YouTube star Humza Arshad on the lack of diversity in kids' books
24 May 2019
With nearly 100 million views, Humza Arshad is an internet superstar. Now he's taking his most famous creation in a new direction with the release of his first children's book. BBC Arts Digital caught up with the comedian and writer ahead of his Hay Festival debut.
Back in 2010 Humza Arshad noticed a gap in the comedy market and decided he was the man to fill it.
I didn’t feel like I was seeing things that appealed to a young urban, Asian audience.Humza Arshad
He says: "I started a YouTube channel with a video called Diary of a Badman because I felt like mainstream TV was missing a trick. I didn’t feel like I was seeing things that appealed to a young, urban, Asian audience. The last thing I could really remember was Goodness Gracious Me [the BBC Two sketch series ended in 2001]. When I started making videos there was nothing out there.
"I created a character that I felt appealed and resonated with a lot of people. It really worked and went viral. And it completely changed my life."
The success of the channel - Humza Productions - led to a range of other opportunities for Arshad. As well landing a BBC Three series, Coconut, he's worked on anti-extremism projects with the police and is one of YouTube's Creators for Change, the video giant's initiative to tackle social issues throughout the world.
Now Arshad is taking his unique worldview into the world of publishing. His first book, Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties, sees an 11-year-old Humza Khan (Badman) facing the strange problem of all his teachers being replaced by aunties.
Only 1% of children’s books feature a BAME main characterCentre for Literacy in Primary Education
The book, which Arshad co-wrote with his regular writing partner Henry White, is an unusual proposition in the world of children's publishing in that the main character is from an ethnic minority.
A study of children's literature published in the UK in 2017 by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found only 1% of children's books featured a BAME main character.
Arshad says: "I knew it was going to be a low number but when I realised it was 1%, I was shocked. I’ve got so many friends from different ethnicities and traditions and cultures. In terms of books, for us to only have 1% representation, it’s a shame really.
"You want diverse voices to give their perspectives and stories from their angles – it benefits everyone. For the general public, it’s great to see a story from a different lens and to be able to be educated about a different culture. Forget the colour side, I just think everyone should have a fair shot at telling a good story."
That certainly wasn't Arshad's experience growing up.
He recalls: "All I would see in books were white faces, that was the norm. It wasn’t even in my mind that I was missing out on something. When I started writing this book, I realised I didn’t really read a lot of books as a child and I hadn't been fascinated by books. I think that’s because I wasn’t intrigued by them and had never found a connection with them.
"A story like this, about a young Asian kid, I’d have been super excited because I’d have been able to relate to them. I read stuff like James and the Giant Peach - and they are great stories - but nothing really resonated with me."
Arshad hopes that his book will have a lasting impact on the young people who read it.
A lot of Asian kids would come up to get their book signed and say that this was their first ever book.Humza Arshad
He says: "I went to a school recently on my book tour and was talking about how I wished I could have read something I could relate to, a book about an Asian kid who looked like me. There were kids at the front nodding like they understood the problem. These kids are so clued up! I didn’t realise it at the time but kids nowadays notice these things, they understand the world is changing and there are more stories to be told.
"A lot of Asian kids would come up to get their book signed and say that this was their first ever book. A lot of the younger generation now, they don’t read and I think one of the big reasons why is because there’s not a lot of stuff that appeals to them.
"It’s so rewarding to me that I’m encouraging kids from different backgrounds to read and maybe inspire future writers too."
Humza Arshad was one of nine YouTubers appointed to the Creators for Change programme in 2016.
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Humza Arshad will introduce Little Badman to the Hay Festival audience on Thursday 30 May at 14:30. Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties, by Henry White and Humza Arshad, is published by Puffin.