London schoolgirl Tiana Akoh-Arrey hopes book about her afro hair will inspire others

Tap above to watch video report by Carolyn Sim

An eight-year-old girl who wrote a book about her natural hair hopes others will be inspired to love who they are, amid calls for better black representation and more “identity-affirming” characters in children’s literature.

Tiana Akoh-Arrey, from south-east London, wrote her first book at the age of seven, called My Afro: Twin Best Friends, which was published in December 2021 and is about her and her best friend who had the same type of hair as her, “while everyone else has straight, silky or curly hair”.

Speaking during Black History Month, which runs in October in the UK, Tiana said: “I wanted to show that people who have my type of hair have challenges and sometimes find it hard to love their hair texture plus all the struggle of making it look beautiful.”

While in year one, Tiana took part in a writing programme called Mrs Wordsmith which gave her the confidence to start writing her own “little books”.

She gave her work to her mother Dorothy, 39, who contacted Conscious Dreams Publishing.

Tiana Akoh-Arrey, from south-east London, holding her book My Afro: Twin Best Friends Credit: PA

'Girls feel empowered'

With help from the publishing company, the book sold more than 700 copies, which Tiana said “meant a lot to me”, and she has plans to publish more.

“I’ve had a lot of comments on social media and also little girls all around the world have been showing pictures of my book saying that they love it and feel empowered to wear their afro hair to school, so that makes me really happy,” she added.

Despite being “surprised at first” that her book was published, because of her age, Tiana said she wanted other young girls to find the courage to “follow their passion”.

“Follow your passion and just use your imagination as something that can help you in life because you never know where you can get in life, even if you are a child,” she said.

“More importantly… love yourself and be accepting of others – we’re all unique.”

Enomwoyi Damali, an educational psychologist and author who lives in Lewisham, south London, spoke about the importance of having diverse characters in children’s books.

Enomwoyi Damali an educational psychologist and author from Lewisham Credit: PA

“A book should be like a mirror,” the 59-year-old said.

“When you hold up a book, you should see something positive about yourself.

“Now, if day by day, week after week and year after year what you’re doing is picking up books and seeing characters that don’t look like you, that will consciously or unconsciously affect your sense of wellbeing, your sense of identity and sense of what you believe you can aspire to achieve.

“And so it’s really important that we have positive representation in books … so when you, as a young black girl, pick up a book and you see that mirror reflected back to you as a young, black, positive character, it’s affirming of you and your identity.”

The author has published three children’s books so far, which she was inspired to write after the death of her father, Cornelius Yearwood, aged 78.

The books feature a central young black female character called Nzingha and her diverse group of friends and explore themes including friendship, kindness, identity and loss, with the author adding she wanted to have a central character that “looked like me in terms of their skin colour and shared my culture heritage”.

“The books that I loved when I was growing up – The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and the Adventure Series – didn’t have any characters that looked like me or lived a life I did,” she said.

“And I felt unconsciously as a child that there was something not quite right with that – it didn’t sit well with me, so when it came to writing my books, I was determined to change that.”

She added that the “best” comments she has received about her book are from children, with the “best one of all” being from a girl who said Nzingha looked like her.

“You know, she’s not seen a book ever with a character with brown skin and dreadlocks, and the pleasure and pride on her face when she was saying it made me think, this is what I wanted to achieve through my books,” she added.

The journey to getting her books published was not easy.

“I contacted about a dozen traditional publishers and I either got no response at all or told ‘it’s not what we’re looking for’,” she said.

“Although I felt a little bit dejected, I believed in the messages in my books and but then I heard about Danni and Conscious Dreams Publishing through the launch of another published author, and I found somebody who also believed in my stories, and that was the beginning of a long, successful partnership, which is destined to continue with the publication of three more Nzingha books.”

Daniella Blechner, 42, from West Norwood, south London, the founder of Conscious Dreams Publishing, said she initially helped aspiring authors as a “labour of love” by “connecting them to editors, typesetters and illustrators and mentoring them through the process of publishing”, all while working full-time as a teacher.

Daniella Blechner, 42, from West Norwood, south London, the founder of Conscious Dreams Publishing Credit: PA

“I thought, I love mentoring and literature, so why not merge the two together and then Conscious Dreams Publishing was born,” Ms Blechner said of the 2016 launch.

“It wasn’t something I consciously planned to do, but it was through realising that so many people were not being heard, having their voices diluted or having their stories told in a way that wasn’t authentic, that I decided to create a platform for these unheard stories and voices.”

She added that the publishing industry is predominantly “white, middle-class men and women” with a lack of “diversity from the bottom up”, and needs to change.

“While we’re waiting for that change to happen, we’re here making our own change, but it is not happening fast enough in mainstream publishing,” she said.

“Even now, after the spike of black authors in 2020 post-George Floyd and the campaigns to publish more black authors, that figure now has dropped by 23%, and back in 2018, only 1% of main characters in children’s fiction were from Bipoc (black, indigenous and people of colour) backgrounds, which is now only 7%.

“It’s crucial to reflect the reality of the diverse society we live in for the sake of our future generation; their stories matter. Representation matters.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know