Growing up, I was one of those kids who would read under the covers with a torch until the wee hours. My mum would say that’s why I need glasses now. Stories were a huge part of how I understood the world around me and how I escaped it. Wandering across the moors with the Famous Five while wondering what a larder was and why someone’s name was Dick was thrilling and confusing all at once.
As I got older and more curious about the world outside my own, I started tuning into what was on TV. Saturday mornings were filled with Hey Arnold! and Pokémon, transporting me to new worlds of the imaginary and very westernised kind. As a child, it’s hard to question what you don’t see, and so I didn’t realise I was getting spun a greater story: one about the powers of the world and what normal was.
When I started watching the news with my parents, interspersed with charity ads in the breaks, my understanding of the world shifted. There were so many places I didn’t know about and these places seemed to be full of sadness. These places seemed to be needing help and I was hooked.
It wasn’t until I grew up even more, got on a plane to “help some people”, arrived full of eagerness and goodwill, that I realised I wasn’t needed. In the places I expected to look and see lacking, I saw abundance and happiness. The stories I had grown up with failed to tell me that there was more than one way to live a good life – that, often, things aren’t comparable through a lens of better or worse, but simply different.
The stories I desperately needed growing up didn’t exist and they still don’t. Only 13 percent of kids’ books in the last 25 years have characters who aren’t white. And less than seven percent of kids’ books are written by authors who aren’t white. I’m hoping that the alternate narrative I was seeking as a young person will be more accessible to upcoming generations.
Small Fires is a new independent publisher of children’s stories that are about communities around the world as told by the people who live there. The stories we produce celebrate both our similarities and our differences as cultures, and use the tradition of storytelling to build understanding.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with a team of three incredible women to bring our first book to life. Based on the memories of Kenyan author and change-maker Lillian Shirayar Mang’ong’o, and illustrated by Puerto Rican artist Monica Paola Rodriguez, Lillian The Tiriki Girl follows a young girl learning to navigate her world. Melbourne based designer, Tess Copeland and myself then helped package it up and get it out into the world.
The goal of this story isn’t just to normalise different ways of living, it’s to also create a different narrative around international aid. Money from each book sold goes back into the community it’s about, via the change-maker and author from the story. Inspired by teams like ygap, I’ve come to believe that the best kind of change happens when you get out of the way of others, put your own assumptions and ideas aside, and do what you can to support local leaders instead.
If you are lucky to have some little humans in your life, I’d encourage you to have a look at the stories they’re being told and not told – about the overarching narratives they might not see and how their sense of normal is being defined.
In just the past few years, it’s been incredible to see so many stories emerging to fill in gaps that have existed for far too long. We’re not alone, but we need your support. It’s as simple as choosing books with characters that aren’t white, aren’t animals, and probably aren’t called Dick.