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Letterbox Library: How two pioneering Hackney single mums shook up the ‘99% white’ world of kids’ books in 1983

PUBLISHED: 16:01 02 March 2018 | UPDATED: 16:53 02 March 2018

From right, Gillian on floor, Ruth holding Rowan, Iven and Catriona

From right, Gillian on floor, Ruth holding Rowan, Iven and Catriona

Iven Spicer

Publishing stalwart Gillian Harris tells Emma Bartholomew how she co-founded Letterbox Library in Hackney 35 years ago – after looking at her daughter’s shelf and being shocked by what she saw. Her goal? To promote books about equality, feminism, strong girls and ‘gentle, caring boys’

Co-founder Gillian Harris, who started Letterbox from her home in Clapton in 1983, with Hackney Museum officer Rebecca Odell. Picture: Hackney Council Co-founder Gillian Harris, who started Letterbox from her home in Clapton in 1983, with Hackney Museum officer Rebecca Odell. Picture: Hackney Council

Single mums Gillian Harris and Iven Spicer set up Letterbox Library in 1983, after looking at their daughters’ bookshelves and realising the characters featured were “99 per cent white”.

“The girls were in stereotype secondary roles, and weren’t the main protagonist,” Gillian told the Gazette.

“There was no representation of disabled children, or children of different ethnicities.

“The families were all nuclear families, with no single parents or same-sex households. It was a shock to realise to what extent the children’s books we had didn’t reflect the world we lived in.”

The current letterbox team whose HQ are at Stratford, pictured at the Making Her Mark exhibition in Hackney Museum The current letterbox team whose HQ are at Stratford, pictured at the Making Her Mark exhibition in Hackney Museum

So Gillian and Iven, who both had daughters aged three at the time, embarked on setting up a not-for-profit social enterprise to promote feminist, diverse books, which also touched on issues like bullying and ecology.

“We wanted to find alternatives, so children could see themselves reflected in the stories around them,” said Gillian, who lived in Newick Road at the time and still lives in the borough.

“We wanted to distribute books that had positive images of black children, disabled children, strong girls, and boys who were gentle and caring.

“What message do we give a black child or a child with a disability if all the books that are being read to them don’t show children like them?

Gillian and Iven when Iven left Letterbox Library in December 1987 to move to Australia.
Gillian and Iven when Iven left Letterbox Library in December 1987 to move to Australia.

“The other thing is children are growing up in a diverse world, and it’s just as important that children can see we celebrate that.”

Hackney Co-operative Developments helped provide a HQ in Bradbury Street, Dalston, and the Greater London Council gave training and a small grant.

Letterbox Library imported books from small independent publishers across the world.

A mail-order catalogue was sent out every three months, and reps would take samples into schools and libraries.

Gillian and Iven when Iven left Letterbox Library in December 1987 to move to Australia.
Gillian and Iven when Iven left Letterbox Library in December 1987 to move to Australia.

Books would be reviewed by an advisory group of local parents and teachers to make sure that above all they had a good story.

“It’s no good having a book with a message if children wouldn’t enjoy the book, or if the illustrations were stereotypes, like they were early on,” said Gillian.

“William’s Doll was about a boy who looked after his doll, and we found books about girls with leading roles in adventures.

“We tried to find mixed-race families, but that was very hard to do. The American publishers wouldn’t publish books about mixed race.”

One of the original posters advertising Letterbox Library One of the original posters advertising Letterbox Library

Customers – who sent letters of praise – came from all over the country and the world. 
But controversy struck in 1987.

“There was fury when we published Jenny lives with Eric and Martin,” said Gillian.

“It’s a lovely book, about a little girl and her life with her two parents who happen to be two men.”

Newspapers like the Daily Mail and The Sun condemned the black and white photo book as “vile”.

"What message do we give a black child or a child with a disability if all the books that are being read to them don’t show children like them?"

Gillian Harris

Gillian and Iven were surprised at the reaction, but “didn’t take a lot of notice”.

“When you challenge prejudice and homophobia and racism, there will always be a backlash, but we really believed in what we were doing,” said Gillian.

“It wasn’t as if we were saying all books have to have same-sex families.

“We were saying: this is the reality, and children being brought up in same-sex families have to see themselves too. ”

When Iven moved to Australia in 1989 and Gillian stepped down in 1998, new people took it over.

“We were never driven by money and power,” said Gillian. “There wasn’t a hierarchy.

“Some chose the books, some of us were negotiating with the publishers and others were packing up the books and sending them out.

“We were on relatively low wages, and we all paid ourselves the same.”

Letterbox Library is still going strong, albeit now in Stratford. 
“Things have changed, but not that radically,” said Gillian.

“I looked in a bookshop recently, and lo and behold nearly all the books are about white children, and all the girls were princesses.

“It amazes me Letterbox Library is still going now – but it’s still needed.”

Some of Letterbox Library’s early books are on display in an exhibition at Hackney Museum, Making Her Mark, which celebrates 100 years of women’s activism in Hackney.

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