I was approached by Writing West Midlands, who had heard that Birmingham City Council were looking for a way to commemorate the centenary of the first women to get the vote. The council commissioned the book, and I worked with local female-run publisher The Emma Press and a team of female illustrators to produce Once Upon a Time in Birmingham: Women Who Dared to Dream, which was launched at this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival.
Rather than celebrate the achievements of one woman, the council wanted to find a way to celebrate as many amazing (and yet unknown) women and their achievements as possible.
Everyone involved in the project wanted this to be a book with a difference, not a traditional ‘local history’ book, but something girls would want to pick up and read. Ultimately the book aims to inspire the city’s next generation of female achievers to continue to blaze that trail…
2. What was it like working on/being part of this book?
The intention was always that this should be a book about, by and for Birmingham women.
We asked for public nominations, and they came flooding in via a social media campaign #BhamRemembers. More than 130 women’s names were put forward across a wide range of disciplines, all of whom either had a fantastic history or an inspiring story to tell. As a result, we had to bring in some real experts – a group of young female writers from Spark Young Writers - representing the book’s target audience (11-16 year olds) for a special nominations session. They worked in groups to pick the 30 women featured in this book.
What I found as a writer was that story was key – it was paramount to bring each woman to life and go beyond merely listing her achievements to really capturing her essence: the qualities she possessed, what drove her, and who contributed in her formative years to make her so determined to succeed. Once Upon a Time In Birmingham… is a book about, by and for Birmingham women – so every woman involved in this book’s journey is either based in or has links with the city.
3. What kind of responses have you had from the book?
There’s a section at the back of the book where our panel of young writers give their responses to the stories within… here’s what they had to say:
'The women we have chosen are all, without exception, worthy of their place in this book. They’ve fought, often against discrimination or prejudice, to achieve things that have earned them a place between these pages but, even more so, a place in our hearts.'
EVE CONNOR, AGED 14
'All of the women in this book are true pioneers and excellent role models. We wanted to help promote the achievements of women and how much of an influence they are on our daily lives.'
MILJA STEVENSON, AGED 13
'Many of these women are unsung heroes. I was astounded by how few I had heard of before. It seems that few care to acknowledge the achievements of women; to remedy this, we need to celebrate women’s attainments, past and present.'
MARYAM ALTAMANE, AGED 15
4. Can you tell us about some women who inspire you?
There are so many in the book... We have a female engineer, Asha Devi, who designed some of Birmingham’s most well-known landmarks. She also volunteered in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack at Ground Zero in New York.
There’s Raj Holness, a survivor of domestic abuse who went on to launch a project to help other women in a similar situation.
We have women from the arts, like author Kit de Waal and ballerina Marion Tait, and prominent sportswomen and scientists, too.
We have many firsts: Mary Lee Berners-Lee, an early pioneer of computer programming; Jessie Eden, who fought for women’s rights in the workplace; Lisa Clayton, who sailed single-handed and nonstop around the world…
There are also ordinary, everyday women like Joye Beckett, who ran a drama group for teenagers, and Clare Rowland, who works in the city centre with young people experiencing mental health issues.
You can find out more about Once Upon a Time in Birmingham and order your copy (£14.99) here.
Photo: Jack Spicer Adams