“I just wanted to create a space that my inner child like would have loved seeing growing up,” Kelly-Jade Nicholls tells me. “A space where on every wall, every item you look at has characters that look like us.”
It is a dreary autumn day in south London the day I meet Nicholls. Between dodging puddles and splashes from passing cars on Norwood High Street, I can’t help but notice how many of the businesses on the street are disused or have shut up shop, seemingly permanently.
Amongst this sea of grey, it is impossible to miss Melanin Magic. Opening its doors in July this year, the shop is dedicated to Black children’s books – one of a handful in the capital. With the bright blues and greens of the facade, and the windows adorned with Black book characters, it's no wonder the shop attracts so much attention from the local school children.
“My location is next to a couple of schools,” Nicholls says. “So when the kids are walking past on their school trips, they look in at the different characters on our window display, and they're looking at it like: ‘that's me! that's me!’”.
Nicholls came up with the idea for Melanin Magic after seeing one of her nieces upset that so few of the children’s books she was reading featured Black characters. Leaving behind a successful career in fashion, the 36-year-old first established Woke Babies, a monthly subscription service books and activities tailored to Black audiences, before opening Melanin Magic four years later.
“There's been huge demand,” Nicholls tells me. “I announced that my bookshop was opening three days before. On the day of the launch, I was so nervous, thinking nobody is going to turn up.
“But then I came out and there were queues of people lining up in the rain just to see this shop, because it's something that nobody ever had when there were a child. What was even more amazing was the mix of different cultures in the queue, and I think that was testament to how important this is.”
“We’ve even had people from Birmingham coming down just to see the shop!”
Looking around Melanin Magic, it is clear the painstaking lengths that Nicholls has gone to make it a safe space for Black children. It took her three months to convert what was previously a disused laundrette into the oasis of diversity it is now. Black dolls line the walls, with books like Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love displayed proudly on the shelves.
Pointing at the window painting depicting black children’s characters, she says: “One of these is actually inspired by a little boy who always walks past the shop. I just had to get him in there somehow. He hasn’t noticed yet, but I hope he does!”
“For a lot of Black parents or parents just wanting to source diverse items for their kids, it's really hard to find it in your local bookshop or even your local toy shop,” Nicholls says.
In 2018, a survey found that just 4 per cent of the children’s books published the previous year featured a Black or minority ethnic character – and just 1 per cent had a minority ethnic main character. The latest official data shows that 33.9 per cent of children of primary school age in England were from an ethnic minority background.
"A lot of the children's books that feature Black protagonist tend to be [non-fiction] about social issues, you know, slavery and history, which is so important for children to learn about. But at the same time I'm a believer that just allowing kids to be children."
“It’s really important for Black children to see themselves in children's books – it builds self esteem helps build confidence, and competence, which helps them learn better. Self esteem and wellbeing have a direct correlation between a child's capacity to learn.”
Since 2018, representation in children’s books has quadrupled, but researchers say “we are not yet at the point where children of colour have the same experience of literature as their white peers”.
A survey last month found that two in five parents of minority ethnicity struggle to find books for their children that they feel represent them, including 83 per cent of mixed white and Black Caribbean parents.
The survey was commissioned by Inclusive Books for Children (IBC), a new charity which has launched a website hosting a database of inclusive books, allowing users to browse through more than 700 book recommendations to find books featuring protagonists with specific characteristics.
When Selina Brown, wrote her first children’s book, she didn’t anticipate that the hurdles she would face would extend far past the realms of writing and editing.
“I had poured my heart and soul into creating a beautiful children's book with a Black girl as the main character, proudly sporting her big, beautiful afro,” she says, writing in the Standard. “I was eager to introduce her to young readers who, like her, deserved to see themselves reflected in the pages of a book. However, my excitement soon turned to shock and disappointment when I received feedback suggesting that my book wouldn't sell because ‘there wasn't a market’ for it.”
“It wasn't just my story,” Brown continues. “I had heard numerous similar accounts from fellow authors who were told that literary agents and publishers already had their ‘quota’ of black authors.
“Another obstacle was the apprehension that Black authors' work might be deemed ‘too Black’...[or] the suggestion many had around diluting manuscripts to make them more universally appealing.”
It was this experience that inspired Selina to create the Black British Book Festival in 2021, a now-annual London literature festival which celebrates Black British authors across a range of genres.
This year, the festival will host talks from speakers including Gary Younge, Candice Brathwaite, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Clive Myrie, Oti Mabuse, Dawn Butler and more.
“[The festival] serves as a vital response to the biases and barriers that have long plagued the publishing industry,” she says. "It champions inclusivity…and bridge[s] the gap between the diverse array of stories and experiences and the readers who crave them.”
As UK Black History Month comes to a close, I ask Nicholls if she has done anything to commemorate the occasion.
"Black History Month is extremelt important, and I love the fact that there's a time when people can't shy away from Black history," she says. "But you can come here and get that history whenever you want. For this shop is Black history 365, it's all year round!"