Letterbox Library

In the first of my posts celebrating the world of radical and inclusive books, I am shining a sparkly spotlight on Letterbox Library. Letterbox Library is a not-for-profit children’s bookseller celebrating equality and diversity. They have recently been involved with the London Radical Bookfair and ran the Little Rebel Children’s Book Award on behalf of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers.

I first came across Letterbox Library when I started blogging about quality and equality in children’s books. I was impressed by their range, their not-for-profit status and, most importantly, their ethos. It was when I set up The Rainbow Library that my relationship with Letterbox Library really came to play. They became my go-to-pals for all things equality and diversity related. When I needed advice on books to support specific children they pinged examples straight at me through the twittersphere. I have since used their wonderful books with children from the Rainbow Library and I can already see them working their magic. Their website is full of brilliant engaging books and book packs to fit every radical and inclusive need. I also highly recommend following them on twitter and joining in the fun. You can expect tweets about great books, links to articles that will make you think, radical and inclusive industry news and events, and kind, funny, inclusive chat. And quite a few tweets about truffles!

So pop the kettle on, sit back with a cuppa (and a box of truffles) and be inspired by Fen from Letterbox Library.

1. Firstly, could you tell me a little bit about how Letterbox Library came about?
30 years ago, two like-minded, single mums got together for a chat. They were concerned about the children’s books available to their daughters. Very few reflected their family lives and just as few showed girls in exciting, active roles. An idea was born…but after sharing their thoughts with their friends, they realised the idea needed to get bigger. The children’s books available on the UK high street simply weren’t reflecting most people’s lives. Ultimately, an idea became a passion which became a business plan and, in 1983, in a front room in Hackney, these same two women set up a book club specialising in anti-sexist, multicultural and inclusive children’s books. The first Letterbox Library catalogue had just 16 books to choose from!

These days, we stock over 300 books on our website and in our catalogue but our aims remain the same as in 1983: Letterbox Library is committed to celebrating equality and diversity in the very best children’s books. We believe that challenging stereotypes and discrimination should play a fundamental part in every child’s education and that we all, as adults, share a collective responsibility for making each and every child feel valued, regardless of their background or abilities.

Letterbox Library is genuinely in this for the passion and not for the profit. We are an unfunded, not-for-profit, social enterprise and workers’ cooperative. We sell books to fund the extensive sourcing, selection and reviewing work we do. Once you no longer buy our books, we will know you no longer need someone to seek these books out for you; you will simply be able to walk into your high street bookstore and find books which reflect all children’s lives. We all look forward to that day…

2. When did you first hear about the Little Rebel Book Award and what was your reaction?
In late 2012, Letterbox Library signed themselves up as members of a relatively new umbrella organisation, the Alliance of Radical Booskellers. In August 2012, Nik Gorecki, co-manager of Housmans Bookshop (Kings Cross, London) contacted us to ask if we would consider running a children’s book prize parallel to their existing adult prize, entitled Bread and Roses. Needless to say, we were very excited. Letterbox Library has, since its earliest days, specialised in ‘issue’ books alongside its inclusive books. We are just as likely to sell a book which is casually diverse- for example incorporating a same-sex couple within the story- as we are to sell a book which is explicitly anti-discriminatory- for example a book which tackles homophobic bullying head on. So, we positively embraced the idea of an award celebrating radical children’s literature. We met up with Nik a mere 7 days after his first enquiry and the rest is herstory, as they say…The Little Rebels Award feels like a perfect ‘fit’ for us and we are very proud indeed to have been asked to oversee its inception and its administration.

