Annabelle Sami is a writer, director and performer. She completed her MA in English Literature from Queen Mary University in 2018. It was whilst reading children’s books when babysitting that she realised there was a lack of representation of funny girls and diverse characters in children’s books – and she decided to do something about it. Growing up mixed-race, she never found her own life reflected in a book and now it’s her mission to make sure that every spirited, witty and adventurous girl has her own special book that she can relate to. She is the author of Llama Out Loud! and Llama on a Mission (illustrated by FAB Prize alumni, Allen Fatimaharan and nominated for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize) as well as the Agent Zaiba Investigates series.
I wrote my first story for children in 2016 when I had just graduated from university, aged twenty-one. I was at a point in my life where I was supposed to be transitioning into proper adulthood and all the job seeking and flat renting that this entailed.
I hadn’t stopped to think about this period, and my decision to move from writing for adults, until I was asked at a Q&A why I started writing children’s books. On reflection, I don’t think I felt prepared to launch headfirst into adulthood. I wanted to stop and look back – to try and understand how I’d ended up where I was. In order to know myself better as an adult, I knew I had to first think deeply about being a child. And now that I’ve started that thinking, I don’t intend to stop anytime soon.
There’s a general snobbery around children’s books – in the belief that they’re twee, cutesy and, thus, unimportant. I feel it when someone asks me what I do and they reply with, ‘Ohhh that’s so sweet.’ They are markedly more impressed if I respond simply, ‘I’m an author’. If I was doing this for clout alone, it would probably be better to write adult books. So why do I continue to write for children?
I think the answer to this lies in the subtext. Because when I ask myself ‘Why do I write for children?’ I’m really asking, ‘Why do children matter?’.
Children’s books matter because children matter.
I continue to write for children because I am interested in children. And I am interested in children because I am interested in humans. Because I am simultaneously disappointed and hopeful for our potential as creatures on this earth.
Childhood is important because it’s not something that we leave behind – as much as we’d like to believe otherwise. We never stop being children, there is a child inside all of us – getting angry and throwing a tantrum when someone upsets us or gaping in awe at a firework display. And how content we are as adults depends entirely on how well the little child within us was treated during their childhood.
Children matter because they symbolise past, present and future. The symbol of the child reminds us of our own childhoods, yet also points towards a never quite there future – a future which they are ominously told will be theirs. And of course, children exist in our present, as very real people who are consistently placed in the past, (‘it only seems like yesterday when you were a baby’) and thrust into the future (‘you won’t be able to act like that at secondary school’). Children are our way of understanding our own concept of time – of how we’ve grown, of how we will grow, of how we will die.
I believe children matter because I believe we matter as people, as individuals who can strive to make the world a better place. How we treat children is how we want to treat the world. They will be its caretakers, they will decide how it’s governed, how it’s used. They are already making these decisions every day, in ways that we deem insignificant and yet are so vital. When a child crushes a colony of ants underfoot, they are making decisions about life and death. When they make a collection of particularly special autumn leaves they’re demonstrating care and value for nature.
We often mention children’s endearing innocence, but do we ever congratulate their intuitive knowing? Children know when they enter a space they don’t like or meet a person they don’t trust – they can sense things that we have stopped paying attention to. Children know if they like a book or not by the first page – terrifying for us children’s authors.
Children matter because they notice things about the world around us that we don’t see, or have forgotten. They ask questions: Why is that man sleeping on the street? Why do I have to brush my teeth every day? Why does it get dark in winter? What does sympathy mean? Why are your legs hairy?
They have vast imaginations that make the possibility of creating a fictional world for them so rewarding and enticing. With such curiosity, depth and unclouded perspective, why wouldn’t I want to write about, and for, children? Why wouldn’t I want to write for people who matter so much?