Multicultural publishers expect to be judged on their quality as well as diversity, finds Judith Napier
Nirmal Hirani knows the value of reading. She recalls that, growing up India, there may not always have been enough money for new clothes, but there was always plenty to spend on books. 'My mother would suggest we buy extra food, perhaps, but my father would say books gave you a fat brain, they opened your eyes!'
So when she needed a name for her new publishing company, she chose Mansi, the Sanskrit for 'inner eye', expressing her ambition of producing multicultural books that give children a greater appreciation of their place in the world.
She shares with other publishers of multicultural books the conviction that more needs to be done to introduce innovative titles into the market. Mansi's philosophy is to encourage new talent by publishing authors twice only - once they are established, they must move on - and encouraging new illustrators.
Mansi's first publication, written by Nirmal herself and illustrated by Melanie Crawford, is The Story of Ram and Sita, the Origin of Diwali (9.99). Her child's nursery teacher inspired her to write it after she helped with the nursery's Diwali celebrations.
Mansi has a further eight books in the pipeline, among them folktales from America's Pueblo Indians, from Jordan, and from England. Nirmal is emphatic that there are wonderful stories everywhere. 'It is a great shame that multicultural tends to mean Caribbean or Indian, not European or English. There are tales everywhere that need to be heard.'
Nirmal's experience of seeking out books for her own children echoes that of the Letterbox Library in London. This workers' co-op was set up 20 years ago by two mothers to provide multicultural and non-sexist children's books - an area they identified as neglected by mainstream publishers. Letterbox sources, selects and sells books to schools, early years settings and individuals worldwide.
Letterbox's Maikim Stern says, 'It is so important that children see that books reflect the society we live in, and see other children from other cultures. It is a matter of countering stereotypes.'
Mantra Publishing, too, was started by three mothers 18 years ago who wanted books about the realities of ethnic minorities living in a multicultural Britain. Mishti Chatterji says, 'Everywhere it was blond, blue-eyed children. Some publishers were so-called multicultural, but the pictures were of white faces coloured in. There was no awareness of skin tone, and we were very clear that we wanted to do books that our children could relate to.'
Mantra started publishing folktales, then moved on to dual-language books (now in 25 languages). They have since added non-fiction titles, accompanying cassettes, CD-Roms, toys, games and wall friezes.
Their first books were written by themselves. Later they started commissioning authors, although one of their most popular titles, Lima's Red Hot Chilli, written by David Mills and illustrated by Derek Brazell (x.xx) arrived by unsolicited manuscript.
Patricia Billings, co-director with husband Sedat Turhan of Milet Publishing, stresses that quality is paramount. Her husband moved to the UK from Turkey 20 years ago. He started importing Turkish books and realised there was a need for quality - rather than simply 'worthy' - multicultural titles. Patricia says, 'It seemed that the ones on offer then didn't have to meet the same standards because they were bilingual. We wanted to make them so they met the same standards of production as regular English-only children's books.'
Milet publishes bilingually in more than 20 languages. The demand is often defined by war zones, and consequent influx of refugees, so that Kurdish, Albanian and Farsi are increasingly important.
To cater for younger children, Milet bought the rights to the likes of Elmer the Elephant. Patricia says, 'There weren't many pre-school books around, and Elmer is a nice message because he's multicoloured, not grey. We wanted books that were fun and lively and relatively simple, books with really good messages about community and individuality.'