Exposure alumna diversifying children’s literature

July 26, 2022

Author and publishing entrepreneur, Jasmine Richards

Arjan Arenas meets Jasmine Richards to discuss her career as an author and pioneering publishing entrepreneur

Jasmine Richards is a children’s author and the founder of Storymix, a studio which works with writers to create children’s fiction featuring more ethnically diverse characters, as well as providing opportunities for emerging and established writers from ethnic minority backgrounds to enter the publishing industry.

Jasmine herself has written over a dozen books over 15 years. Her latest, The Unmorrow Curse was published in the U.S. last month and will shortly be released in the UK.

The book was inspired by Jasmine’s interest in Norse mythology, and particularly how the days of the week are named after Norse gods, except Saturday, which is named after the Roman god Saturn.

The Unmorrow Curse imagines that the day was originally named after the trickster god Loki, who now wants it back. This leads to the same Saturday being repeated endlessly, prompting two young protagonists to resolve things.

As a teenager, Jasmine wrote for Exposure during the 90s, reaching a high point when in 1998, aged 17, she interviewed then Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street.

Growing up I was more interested in reading about what other children got up to rather than actually play or interact with them

Summing up her career, she says she “wears several different hats”: she is an editor and publisher as well as an author, and before writing full-time, she edited for a number of major publishing houses, including Oxford University Press and Puffin.

Jasmine was raised in Hornsey, north London (not far from me). “Growing up, I was a massive bookworm,” she tells me, so much so that “my mum would have to coax me out to parties or barbecues because I was more interested in reading about what other children got up to rather than actually play or interact with them.”

An early ambition was to become a journalist, inspired by the popular early 90s CITV show Press Gang, about a group of kids running a school newspaper. However, “my friends from school have said that back then I was adamant that I was going to be a children’s author, but I have no memory of vocalising it at the time.”

A selection of StoryMix titles

As a girl, Jasmine read voraciously, although her mum banned her from reading anything by children’s author Enid Blyton because of her well-documented racist depictions of black characters. Jasmine acknowledges that some of what she read then would probably not be written today. One of her favourite authors as a kid was Philip Pullman, whose novel The Ruby in the Smoke she still loves.

Jasmine first came into contact with Exposure when she was a 14-year-old pupil at Hornsey School for Girls.

“They used to send copies of the magazines to schools in the local area,” she explains, “and when I saw that slogan, ‘We Are Youth’, I realised this was something I wanted to get involved in.” In the mid-90s, with the internet on the rise, she was one of several young people writing for the magazine who benefitted from training to write online just as the form was emerging.

Jasmine praises Exposure for offering young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, opportunities which they otherwise might not have

“There used to be this place in Tottenham Hale called the Techno Park,” she tells me, “where we were taught how to use the internet. We learned plenty of useful stuff, including how to search for things. It gave me some real ‘exposure’ [she laughs as she realises the accidental pun] to a new way of writing and taught me how to adapt to it.”

Jasmine praises Exposure for offering young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, opportunities which they otherwise might not have, and for “raising aspirations” to pursue creative careers.

How did interviewing Blair come about? “I was working with Youth FM, who were a radio station, and we went to this boot camp which taught us all about working in radio journalism. After that, we were told we were being sent to Downing Street to interview the Prime Minister, and BBC Newsround would be covering it.”

A turning point came when she and a friend set out to each write a novel for the NaNoWriMo competition

Jasmine’s work with Exposure ended when she went to study English at Oxford University, which she found “a bit of a culture shock” at first because she wasn’t sure if she’d fit in among “all the posh people”, but eventually found “an inspiring environment to learn” where she made lifelong friends.

After graduating, she worked at an access group for the university, before being encouraged to successfully apply for the Penguin Graduate Trainee Scheme, which led to her career in publishing. A turning point came when Jasmine and a friend set out to each write a novel for the NaNoWriMo competition. Her winning entry, The Book of Wonders was published in the States by HarperCollins, and after continuing writing as a side-line to her main career, she became a freelance editor following the births of her two children. She now writes full time.

However, while freelancing, she missed the business side of publishing: “It made me realise that I’m not just passionate about the creative side of my job, but I enjoy the more commercial aspect of it too.”

In 2018, Jasmine first came up with the idea for Storymix when she realised that there were barely any non-white main characters in the books her son was reading.

“I was angry with the industry, and with myself to an extent, because it was the industry I worked in.” In 2019, she formally registered Storymix as a business, although the following year, the pandemic created a major setback.

In an ideal world, my business would not exist. I don’t like having such a narrow focus.

However, she believes that more serious efforts to diversify publishing grew following the death of George Floyd in 2020. “The publishing industry had a reckoning with itself,” she says, which she does not think would have happened had the pandemic not occurred.

There has been substantial improvement in representation, with a positive increase in children’s books featuring an ethnic minority character from 10% in 2019 to 15% in 2020 and up significantly from 4% in 2017. But with 14% of the British population being non-white, there is still more work to be done.

“In an ideal world, my business would not exist”, Jasmine tells me. “I don’t like having such a narrow focus. Ideally, the colour of characters shouldn’t be front and centre of considering a story.”

Hopefully, one day, it won’t have to be like this. Until then, however, Jasmine continues her amazing work diversifying children’s fiction.

Arjan Arenas studied history at King’s College London, then completed a master’s in the history of international relations at the London School of Economics. He has worked with Exposure since January 2018, and is particularly interested in history and politics, as well as books, film and television. Outside of his work with Exposure, Arjan has written reviews of films and television programmes, as well as theatre productions in London’s West End.

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