Author interview: Kandace Chimbiri

The 22 June marks an important anniversary: the arrival of hundreds of Caribbeans to Britain on the Empire Windrushin 1948, to start new lives and help rebuild their colonial motherland following the devastation caused by World War Two. Little did they know Britain would not be so welcoming; they would need to overcome difficult economic and sociopolitical conditions, including a deeply hostile, racial climate.

Today, these pioneering newcomers are part of what's called the 'Windrush generation' and now, inspired by their own biographical accounts, a beautifully told anthology of stories has been lovingly produced to honour them:The Place for Me: Stories About the Windrush Generation. I love how the book title is a fond call-back to the calypso song 'London Is the Place for Me' by Aldwyn Roberts, aka Lord Kitchener. Roberts was one of the great calypso artists who travelled to Britain on the Windrush; his upbeat song encapsulated all that he and his expectant West Indian companions hoped for on coming to Britain.

Published by Scholastic in partnership with the Black Cultural Archives, this colour hardback of 12 life stories, authored by Black-British writers, is interspersed with informative fact files and archival photographs. It acknowledges not just Black-British citizens' hardship and sacrifice but also their crucial contribution to modern British society. The book is an essential, highly accessible history resource for KS2 that connects children with the unheard experiences of the Windrush generation in an authentic and sensitive way.

I caught up with one of the book's authors, Kandace Chimbiri, to learn more about her contribution to this collaborative project. We also chatted about her passion for writing books about Black history and the importance of balanced, historical perspectives in educational history resources.

Kandace, you've been writing books for over 10 years both self-published and now with a publishing company. Was being an author your dream career, and how is it going?
I never even thought about being an author until I was almost 40 years old! But once I got started, I found I really enjoyed it (most of the time anyway!). I've enjoyed learning, both about the topics I'm researching as well as how to write about them.

The transition from self-publishing to being traditionally published seems to be just another part of this writing journey; it wasn't planned or expected. I was at a crossroads last summer and it felt like it was the right path to take. It's going well so far and I'm really enjoying the new experience.

Your books focus on Black history — ancient and modern. What inspired you to write on this topic for children, apart from your innate passion for the subject?
I'm not sure it was inspiration: more shock, I think. I felt a needed to fill the gaps I saw in what was being offered to children. I was truly shocked by the poor range of children's books available about Black history.

Talking more specifically about The Place for Me, do you feel it's important to make children's history books that mention the racist treatment of Black-British citizens. If so, why?
Yes, I do think it's important not to omit the less pleasant facts in history and this applies to all history books for children. It has to be done in an age-appropriate manner, of course, but we do children a great disservice if we don't try to give them an honest history. They need to understand the world they are growing up in, and we are responsible for giving them the tools to do so.

Did your parents' experience coming to Britain from Barbados influence your desire to write about the Windrush generation in any way?
My motivation wasn't my parents' experiences in the 1960s and 1970s as such. Sam King's story was a huge influence on me. Although he passed away in 2016, I was fortunate to hear him speak a few times before then

My general motivation for self-publishing Black history books for children was to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. I wrote my previous book, The Story of the Windrush, simply because the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 was approaching, and it struck me as odd that in 2018 there were no children's books about the event that I knew of, despite it being an important part of modern British history. This was another important gap that needed to be filled with a children's book.

In this latest work, your excellent fact files accompany wonderful stories by other Black authors. Were you able to read any of these stories while writing your contribution? And how was it, being part of such a collaborative, multi-author project?
Thanks for your kind compliment! The original plan was for me to read the authors' stories and then produce the fact files in response. However, the pandemic really affected the publisher's plan so, in the end, I wrote the fact files without reading the stories, and it worked!

I think it may even have worked better this way because a child can read the fact files to follow the historical timeline right through from the years before the Windrush's arrival to what happened afterwards, finishing with how the ‘Windrush Scandal’ unfolded exactly 70 years later.

One surprising revelation for me was learning that Black Trinidadian Harold Adolphus Phillips was an early mentor/manager of The Beatles. Can you tell us how you first learned about Harold and, perhaps, something about him you didn't manage to fit into the book?
To be honest, it's hard to say how or when I found out about Harold. The thing about facts is that you can't always be sure when or where you first learned something. In pre-pandemic days I attended quite a few Black history events; perhaps that's where I first heard about him. There are so many underappreciated facts about the Windrush generation and wider Black history.

I really liked that you referenced new arrivals from different Caribbean communities — not just Jamaicans. Was this a conscious decision?
Yes! It goes back to trying to give children the full facts which we spoke about earlier. The vast majority of the Caribbean settlers were from Jamaica, of course, but it's not correct to say that the Windrush generation were 'Jamaican immigrants'. As well as being inaccurate, it limits the scope of history. How people from different countries came together, in itself, is interesting to children. Children are always telling me where their parents are from. Many children today are of mixed heritage — their parents are from different countries. My parents both came from Barbados but I grew up in the 70s knowing Vincentians and Jamaicans. It's also a good way to help children develop an interest in geography.

Can you tell us about your research process? Have you come up against any barriers to sourcing historical evidence about Black-British communities?
The Place For Me was a bit easier for me because I had already written The Story of the Windrush and had some material I wasn't able to fit into that little book. I was also able to use the material from the Black Cultural Archives, which was great.

Are you available for school author visits and, if so, how can teachers contact you?
Yes. I do 30-minute virtual ‘Meet the Author’ visits at the moment. They are based around my book The Story of the Windrush and are ideal for KS2 though they can also work for KS1. The visits can be booked through the website Virtual School Visits.

Do you think you will always write non-fiction books?
I will always write non-fiction books, yes. I think they are so important for children. That said, this doesn’t mean I will only ever write non-fiction. I've realised that, as a writer, I enjoy variety: my first book was a history-themed activity book, the next two were on ancient African history and then I wrote one about modern Black-British history. I have a short early reader coming out next month. It's The Gingerbread Man with a Caribbean flavour! I’ve twisted the ending too, so the poor little thing doesn't get eaten as in the traditional tale. I am not ready yet, but I can see myself trying a work of fiction at some point in the future.

Any exciting plans coming up, book-wise or otherwise, that you'd like to share?
I have another children's book coming out this year. It's a bit different again; it’s called The Story of Afro Hair: 5,000 Years of History, Fashion and Styles. I'm quite excited about it as it contains some information I have never seen in a children's book before. There's a bit of biology, ancient African history, Black-British history, African-American history, African-Canadian history, and more! I hope it will really be interesting for the children and will add to their understanding of their world. 


A Place for Me is written by KN Chimbiri, Kevin George, Salena Godden, Judy Hepburn, Ashley Hickson-Lovence, Jermain Jackman, Kirsty Latoya, Katy Massey, E.L. Norry and Quincy the Comedian, and illustrated by Joelle Avelino. It also includes a foreword by Dame Floella Benjamin.

The book is available from Bookshop. The Black Cultural Archives will receive a contribution of 50p from the sale of each book.

Thanks to Scholastic Children's for sending me a review copy.