J.T Wil­li­ams is the author of the Liz­zie and Belle Mys­ter­ies series, which fol­lows two Black Brit­ish girls in 18th-cen­tury Lon­don as they solve mys­ter­ies and uncov­er the hid­den his­tor­ies of Black people in that era. Wil­li­ams was inspired to write the series after dis­cov­er­ing the intriguing life stor­ies of Dido Belle and Igna­tius San­c­ho and feel­ing com­pelled to make their stor­ies more vis­ible for young­er read­ers. The series is aimed at middle-grade read­ers and bal­ances com­pel­ling mys­ter­ies with relat­able and enga­ging char­ac­ters. The latest book in the series, “Por­traits and Pois­on,” involves a com­plex mys­tery that touches on issues of power and priv­ilege in 18th-cen­tury Lon­don. Wil­li­ams’ work as an edu­cat­or and his­tor­i­an is evid­ent in her writ­ing, which is both inform­at­ive and enga­ging.

We catch up with J.T Wil­li­ams on pub­lic­a­tion day of Liz­zie and Belle ‘Por­traits and Pois­on’ to learn more about her incred­ible jour­ney.

What inspired you to write a mys­tery series set in eight­eenth-cen­tury Lon­don and fea­tur­ing two Black Brit­ish his­tor­ic­al fig­ures?

His­tory fas­cin­ates me. What new les­sons can we learn from past lives? I grew up devour­ing nov­els writ­ten long ago, and I love watch­ing a peri­od drama on TV. But as a Black Brit­ish woman, I always wondered where people like me were in those stor­ies.
Later in life I dis­covered through my own read­ing and research that there were around fif­teen thou­sand Black people liv­ing in Lon­don in the eight­eenth cen­tury (out of a Lon­don pop­u­la­tion of around 650 000), but in films and TV dra­mas of those times, and later, we seemed to have been air­brushed out of the pic­ture, or pic­tured only in the back­ground, at the edges, in the mar­gins.

When I saw the por­trait of Dido Belle at Ken­wood House, and later, the paint­ing of Igna­tius San­c­ho, and found out more about their intriguing life stor­ies, I felt com­pelled to make those stor­ies more vis­ible for young­er read­ers.

I wanted to shine a light on the Black Abol­i­tion­ists who res­isted slavery by rebelling, by run­ning away to seek their free­dom, by writ­ing to expose the hor­rors of slavery and assert them­selves as human beings deserving of respect. Those are the stor­ies are chil­dren should be hear­ing about.

How did you approach research­ing the his­tor­ic­al con­text for your book, and what chal­lenges did you face in bring­ing this peri­od to life for young read­ers?

The 18th cen­tury is not the most ‘famil­i­ar’ peri­od in Brit­ish his­tory for young­er read­ers, and the teach­ing of Black Brit­ish his­tory is still lack­ing. At primary school you learn about The Tudors, the Vic­tori­ans, World War Two, maybe even the Vik­ings, but silence sur­rounds the Geor­gi­an era. I sus­pect that this is because this is the time when Bri­tain was at the height of its slavetrad­ing power, and that’s a story that is still being sup­pressed.
So the main chal­lenge is — how to tell that story so that it is not trau­mat­iz­ing for young­er read­ers? By hav­ing Liz­zie and Belle as the guides through the story, I wanted to cre­ate space for young read­ers to have a mor­al response, and to have a sense of agency, by uncov­er­ing and chal­len­ging these crimes.
If we don’t talk about that dif­fi­cult his­tory, we risk los­ing all the oth­er stor­ies that come with it. Stor­ies of Black res­ist­ance and resi­li­ence, of sur­viv­ing and thriv­ing, and even joy, love, fam­ily­hood, kin­ship and com­munity-mak­ing.
You have to paint the set­tings in fine detail, to immerse read­ers in the envir­on­ment: the streets, the houses, San­c­hos’ Tea Shop. It all has to have a sens­ory power to draw read­ers in. What does it look like? What does it sound like? How does it feel to be run­ning around those streets?

The Liz­zie and Belle Mys­ter­ies series is aimed at middle-grade read­ers. How do you bal­ance writ­ing a com­pel­ling mys­tery with cre­at­ing relat­able and enga­ging char­ac­ters for this age group?

Char­ac­ter is key. I wanted Liz­zie and Belle, two bold and bril­liant Black Brit­ish girls, to form a friend­ship, a detect­ive part­ner­ship, to solve the crimes they wit­ness. Each girl has her own unique per­son­al­ity, her own skills and approach to detec­tion.
It’s cru­cial that the girls tell their own stor­ies. The Black girl’s voice had to be at the centre of everything. The first book, Drama and Danger, is writ­ten from Lizzie’s per­spect­ive, in her voice.
Liz­zie is curi­ous and cour­ageous, dir­ect and determ­ined. She has street smarts from grow­ing up in her family’s busy shop. She doesn’t have time for eight­eenth cen­tury etiquette like wear­ing massive dresses, curt­sey­ing, or overly elab­or­ate speech! So I took license with the lan­guage to give her a very dir­ect, con­tem­por­ary voice. I was think­ing, what might a girl of today make of the eight­eenth cen­tury if she were to go back in time?
Belle takes over the storytelling for Por­traits and Pois­on: we get a deep­er insight into her fam­ily life and how she handles her friend­ship with Liz­zie. The chal­lenges of friend­ship, fam­ily, these are con­stants of human life, wheth­er now or 250 years ago.

In Por­traits and Pois­on, Liz­zie and Belle are faced with a com­plex mys­tery that involves a stolen paint­ing and a con­spir­acy with links to the kid­nap­ping of Liz­zie’s friend Mer­cury. How did you go about cre­at­ing the plot for this book, and what chal­lenges did you encounter in keep­ing the mys­tery enga­ging for young read­ers?

