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Aimée Felone: Creating books to help children of color see themselves

Knights Of co-founder, Aimée Felone. Courtesy Aimée Felone

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Change comes in all shapes and sizes, causing seismic shifts and small ripples in industries, businesses and the economy. In the series “Changemakers,” Marketplace explores the changes five women have made in their respective industries, and what they hope to see moving forward.

In 2017 book editor Aimée Felone left her job with Scholastic book publishers to create her own company, Knights Of, with David Stevens. Their goal was simple: to publish inclusive children’s books. One year later, they launched the London-based bookstore “Round Table Books.”

Their work resonated with the British public, in part because in the same year Knights Of was launched, a report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education revealed that only 1% of kids books featured black, Asian, or minority characters. In England alone, 32% of children are children of color.

Felone has used the success of her bookstore to push inclusion in the publishing industry at large. By late 2019, the CLPE found that the number of books featuring black, Asian and other minority characters increased to 7%.

Aimée Felone joined me to outline her journey in business and how she’s changing the conversation in the U.K. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Christabel Nsiah-Buadi: Why did you start Knights Of?

Aimée Felone: I’ve been in publishing for five years now. My journey into publishing took me six months of unpaid internships and then six months of paid internships. By the time I’d done a year of interning, I felt like, yeah, I really know how to be an intern.

I got into children’s publishing specifically because I was a massive reader as a kid — loved reading and loved that feeling of escape that you get when you’re a kid. I wanted to work in the places that created that feeling.

So I did the entry-level job, got the promotion, worked in the corporate office. I was the only person in editorial who wasn’t white and whilst the industry has a lot of conversations around diversity and inclusion, things move really slowly and I got really frustrated and quite despondent and then met my [Knights Of] co-founder, David Stevens, at the place that I used to work at. We both left independently and launched Knights Of to actually do something.

I think that’s the biggest thing — moving away from conversation and doing something that is establishing itself as permanent change. We’re still making kids’ books like the rest of the industry. We just have a particular focus on making sure that our teams are as diverse as possible. And by default, everything we publish is inclusive.

Nsiah-Buadi: What was the landscape of children’s book publishing that you found yourself in?

Felone: In the U.K., I think kids’ books [publishing] is an extremely white, female, homogeneous, middle-class, Oxford-educated space. And I think there’s a dissonance between those who are sometimes waving that diversity flag and when you look around and it’s like, “OK, so where are these ‘diverse’ people?” It doesn’t add up.

I think I have to realize what it means for me to be in the industry and what that means for even younger kids. I’ve had emails from kids, and a young black girl sticks out to me, just being like: “I saw you on the TV and I realized that I should be reading characters that look like me and I’ve realized that maybe I want to work in publishing.” I think it’s extremely powerful to be in a position where the change that you’re talking about is actually embodied in who you are, as well.

Nsiah-Buadi: What other ways have you seen your business change the landscape, aside from publishing?

Felone: So the [pop-up] bookshop came about because it was Knights Of’s first birthday and there was a report that came out that showed only 1% of kids’ books featured black, Asian and minority ethnic characters.

We started a hashtag on Twitter — #ReadtheOnePercent — so instead of taking what is a very negative [report] and “you can’t deny that’s awful” statistic, we tried to focus instead on the 1% [of books with minority characters] that do exist to celebrate them, and to amplify them. And hopefully people will say “OK, there is only 1% but I should actually be supporting this 1%.” And it got a lot of traction.

So we put all the books that qualify for the 1% into a physical space so that people would come along for five days and actually show the support they were showing online in a material way. And we sold more than 500 books in five days.

Then people kept asking us, “Why don’t you guys stay permanently? How can we support you?” And we were like, why don’t we try and run a crowdfunding campaign and see if we can raise at least £30,000?

As a company, as Knights Of, we were always trying to find that place where we can bring our conversation to a physical space. And whilst we never thought the bookshop would be that physical space, it’s what the people in the community demanded. So we kind of felt a responsibility to provide what they’ve demanded.

Nsiah-Buadi: Looking at the business side of things, how has your business grown?

Felone: We have six books out at the moment. The bookshop is already sustaining itself, but it’s already showing that there is demand for inclusive titles. So I know this, anecdotally, that we have caused a lot of the bigger houses to have to start to look at this [diversity in books] in a real way.

To listen to Aimee Felone, click on the audio player above.

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