In Australia, it can be hard to source books that feature characters of colour or show traditions, beliefs and practices of other cultures. Not many titles are readily available on the shelves of major retailers, and if they are available, you don’t always know the authors and titles to search for. Little Black Library is dedicated to books with black and BIPOC characters for all little readers, no matter their background, creating a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book. Founder Megan Mills talks to The Natural Parent Magazine about the inspiration behind Little Black Library, the pros and cons of running her own business, and the challenges she has overcome along the way.
The passion: What inspired you to set up your business?
The idea for Little Black Library came along at the same time as my first born, Obiora. Obiora (and now too Chidera, my second born), are multiracial. My husband, Valentine, is Nigerian – Igbo specifically – and proudly carries his culture, his heritage and his physique, in and of himself, effortlessly. Proudly. My two babies are Nigerian-Australian and as luck would have it, after carrying each of them to term and delivering them naturally, intensely, sans medication or intervention, for all my effort and care and maternal sacrifice, they came into the world looking like photocopies of their father!
Anyway, I digress… Like any mum-to-be, nesting had kicked in and I wanted every element of his welcome to be perfect – including the soon-to-be-read books on his shelves. Looking in my local and mainstream stores, I noticed a stark lack of books that featured images of a child like mine. Where was the inclusion (leave well alone celebration) of coily hair, of deep skin tones, of any feature that my soon-to-be-born son would see in his own reflection? Where were the families that looked like his? Like his cousins? Where were stories that included accurate representations of our communities Australia-wide?
I went to purchase books online and realised I didn’t know titles or authors to even begin to search for! When I finally did find titles, these books had to be bought from overseas, were pricey, and took weeks to arrive – where was the equal access to representative stories for families like mine, families different to mine? Families that make up over 80% of the world’s population – people that identify as Black, Brown, Indigenous or People of colour!
This first experience lit a fire in me, and I began to look at the research. Research that told me at the time (2019) that over 70% of published Children’s literature featured either White or animal main characters. Less than 11% of children’s literature featured Black/African characters, and less than 1% featured Indigenous characters.
It is said that books are like Windows and Mirrors… a chance for little readers to learn about and build empathy for other cultures, a chance to see themselves reflected in the pages of their story books. I wanted to increase access to books that showcased the stories and the cultures that had been “othered” by the Children’s Publishing Industry – Australian and New Zealand children deserve to have exposure to other worlds and differing traditions, just as much as they deserve to look through that same “window” to find similarities and shared experiences! Marginalised children aren’t the only ones reading and being exposed to diverse books, nor are their lives the only ones that will be enriched by reading them. Reading books that represent different abilities, cultures, beliefs, and skin colours help us change our attitude toward those differences.
That being said, for children in minority populations, finding yourself reflected in a book is powerful. When children read books where they see characters like themselves, their family, and their culture being valued in the world, they feel a sense of belonging. Rudine Bishop (Author of Essay: Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors) posits, “Literature transforms the human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation.”
From this realisation, Little Black Library was born – a dedicated space for the 30% of books published, featuring BIPOC characters and written by Own Voice Authors. A place where you didn’t have to know the right search terms to find diverse books and where you could shop on Australian soil! A business that was owned by a BIPOC family, serving all Australian and New Zealand families!
The launch: How did you start out in the beginning?
Very slowly! With not much of a disposable income to “back” my business idea, I did a lot of research about which books to stock, where I could source them from, and if they were available anywhere else. From here I started to curate a collection and then literally fortnight by fortnight, with money left over after bills and groceries and everything else, I’d purchase my stock. Two books at a time, eight books, one book, five…
I’ll never forget; The very first order of books arrived at our house and I unwrapped them from their packaging to take a better look. Obiora was two at the time, and he saw one of the illustrated covers, a headshot of a toddler, smiling, with a beautiful Afro filling the space to the corners. A smile spread eagerly across Obi’s face and his eyes twinkled excitedly as he grabbed the book and held it up covering his own face, yelling “Hair like Obi’s!”. It was such a reinforcing moment for me, for the business idea – every child deserved to experience that moment of identity!
The innovation: What was the biggest breakthrough for you with your business?
The biggest breakthrough for me was actually an incredibly generous, supportive mum of two (with a large social media presence and a strong following) purchasing from my site and posting about the books and my business. Not because I’d asked, not because I’d approached her, but because she’d found out about us and truly believed in what I was trying to achieve. It might have been only a small moment for her, but it meant absolutely everything to me as a start up business with not many people yet aware of Little Black Library, what we stand for and what we offered.