Growing up as a Black Canadian, I had this ever-present feeling of being the odd one out, the outlier — different, but not special. Later in life, I’d come to realize part of that came from my environment, but part of it also came from the media I consumed every day. As a millennial who grew up in the age of 2D cartoons like Arthur, Pokémon and Sailor Moon, I was thoroughly entertained, but never saw myself in the shows I watched. Honestly, I didn’t expect to see characters who looked like me — talking animals and fantastical creatures seemed more realistic than seeing a little Black girl slaying bad guys or leading a good ‘ol adventure.
Unfortunately, since those days, not much has changed. A report published by Children’s Media Lab at University X’s (formerly Ryerson’s) faculty of communication and design, revealed that, in a study of 27 TV shows and 121 main characters, 51 per cent of human characters were white while the other 49 per cent were people of colour. Though these numbers are better than they’ve been in the past, it shows the clear bias in children’s media toward white characters. Not to mention that, if you dig deeper into the number of POC characters, each race only gets a sliver of representation. Black, Latinx/Hispanic and East Asian races had some representation with 14 per cent, 11 per cent and 11 per cent respectively, while the numbers dropped significantly for Middle Eastern, South Asian and Indigenous characters who only made up one per cent, five per cent and six per cent, respectively.
A space for Black voices to tell stories and have them heard
It’s for precisely this reason that Nelvana and Kids Can Press announced the Black Write Edition of their talent incubator, calling for Black storytellers and illustrators to submit their proposals as a way to discover, support, and mentor emerging creators in that community.
Athena Georgaklis, head of development at Nelvana, a world-leading producer for children’s animated and live action content, says the incubator was born out of a desire to find hidden talent with unique stories to share. “How do we reach storytellers across Canada who may be outside of this industry, and have stories in their minds, in their hearts and in their families, but never even considered sharing it with an entertainment company like ours?”
How do we reach storytellers across Canada who may be outside of this industry, and have stories in their minds, in their hearts and in their families, but never even considered sharing it with an entertainment company like ours?
Georgaklis goes on to say that the lack of representation in children’s media ultimately leads to the voices of those creating the content, and it’s why the incubator aims for more diversity behind the scenes. “If you look at the make-up of people who were creating shows, who were gatekeepers and who were making choices for what was being developed and produced — a majority of those people are or were white, and were gravitating to stories that were more accessible and familiar,” she says. “It’s hard to break through this business if you don’t know who to pitch to. How do you carve out the space for yourself?”
The Nelvana/Kids Can Press Black Write incubator is that space. Selected candidates will be paired up with creative advisors in animation production or book publishing to see their ideas come to life. At least one original concept will be developed for TV and book publishing, hopefully serving as inspiration for a community of new voices and industry professionals. To be considered, Black storytellers and illustrators are asked to submit their story proposals or illustration portfolio through the blackwrite.ca website by Nov. 30.
The elements of a winning submission
If you’re thinking about submitting, Naseem Hrab, associate publisher at Kids Can Press, hints that the winning submission will be one where the writer’s genuine voice comes through. “Only you have the voice that you have,” she says. “We really want it to be your stories — whether that’s a family story or a moment of your life that you wanted to explore or a unique perspective and idea. I can’t under emphasize the importance of any writer just trying to be themselves, because the moment you try to sound like someone else, it becomes something we’ve already seen or heard before.”
That’s advice to consider. And like any true creative, you may think that your work isn’t ready to share, but Hrab says don’t stress. “It doesn’t need to be final, it doesn’t need to be perfect, it doesn’t need to be finished. It just needs to be put onto paper in some way.“
It’s time to set imposter syndrome aside and put pen to paper. Natalia Williams, director of internal communications at Corus Entertainment, who volunteered with the project out of sheer passion, emphasizes the impact that the winner’s story could have on a child. “My little guy, [with his] big, curly ‘fro, to see someone in a book that looks like him and had similar experiences or teaches him something — I almost get emotional about it when I see the power of what could come out of this.” And if you’re still on the fence about submitting, she puts it plainly. “Do you have a beautiful, important story to share that you’ve been keeping inside you and haven’t really found that avenue or that resource in order to help you develop it? Well, this is it. This is that opportunity.”