Award-winning author Verna Wilkins has teamed up with children in rural Uganda to share their story with the world. Illustrated by Sarah Kirk, her new picture book A Very Busy Day is now available to 500 people via a £10 donation and it is already helping Ugandan children learn to read. Yet the book is also bringing about change at home by challenging the lack of diversity in British literature.
We caught up with Verna Wilkins to find out more about her work.
When talking about your entrance into publishing, you often say that you “had no choice” in the matter. What happened back in 1987 to make you become a publisher?
Publishing was not on my ‘to do’ list. The awareness that I had to do something came when my older son, a rising five, came out of school with his ‘This Is Me’ school Project and he had painted himself creamy, peachy white. He said he knew he was not that colour, but when I offered to change it to a lovely shade of brown, he was adamant that it had to be that colour because it was for a book! My son, after only a few weeks at school, had already learned that he and children like him did not qualify for entry into the world of books aimed at children.
When I began an active search for books with black characters for the early years, they were very few. Among the few I found, the black characters were not the main protagonists, but secondary characters who were mainly stereotypical and negatively portrayed. I learned that the established publishers’ perception of the book buying public was the white middle class parent. I had no choice then but to become a publisher and take the books to market myself.
How important do you think books are in young people’s lives today?
I believe that books are very important in young people’s lives today. I focus on picture books for young children where there continues to be a strong and vibrant market. I would like to catch them in the years when the personality is taking shape and attitudes are formed. Children read pictures long before they read words. A picture book uses illustrations to draw the child into the world of words and into reading. If a child is included in that world, he/she achieves a sense of self, a sense of personal value. If a child is excluded, the consequences can be damaging and can affect their life chances. Every child matters. No child should have to qualify for entry into a market aimed exclusively at children
You’ve referred to your own experience of learning to read as taking place in a “social vacuum.” Can you explain what you mean by this and what impact this can have on a child?
Growing up in the colonized Caribbean island of Grenada all those years ago, all my reading books, for school and leisure, were imported and based on a precise area of English life and culture. The flora and fauna depicted in those books were of Northern and European regions – not tropical. Not hibiscus and bougainvillea but hosts of golden daffodils. I read about snow and children sitting around open fires. Outside my classroom it was 90 degrees in the shade and not much cooler inside! However, I was privileged to have an astute father who was a head teacher. He told us stories relevant to our lives. Stories from Africa and the Caribbean – stories that included people like us. He worked hard to give his children and his pupils self-worth. He used the imported European stories to broaden our horizons outside our small tropical island.
In 2011, you visited Uganda with RedEarth Education. Can you tell us a bit about your time there and what inspired you to write A Very Busy Day?
Visiting Uganda with RedEarth Education was a great experience for me. The teachers were warm and welcoming. The children were polite and so keen to learn. Being there and experiencing the work that was being done, inspired me to write A Busy Day. I wanted those children to see themselves portrayed in a colourful picture book. A story that they would share with the world. I sent my first draft of the story back to Uganda so that the children could be the editors. I was aware that I knew very little about their culture, so handed over the story. My first draft included a dog which ran across the road and caused an old man to swerve quickly and lose control of his over laden bicycle. The children promptly responded that the story was fine but they did not have a problem with dogs in their village. They removed the dog and suggested that I use a herd of goats instead. They also changed the names I had given to the main protagonists. Excellent editing!
What would you say to people who claim that white, British readers might have problems relating to books with foreign settings and black characters?
We live in a shrinking, interdependent world. Reading outside our small cultural fields, broadens horizons. It creates intercultural dialogue and encourages social cohesion.
It’s 2026 and you’re in the children’s section of a bookshop. What do you hope to see that is different from what you see today?
In the children’s section of a 2026 bookshop, I would love to find a range of books which give a high positive profile to children who have been traditionally excluded. These books should be embedded in a display which depicts diversity in all its forms.
Get you own copy of A Very Bust Day here.