BY: JELANI GRANT
Toronto-based author Lisa Bowen has been speaking to youth at different schools, inspiring young writers to illustrate characters that better reflect their communities as well as themselves.
Bowen was inspired to create texts her young sons could read at the library which represents their young, black, male demographic. “The problem that we have is that a lot of the traditional publishers are just marketing for whatever they think is popular but I feel like a lot of the minorities get left out of that,” she said. Bowen said she believes representation within literature is still an issue because most publishers are not willing to go outside of the bubble of popularity. To spread this message, she has been conducting book readings to schools across the GTA, speaking to more than 1,000 students in total.
Besides unique shops like A Different Booklist and Knowledge Bookstore, there are not a lot of options for people looking for books featuring people of color. “When I go to bookstores…it’s always the same black books. A lot of the books I find are about my black skin, my kinky hair.” Bowen’s books hold a different focus such as her best-seller, Eli’s 1st Winter Carnival, a tale of a young boy finding adventure in the snow. The children’s book ranked #1 on Amazon in the Children’s Books section for the Holiday & Festival Books, Non-Religious books, and Winter Sports books. “My books serve as a symbol in our community to let our children know they are more than enough, they are loved, perfect as they are, their stories matter.”
While Bowen agrees that these subjects are necessary and empowering, she said she believes it is also important to write books that all children can relate to, while still illustrating people of color. “Those books are necessary for our culture, but let’s do more than that,” she said. “I write for everyone, so they can change their story. I try to make sure everyone feels included in my stories,”
Bowen said she wants readers to see themselves in the books that they read. “We all need diverse books, it is crucial for everyone in our community, every kid deserves to be the hero of their own story,” Bowen said. “Not enough kids get to see themselves represented in the books we read every day. Not seeing yourself is like being told you don’t exist or don’t matter,” she said.
Bowen said she believes youth are not as interested in writing stories anymore. She suggests parents reading with their children on a regular basis to expand their imagination and inspire them to create stories of their own. “It’s a good way for families to build a stronger bond with their kids,” she said. A 2014 study conducted by Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report found that kids aged 6 to 11 like being read aloud to regularly.
Bowen is also the founder of Real Life Learning Inc. a mentorship program that connects aspiring writers and book artists with experienced, published authors and illustrators in order to receive a personal and professional critique of their work. Students in the program are paired with a ‘Yellow Book Road’ mentor who matches their preferred genre. The mentor would then submit an evaluation report on their writing style; character, plot and setting structure; as well as suggestions to develop the manuscript. Likewise, for artists seeking illustration mentorship, they will receive a report on similar aspects including the expression and suitability for books with pictures. Currently, Real Life Learning is holding what they call a ‘Create a Character’ contest where youth can submit a character that could be selected by Bowen to be written into one of her books for 2018. Anyone interested can enter the contest through her website.