3. 69 books submitted by 20 publishers is a positive and uplifting response. How on earth did you whittle it down to the four short listed books?
The response was very uplifting for a first award. It wasn’t always an easy task getting the numbers down and there was also the added difficulty of comparing very different types of books. For this 1st year we restricted submissions to fiction (only) within the 0-12 age range but it’s still no easy task to compare a baby boardbook with, say, a chapter book for ages 10 and above! Having said that, this picking and choosing is right up our street! Letterbox Library is probably more famous as a book selector than as a book seller* so we are very much in the shortlisting business already. Just for our own catalogue/website, we reject over 75% of the publisher samples sent our way! We also benefit enormously from our team of 25 volunteer book reviewers (teachers, nursery workers, children etc.). A number of the books submitted to us for the Little Rebels Award had already been submitted to Letterbox Library previously (for our own shelves) which meant they had already received invaluable feedback from our volunteers. So in the end we were as rigorous as we would always be: we had a set of Little Rebels submission guidelines to refer to, we had our own and other reviewers’ feedback to draw on; we had 2 meetings to create a ‘middle list’ and then a 3rd to produce a final shortlist of 4. Phew.
* this is why people sometimes forget that we need to sell our books to survive; instead, they use our selection knowledge and then buy elsewhere!

4. What has been the best thing about the Little Rebel Award process?
The Little Rebels Award has created a real buzz about radical children’s literature. We love the attention it has received from book bloggers, on twitter, within the print press (even the traditionally rather conservative children’s trade press) as well as amongst teachers, librarians, adults and children. It’s not just been picked up on by people interested in anti-discriminatory practise or socialist thinking. There is also a broader appetite at the moment for children’s books which are a bit different, which are more than a tv spin off or part of an endless sparkly series or the product of a ‘creative’ marketing team rather than the creation of an actual author…and the Little Rebels Award, very naturally, picks up on these interesting, stand alone titles.

5. Apart from truffles, what is your great passion?
Did someone mention truffles?
I know you might be expecting this, but I really am passionate about this work. This job feels like it brings so much of my thinking together. Before Letterbox Library I worked for many years in the the charity sector, largely with vulnerable groups- survivors of homophobic violence, sexual violence and domestic violence. I also spent many years doing education advice with prisoners. Like many others, I have seen the worst ‘excesses’ of prejudice. And, like many others, I believe children are born without prejudice and that they have a deeply developed sense of fairness (and, consequently, injustice) from a very young age. I do not think it’s naive to believe there will be a world which is fair and free from discrimination and I do believe that the best way to achieve this is to nurture the minds that will bring this about. Books and stories are a natural and joyful part of this process.
I am also, genuinely, pretty passionate about truffles.

The Killer Question – What is your favourite truffle flavour
Coffee. With just a sprinkling of cocoa. And minimum 70%. With a large glass of white wine. See? Not hard at all!

6. What book are you in love with right now?
Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell. We’re about to start importing this fab picture book from the US. Molly Melon’s Grandma tells her that in her day, there were no fancy shop toys about- you had to make your own. So that’s exactly what Molly does. Molly is completely unhampered by gender restrictions, as happy in her homemade dollhouse as she is in her homemade racing car. And, she is thoroughly unimpressed with her new neighbour’s expensive brand-name toys, inviting her to share hers instead. This book is a spirited, joyful, implicitly anti-capitalist, ode to adventure-loving girls which also, and very unselfconsciously, stars a disabled character (the neighbour, Gertie). It’s pretty much got it all and it puts a skip in my step.

7. What is your hope for the future of children’s books?
What I hope is that one day, we will be able to close up shop and go out of business. We will be able to do that because me and you will be able to pop into our high street bookshops and easily find a) children’s books which value every child by allowing every child to see themselves in the stories they read, as well as b) books which introduce them, respectfully and positively, to the lives of children who are different to them.

Wow! If you haven’t been inspired by that, then you are reading the wrong blog. Such passion and belief in the power and possibility of change is what puts a skip in my step, so thank you, Fen, for agreeing to do this post and for being so open and generous with your time. I am looking forward to Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon – it sounds like you’ve found a corker. The mention of people using you as a selector rather than a seller is very interesting. I am always very excited when I see books you’ve recommended to me at the library. It makes me feel like we are really progressing as a society. But I very rarely see them in shops and, for me, that is where you are worth your weight in gold. Anyone whose dream is to go out of business has a core belief structure to be proud of. I am also very pleased to see that you take truffles as seriously as we do here at RhinoReads. We salute you. Truffles all round!


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