Dutch author and illustrator Mylo Freeman created Princess Arabella – a black princess who’s "strong-willed, funny and sweet” – so that children of colour would have a character to look up to. Eight years on and with two Arabella books from the series published in the UK, the princess’s popularity is growing fast. We met Freeman to discuss why diversity in children’s literature is so important, and why we need to see more diverse characters as protagonists and role models.
How and when did you first realise you wanted to do this project?
A drama-teacher friend told me about one of her pupils: an eight-year-old girl from Surinam. She’d wanted to give her the role of a princess in a play, but the little girl had refused, saying, “I’m black – I’m not blonde and blue-eyed like a princess is supposed to be.” This struck me as really sad and also quite shocking because, even though I’m mixed race, it had never really occurred to me before. But, when you think about it, black children in books are never the main character – they’re always the sidekicks or in the background. Being a picture-book maker, I thought, well, this is a opportunity to make things right. So I had the image, the character and the story of Princess Arabella quite fast.
Why is your book essential reading for children?
I believe it’s important for every child, black or white. Black children should be able to identify with something – and the princess role is key here; Arabella is a girl who has everything, she’s not poor and she’s confident. And, for white children, I think it’s also important for them to see black children in roles that are more…
Yeah, exactly. It’s about being self-confident and having self-worth – the feeling that you can achieve almost anything. Of course, children have to be gripped by the storyline, but maybe much later they’ll see the meaning behind it and think, well, hey, that’s nice, it’s a black princess. And Arabella is a character who’s very strong-willed. She has a mind of her own, but is also funny and sweet.
When you think about it, black children in books are never the main character; they’re always the sidekicks, or in the background. Being a picture-book maker, I thought, well, this is a opportunity to make things right
DO YOU THINK YOUR MESSAGE IS GETTING THROUGH?
Well, in Holland, we have a feast called Sinterklaas every year and it’s recently become very controversial. Sinterklaas is this old bishop who sits on a horse and he has these helpers or slaves called Black Petes. The Black Petes walk around the horse carrying his presents. Eight years ago, children hadn’t seen many black fictional characters before. When I first started visiting schools for readings and showed the kids the Arabella books and doll, they’d all say, “Oh look, it’s Black Pete!” Nowadays, though, they all recognise it’s Princess Arabella, so it’s obvious she’s been a good and positive role model.
You’ve said that it’s important for children to see themselves through both “mirrors and windows”. Can you explain what you mean by this?
When black children turn on the TV, go to the movies or open a book, they are so used to seeing mainly white characters, and of course for a white child this is normal. But if a black child can read a book with a black main character in it, then that’s a mirror – they might relate to, or aspire to, the character more. It’s important to be able to open up children’s minds to the world. So, for a black child you could say that Princess Arabella is a mirror, and for a white child, a window.
That’s a nice analogy. so how have children and parents been reacting to the series?
Oh, very positively. Also, I think the timing is right – people are starting to think more consciously about diversity, especially now that the world is opening up and becoming smaller. And, in the later books (because there are more books coming), Arabella’s best friends are a Moroccan prince and a Chinese princess and also a blonde princess. So she has this whole group of friends that sort of represent the whole world, in a way.
So what’s the future for you, and for Arabella?
Well, I just finished my 10th book. One day, I’d love to have an animation series made about Arabella and her friends. That would be so great because we could reach so many children – that would be my ultimate dream!