Eve Ainsworth argues for the necessity of representation of working-class authors in children’s books.
I wasn’t aware of my class as a child, but I knew we were poor. I also knew that certain things were tougher for me, but I tried not to let that get in my way too much. My parents were avid and eclectic readers, feeding my love for books and expanding my knowledge. Weekends were spent scouring jumble sales or charity shops for new reads or stocking up on library loans. A new book was a birthday or Christmas treat. However, if I ever brought up the notion of wanting to be a writer – this was quickly, but not nastily, shut down. I soon learnt that there was an expectation that ‘people like us’ didn’t become writers – we didn’t have the right connections – and we probably weren’t ‘good enough’ to make it, anyway.
My father was a talented artist and scholar. He swotted up on the works of Shakespeare, highlighting where he felt there had been errors in the later writing and making corrections. He sent his work off to numerous experts but felt largely ignored because he had no ‘merit’. He was an unemployed, working-class man with no connections and no qualifications to his name. The process left him feeling defeated. My father also invented board games and created great pieces of art – but was never recognised in his lifetime – and I think a lot of his self-doubt was hinged in his own lack of self-worth. The imposter syndrome looms deep inside all of us, but I do believe it’s a louder and darker beast inside working-class people. It’s a nagging voice that never shuts up – no matter how successful you become,
Seeing my dad go through rejection and hearing his cynicism only made me more determined. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an author, and despite an English teacher telling me it wasn’t possible (‘someone from your background would struggle’), I pressed on. I figured I didn’t have much to lose and if anything, I had a lot to prove – and a lot of people to prove wrong. That I never read many working-class voices when I was younger became a driving factor for me. I was aware that a lot of the publishing space was taken up by white middle- class writers and this made me feel unseen as a child. The few working-class characters I encountered in books were often stereotypical tropes, often very harmful and sometimes humiliating. They certainly didn’t represent the life that I recognised. I knew I wanted to write about things that reflected my life better – and although I would often touch on gritty subjects such as poverty, addiction, and mental health – I wanted to do so in a way that wasn’t patronising or harmful.
I suffered a lot of rejections along on the way and have been on more slush piles than most, but I learnt to smother the voice of self-doubt that continued to nag at me. As I accumulated positive feedback, I started to believe that maybe one day I would be published – and my dreams wouldn’t be as far-fetched as I once believed.
I began to work in secondary schools with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This was an important career move for me, as I became even more motivated to amplify working-class voices. It was here that I began writing my first YA novel, subsequently published in 2015.
From that moment on, I focussed on writing books that reflected the community I grew up in and work with. I strive to write about working- class issues in a fresh, honest and unpatronising way – and many readers have contacted me, thanking me for writing characters and themes they recognise and can relate to. This, for me, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being a published author.
I really do believe it’s vital that working-class writers continue to have a voice in children’s writing so that they can continue to inspire and ignite a new generation of authors. I never want a young reader to feel, as I did, that books didn’t represent me, such an isolating and damaging feeling. The publishing industry is still, despite some improvement in diversity, predominately white middle-class and I fear that due to low pay and limited opportunities, this will be slow to change.
I just wish my Dad could have seen what could be achieved with a lot of grit and determination (and some luck along the way). Sadly, he died before my first book was published. Yes – it is a bit harder for those of us from underprivileged backgrounds and yes – we do have to shout just a little bit harder to be heard – but we must never give up. Our voices are so important, and they need to be out there.
I just hope, that one day in the future, articles like these will no longer be necessary and working-class and other underrepresented voices will be fairly represented.
Eve Ainsworth has written for both middle grade and teen readers. She was born and raised in Crawley, West Sussex and is one of seven children. After her degree, she had a varied background working within HR and Recruitment roles, before landing a job she loved – mentoring and supporting challenging and vulnerable students in a large secondary school. This inspired her first YA novel 7 Days. Duckling, her debut adult novel, will be published by Penguin in May.