Patrice Lawrence introduces the All Stories project, a mentorship programme for underrepresented writers unable to pay for editorial support.
When I was four, my mum bought me three hardback tomes called The Wonderful Worlds of Disney. They were green with different-coloured spines. One volume was full of stories about nature; another about geography. My favourite was the one with the red spine, Fantasyland, which was really one massive plug for Disney cartoons. One evening my mum had some friends around. The next day, we realised that my book was gone.
Almost fifty years later, my mother and I are still outraged that such villainy occurred. Some miscreant stole my stories! But it’s also a reminder to me about my childhood relationship with books and stories. I loved books. I loved reading. But every story I so eagerly absorbed reinforced the idea that people that looked like me could not be in books, let alone write one. I cannot remember a single person of colour in that hefty Disney book. When we did appear in books, it was often a racist caricature – Hugh Lofting’s illustrations for the first editions of the Doctor Doolittle series or Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo. And yes, I read both of those as a child.
From the moment we are born, we are learning the values of our society. The stories we hear – and the lens that they are filtered through – shape our sense of identity and the worth placed on it. Who are the s/heroes? Who are the villains? Who do we see? Who’s absent? How are words used to describe different types of people? I have spent many hours considering those questions, both as a writer and as a working class person of colour. This is why I’m so proud to be the patron of the inaugural All Stories project established by writer and editor Catherine Coe.
Even in London, I was sometimes the only Black person at mainstream publishing events (unless there were caterers). I’d also supposed that there weren’t many others in the room whose stepdad was a hospital porter. Yes, the demographic of publishing needs to change, but honestly, do we have time to wait? The new generation of children and carers need a world that’s bursting with stories, just like I did, stories that whether explicitly or subtly, challenge stereotypical representation.
All Stories acknowledges that diversifying children’s writing isn’t simply a matter of putting a call out for writers, expecting them to be publishing-ready. We are lucky now. There are many ways to bring stories out into the open. Kandace Chimbiri and Zanib Mian set up their own publishing companies and were subsequently published by traditional children’s publishers. However, many writers do not have the resources to explore alternatives to traditional publishing, or indeed to apply to writing academies or for MAs. Being a good writer isn’t enough. To gain agent representation and a place in the acquisitions meeting, you need so much more.
All Stories provides this. It is the place where talent meets publishing experience – 21 expert editors to guide writers through the challenges to publication. Writers not only learn how to create the best possible story, but are prepared and informed about what happens next. I can only applaud Catherine’s tenacity for holding on to her vision even when funding seemed unlikely, because I am often asked by emerging writers about mentoring. It is at the heart of All Stories and, in a couple of years’ time, I’ll be eagerly updating my Twitter feed and smiling as those new stories start their journey from writer to publisher to the hands of children and young people.