paying my mortgage – hopping from one period of maternity cover to another and surviving on short contracts and freelance shifts. I had been right about the freelance life – not for me.

Eventually I had to sell up my flat and move back to Ireland.  I left with my clutter of many years and hard drives full of beautiful photos to make another book.

I carried on making my books even though my spirit was slightly battered. I had begun wondering who would ever want a book for black children written by a white woman. All the lists of must-read books were by black authors. Someone once asked me if I wanted to be black. That bothered me as my identity is Irish. Another friend hinted that women of color might resent me doing such a book. I never experienced any negative responses but I did feel my confidence dwindle.

I tried to remember what I had felt when I started making my book. Then an interview with a Ghanaian woman, Anita Erskine, helped me to remember. Anita Erskine is a media mogul, an entrepreneur as well as a TV and radio presenter.

As she talked about the lives of women in Ghana she mentioned how some Ghanaian people were “Rejecting Western Influences”. She politely advised getting out of the comfort zone.

The models in my book have links to Ghana, Nigeria and Jamaica. All those places are ex-British colonies. So was Ireland. In the past 100 years we all got independence. And now look at us all together in London making a book!

I recalled being a child in Ireland and how British influences were resisted. It struck me that there is an irony in emigrating to a country whose influence you once dismissed. Independence did not guarantee wealth or work.

Many Irish people don’t live in Ireland. Many African women and men are living lives, making friends and raising families in countries far from Africa. I wish I knew more about how they define themselves. When I came to the UK in the 1990s it was considered rude to ask anyone of color “Where are you from?” Recently Oxford University was criticized for giving the students the same advice.

Even without asking I knew that I knew that my book filled a gap. The children I sat next to on the bus had two sets of influences, more sometimes.

I stand by my original plan to create a book that isn’t American or African. It is a book for people whose identities have been formed far away from what was home for their recent ancestors. My book is valid – it is about being part of a diaspora. It is about what a city like London makes possible.  It is about leaving home and having home inside of you.




Avril O’Reilly has self-published a number of children’s books which have been distributed to schools and charities in many countries. When she worked on newspapers she constantly strove to be innovative and interesting in how she illustrated travel stories, incorporating fashion, music and video. There is not much call for her skills in a farming village in rural Ireland so she is retraining in Social Media Marketing. 

She is proud to call herself an aunty and is inspired by her three nephews and two nieces.  The stories based on her family are on Smashwords. She is planning a series of books about aunties that will celebrate their often overlooked role.

Follow Avril’s work on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

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