Interview: Verna Wilkins of Firetree Books


It seems like almost every day now there is a conversation about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, with emphasis on children’s books – after all, children’s books are one of the earliest places we learn about our place in society, and failing to show children of different backgrounds can have a detrimental effect on the self-image of such children. Amidst all this talking, it seems like the mentions of people who are actually DOING something about it are few and far between.

That is why we are putting the spotlight on one of our newest publishers, Firetree Books. Firetree publishes a “range of books with fun and exciting stories celebrating our culturally-diverse and inter-connected world and putting all children ‘in the picture'”. Started by Dr Verna Wilkins – a figurehead for children’s book publishing for over 30 years, having started Tamarind Books in 1987 – and her Tamarind colleague / Editor in Chief of Bayard Children’s Magazines, Simona Sideri, Firetree believes that no child should have to qualify for entry into the wonderful world of books. They should all find themselves in the books that they read.

With the publication of eight new titles for the Key Stage 0-2 markets, all out on 30 September, Firetree Books are set to shape the landscape of beautiful, diverse children’s books for a long time to come. Click here to download an order form of Firetree’s titles, available to the UK book trade from Turnaround.

We interviewed Verna Wilkins to learn more about her history, Firetree‘s new titles and diversity in UK children’s publishing.


Turnaround: Tell us a little bit about Firetree Books.

Verna Wilkins: Firetree Books is building on the 30 year legacy of Tamarind. Firetree Books will produce high quality, award winning stories which reflect our diverse society by giving a high positive profile to BAME children who have been traditionally ignored.

What initially inspired you to get into publishing?

When my own children were young, the picture books in their schools, in the local library and in bookshops had no images of black children. All images were of white children or animals. So when one of my sons, for his ‘This is Me’ school project painted himself a peachy white on his little booklet, I offered a brown crayon to put this right. He refused. ‘It has to be that colour. It’s for a book,’ he said.  I was very concerned that this omission could be damaging. I began to write and set up the publishing company Tamarind to put BAME children ‘in the picture’ in1987.  Nearly 30 years later, classrooms are more diverse than ever and Firetree Books is fulfilling the need that all children should be seen.

Other than publishing how else have you worked with children’s books?


With the theme Education Through Involvement, I do What’s in a Book? projects in schools, to demystify the process by which a book evolves from the idea to the finished product. The children are involved at every stage. They are amazing editors. This started when I was asked by Harrow Ethnic Minority Services to meet with Somali parents and local teachers who were concerned about developing their children’s reading and also about the dearth of images of BAME in their reading material. With the help of parents and teachers, we decided write a picture book about a school trip to the seaside. I had no idea what was involved as my childhood trips to the seaside in the Caribbean bore no resemblance to the children’s in North West London. The children gave me all the information necessary for a successful story, followed the whole process and also criticized my chosen title of Hassan’s Day at the Seaside and changed it to Abdi’s Day and I was informed that ‘Abdi is a cool name.’

9781911402077The latest book is A Visit to City Farm. This was a literacy project at Chalkhill School in Wembley. We produced a beautiful picture book for the trade and schools markets.  The children were able to comment on my manuscript, name the characters and choose the title. Karen Littlewood the illustrator demonstrated her work, from roughs to the finished product. The Year 5s were involved in the picture book which is aimed at Year 1 and Reception, so they had to consider the needs of the younger children. They decided to put in a couple of Rapping Rhymes. That worked splendidly. I was delighted and the music teacher put music to their rhymes. The children will read the book and perform the rapping rhymes at the launch in November.

What book or books are you most proud of having published?

When I was MD of Tamarind I was proud to have published Dave and the Tooth Fairy, The Black Stars series and The Life of Stephen Lawrence.

There has been a lot to talk lately about diversity in publishing, and how the industry needs to stop talking and start acting…

A British discourse on race and cultural diversity began to evolve in the 1960s in response to the growing population of immigrants from the West Indies, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There were conferences and initiatives and much talking about diversity in the industry but not much has changed. I hope that at last the industry is taking this seriously. As the CEO of Penguin Random House said “If we don’t, we will become increasingly irrelevant.”


Thanks for talking with us, Verna! We can’t wait to see your lovely books on bookstore shelves!

Click here to download an order form of Firetree’s titles, available to the UK book trade from Turnaround


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