Just over one year after launching what may well be the only publishing house in the UK that is truly devoted to producing socially and culturally diverse fiction for Black and Ethnic Minority children and teens, Ola Laniyan-Amoako is reaping accolades and awards for her pioneering venture.
Urbantopia Books has since unveiled a list of seven titles, including two by a couple of promising young authors which have caught the eye of book reviewers and are generating interest among young readers.
One of them is See Red by Mina Bint Muhammad, a 15-year old Muslim schoolgirl from East London. The book tells the story of a young Muslim girl who is confronted by the pressures of Western urban life. It throws the spotlight on the issues and challenges that many youths have to contend with as they try to balance their religious beliefs with the demands of a secular society. It is set in Newham, East London and is based on Muhammad’s experiences growing up in London’s East End. She stands out as one of the few writers to have a first novel accepted for publication at the age of 14, before she has even done her GCSE English exam. She’s also a former winner of the Young Muslim Writers Award.
The Last Line by Azzurra Bertoncini, 24 is also gaining attention. It’s written as a diary and tells the story of a girl who is anorexic and dies from the disease. In an interview with the Times, she said, “One of my friends suffered from anorexia after having a competition with herself to see how much weight she could lose and two people I know have come very close to dying because of the disease.” She hopes the book will help to raise awareness of anorexia and its causes. A communications consultant and freelance writer, Azzurra currently lives and works in Rome and returns regularly to visit her family in the UK.
Ola Laniyan-Amoako has not only made her writers’ dreams come true. Her determination to ferret out promising new authors from Black and Ethnic Minority communities and bring them to the attention of readers yearning for books that speak to their cultural experiences, are nothing short of heroic in an industry fraught with daunting challenges. All the same, she has forced the UK publishing establishment to sit up and take notice. Urbantopia has been nominated for the prestigious ‘Diversity Award’ by the Independent Publishing Group (IPG). Among the 22 publishers shortlisted for awards in 8 categories are global companies Faber & Faber, Bloomsbury Publishing and Carlton Publishing Group.
Urbantopia was congratulated by the judges on its books for young people and its use of libraries and educational institutions to reach readers. “Urbantopia has captured the spirit of diversity very well,” they noted. “It has done its research, understands its audience and fills a gap in the market.” It was shortlisted along with The 100-Minute Press and Arcadia Books for the IPG Diversity Award. The winners will be announced March 10.
Last year Urbantopia won the Creative Business of the Year award at the UK-based PRECIOUS Awards in recognition of Ola’s outstanding performance as a publisher. The PRECIOUS Awards was founded to celebrate the achievements of “inspirational entrepreneurial women of colour” who are running businesses in the UK. The publishing house was also a 2010 Smarta 100 winner. The Smarta 100 awards are designed to recognize the most “innovative, exciting, promising, disruptive new businesses” in the UK that serve as cornerstones of communities.
Ola Laniyan-Amoako’s progress is all the more remarkable considering that she self-funded her publishing venture. She tries to keep costs down by hiring unemployed graduates to illustrate her books and do the cover art. This also helps them gain exposure for their talents and gives them an opportunity to inspire young people. Ola says she hopes the books will encourage youths to tell their story – even if they aren’t great in English class.
Born in Britain, Ola, 31, spent part of her childhood in Nigeria. A writer herself, she has written several books, including teen novels and an adult novel. Her children’s book, Tooth Collectors, also published by Urbantopia, has been shortlisted for the children’s category of The People’s Book Prize. She writes and runs her business whilst maintaining a full time job as a Deputy Head of a primary school in Basildon, Essex. She previously worked as a teacher in Hackney. She is also a wife and a mother of a two year old son, Ruben.
“The experience has been exciting because I have enjoyed watching my knowledge and the company grow,” said Ola. “It has been amazing seeing an idea turning into a product but the greatest part has been the fact that people have been complimentary towards what I’ve done and the books have had positive feedback and reviews. It has, off course, been a crazy challenge because I have a beautiful yet demanding three year old boy and juggling can be exhausting but God has given me the strength so I continue to push on.”
She’s thrilled by the awards she has received and is grateful that her efforts are being recognized. She’s also excited about her nomination for the IPG Diversity Award.
“It feels amazing!! I came into publishing with only one thing – ‘passion’ and I’m always questioning my strategies. Being nominated is confirmation that I am doing things correctly and it is also confirmation that the publishing industry has accepted Urbantopia and the service it provides,” said Ola.
Meanwhile she presses on, resolute and undeterred, determined to bring to Black and Ethnic Minority communities, and young readers far and wide, books that are true to the realities of everyday life and tell stories they can relate to.
“Our aim at Urbantopia Books is to ensure that every child has access to a book that they can relate to. A book they can enjoy and a character they can identify with regardless of their cultural background,” said Ola.