Lenny Henry at Wimbledon BookFest event
The comedian and author on diversity in books and inspiring children to read
Lenny Henry wanted to write a children’s book as he didn’t see characters that looked like him in the stories that he loved as a kid. Speaking as part of a World Book Day event for Wimbledon BookFest, the comedian and author offered advice to children on how to write a story and discussed his own journey to create diverse characters in his work.
Over 1,000 school children from Merton gathered at New Wimbledon Theatre for his inspiring session.
Lenny added that his favourite books growing up were The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Lord of the Rings and comics including Beano, Iron Man and Spider-Man.
He has written three children’s books: The Boy With Wings, The Book of Legends and a special version of the Boy With Wings – Attack of the Raging Robot – for World Book Day.
The main character in The Boy With Wings is Tunde. “I wanted a kid in there that looked like me, that had black skin. I loved Lord of the Rings and I read all the Narnia books but how cool would it be if there was a kid like me…
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” he quoted, in reference to the importance of role models in books that reflect the wider world.
Tunde has super-power – a pair of wings. His friends include Kylie, who is in a wheelchair. Said Lenny: “She rocks that wheelchair. She is brilliant at archery and sports using her wheelchair …” In The Book of Legends, Lenny has created a character who is deaf and uses sign language.
Lenny read from his books, and, much to the delight of the audience, shared some of the jokes he included in them as well as asking the children for their top gags. He then invited six children on stage to help create a character with him.
He was asked for his tips for writing. He said that you need to read widely, take a notebook everywhere to jot down your ideas and always write down anything you see that is out of the ordinary.
“All the best writers read as much as they can. So read, and enjoy the rock and roll of words. Have tea and biscuits and comfy slippers to hand – whatever you need to feel relaxed, and then enjoy it. Making up your own stories is fun.”
Lenny has loved writing since he was a child. When a member of the audience asked him how it felt when he saw his first published book, Lenny said that he cried as he had always wanted to do a book where he could see himself in it.
Catching up with Lenny backstage, he told Time & Leisure how important the World Book Day initiative is and why we need to encourage children to read as much as possible. “There are 500,000 kids in this country who don’t own a book. The biggest indicator of progress for a kid is reading so this is really so important.” With many children going to school dressed as their favourite character for World Book Day, what would Lenny liked to have gone as? “I’d be Spider Man – I’ve loved him since I was little. And the whole thing of shooting webs out of your wrists and jumping from building to building, I mean how cool is that?”
He also encourages children to go their local library. “Books give you so much knowledge, it’s a terrible shame to have all these books on display in your library and not take advantage of them. When I was eight or nine, my Aunty Pearl took me to Dudley library and said, ‘the world is here, enjoy’. And that was me for the next 10 years of my life. I’m reading five books at the moment. Go and join a library and get stuck in.”
Lenny has a huge amount of passion for his writing, but what have been the challenges? Getting that initial confidence, he says. “You have to have this thing inside you that says, ‘it’s going to be ok. Once I have the characters and they start talking to each other I know it’s going to be alright, especially when they start being funny.”