Letterbox Library came into being when two single mothers started to search for books for their children which would accurately reflect the inner city neighbourhood where they lived – and which would give their young daughters images of enterprising and powerful women and girls. Convinced that others had the same needs, they started a book club, producing a quarterly catalogue and newsletters.
Now 11 women are employed part-time at Letterbox’s office in Hackney, London – and another 7 women work part-time from home to take the books to schools and nurseries in cities – and rural areas – throughout the UK. The London office is open to visitors and is a popular place to come and browse through a huge selection of books, all of them chosen for the quality of the pictures and text as well as the messages they carry.
The range of books itself has grown dramatically. Letterbox workers pride themselves on a careful selection process whereby every book in the catalogue has been reviewed by teachers, librarians and parents. The books are selected from all those published in the UK, plus many from abroad, and then sold at discounted prices. Books which preach are rejected – finding books which children will enjoy is essential. Letterbox’s selection of books has also changed over the last 14 years. Far more books featuring Black children are carried now – but many have to be specially imported from the USA and Canada. They would like to see more books published here reflecting different ethnic groups, in particular Turkish and Asian children (the best-selling paperback Lights for Gita has to be imported from Toronto!).
A recent innovation has been a special issue focusing on books on a particular theme: their January catalogue gathered together a selection of books featuring disabled children and parents, others have focused on history, personal safety and, currently, their Spring issue promotes ‘green’ books for all ages.
Since Letterbox’s beginnings there has been the introduction of the National Curriculum coupled with savage cuts to school and library budgets and a gradual dismantling of the network of school library services. In the 70s there was an awareness, often encouraged by education authority advisers working on issues of equal opportunity, of the need to have positive images of children from different cultures and to challenge stereotypes in the children’s literature being produced.
The political climate now is radically different but the need is as great as ever. Recent surveys point to a rise in racist attitudes among young people. Its breeding ground, poverty and unemployment, has risen dramatically. There is all the more need to have as a matter of course, in every school, fiction and non-fiction which mirrors – and celebrates – the diverse ethnic and cultural world within the UK.
Increasingly, however, there is an attitude abroad typified by two Primary Postholders, who shall remain anonymous, from Inner London schools: ‘We won’t be needing any of that sort of book this year’ and ‘Well, I suppose those books might be good for issues’. It is an approach, no doubt born of exhaustion, say Letterbox, that fails to recognise that even within the confines of the National Curriculum, there is plenty of scope to use their picture books in all subject areas. Their simple biographies of Black leaders and stories of grandparents are ideal, for example, for Key Stage One History.
In the English Curriculum, ‘texts from other cultures and traditions’ are a key element in book provision. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority report, ‘One week in March: a survey of the literature pupils read’ published in December 1995, found that teachers are not resourcing this area of literature because books ‘are not readily available, or because they were thought to be too difficult or unknown to educators’. Clearly Letterbox, with its huge tried and tested range of fiction and poetry from other cultures, has a crucial role to fulfil in making it easy for teachers to find the titles they need.
Letterbox remains firmly optimistic that the climate will change. They have found a growing interest amongst Social Services Departments, nurseries and playgroups, particularly since the passing of the Children Act, which put appropriate resources on the agenda for under-8s. Groups of nursery nurses and trainee teachers are often brought by their tutors to have a brief talk and look at the books. The response is always enthusiastic. Comments such as ‘I never knew that such fantastic books existed’ are common – and tutors report that one visit does far more to raise awareness and enthusiasm amongst their students than any number of sessions at college.
One last hurdle that has to be overcome is the view that books of the kind that Letterbox supplies are a luxury. Teaching our children to respect each other, widening horizons and creating global citizens is exactly what is needed for the next millennium.