Writ­ing a mys­tery is com­plic­ated! It’s like put­ting a puzzle togeth­er: you have to know what your end point is before you get into the detail of how it’s going to play out. You’re inter­twin­ing a series of threads. For me, plot­ting involves lots of col­our cod­ing, lots of post-it notes.
For years I’ve wanted to address the issue of how Black people were rep­res­en­ted in European art in the eight­eenth cen­tury. Pushed to the edge or the bot­tom of the can­vas, gaz­ing up at a white sub­ject, a tray of fruit or flowers in their hands. And those people were young — often chil­dren. So I had to chal­lenge it. And bring those unnamed chil­dren to the centre.
I think the engage­ment comes from the emo­tion­al con­nec­tion. Again, it is Liz­zie who provides that beat­ing heart for the book because she responds to situ­ations with her gut, with her emo­tions. So I’m tak­ing these his­tor­ic­al situ­ations and flesh­ing out the emo­tion­al impact they would have had.
Ulti­mately, the girls are dis­cov­er­ing — and chal­len­ging — the cor­rup­tion behind power and priv­ilege. That’s a situ­ation as rel­ev­ant today as it was back then.

Your work as an edu­cat­or and his­tor­i­an is evid­ent in your writ­ing, which encour­ages chil­dren to explore hid­den his­tor­ies. Can you talk about the import­ance of rep­res­ent­a­tion and diversity in chil­dren’s lit­er­at­ure, and how your books con­trib­ute to this con­ver­sa­tion?

We know that it is cru­cial that chil­dren see them­selves rep­res­en­ted in the books they read in order to feel they belong in the world and that they belong in the world of lit­er­at­ure. I want to make vis­ible that Black pres­ence in Britain’s past, and do so in a way that can instil pride, that reveals the con­tri­bu­tion we have been mak­ing for cen­tur­ies to the health, wealth and cul­tur­al life of this nation. And that pos­it­ive rep­res­ent­a­tion of Black com­munit­ies is equally import­ant for chil­dren who aren’t Black, too. They need to have a more roun­ded sense of Britain’s past: they also live in a diverse soci­ety.
Present­ing a white­washed world in lit­er­at­ure is not doing any favours to any of our chil­dren. So now we all have a lot of work to do to undo that dam­age and make cul­tur­al mater­i­al that restores our sense of pride, that invites us to hold our heads up high. Black Pan­ther, The Woman King, these films have done that on a glob­al scale. That kind of rep­res­ent­a­tion should run across all genres of story, for all our young read­ers: action, thrill­er, mys­tery, fantasy, sci-fi, his­tor­ic­al adven­ture, fam­ily dra­mas, friend­ship stor­ies…

The Liz­zie and Belle Mys­ter­ies series is developed by Story­mix, which cre­ates path­ways for UK BME authors and illus­trat­ors into chil­dren’s book cre­ation. How import­ant is it to have ini­ti­at­ives like Story­mix in the pub­lish­ing industry, and what impact do you think they can have on pro­mot­ing diversity in chil­dren’s lit­er­at­ure?

It’s cru­cial — I can’t emphas­ise it enough. So the stark imbal­ances and gaps in rep­res­ent­a­tion revealed by those Reflect­ing Real­it­ies reports (CLPE) are due to poor rep­res­ent­a­tion in the pub­lish­ing industry. That goes for writers, edit­ors, agents — Black people are under­rep­res­en­ted at all these levels, so of course the books com­ing out are going to reflect that. At the begin­ning of Drama and Danger, the first book in the series, Liz­zie says, ‘Until the lions have their own storytellers, the story of the hunt will always glor­i­fy the hunter.’ She says that ‘if we don’t’ tell our own stor­ies, someone else will do it for us, and if we let them do that, how can we trust them to tell it right?’ Until more cre­at­ors of col­our have a genu­ine foothold in the industry, we need ini­ti­at­ives like Story­mix to bring our stor­ies to the centre, and to cre­ate beau­ti­ful and bril­liant Black char­ac­ters for chil­dren — all chil­dren — to read about.

What advice do you have for young read­ers who are inter­ested in writ­ing their own stor­ies or pur­su­ing a career in writ­ing?

Keep read­ing, keep listen­ing, keep writ­ing! Read your work aloud dur­ing the pro­cess — after every sen­tence if you like! — to see how it sounds. And edit, edit, edit. Your voice will soon come in the sound of it. Remem­ber that inspir­a­tion comes from every­where: it might be music, films, daily exper­i­ences, friend­ships, fam­ily. I have writ­ten diar­ies since my teen years. It’s great prac­tice for express­ing your thoughts in writ­ten words. Get togeth­er with friends who love writ­ing — hold show­cases amongst yourselves, read your work aloud to each oth­er. Tell the stor­ies that are import­ant to you.

Finally, what can read­ers expect from the next book in the Liz­zie and Belle Mys­ter­ies series, and what are your plans for future writ­ing pro­jects?

I def­in­itely have more ideas for The Liz­zie and Belle Mys­ter­ies in the bag. My research keeps throw­ing up more and more sur­prises — watch this space!
I’m also writ­ing for adults at the moment and work­ing on some fas­cin­at­ing fam­ily his­tory. The stor­ies of our own fam­il­ies can often be the most intriguing when it comes to dis­cov­er­ing his­tory.
Ulti­mately, I’m grate­ful that I get to read and write every day. There are many more stor­ies to come, believe!

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Mark Mukasa

Mark Mukasa

Mark is a South Lon­don based writer and avid fan of all things hip hop. He’s also an MMA and his­tory enthu­si­ast who tries to keep his love of animé under wraps.

About Mark Mukasa

Mark Mukasa
Mark is a South London based writer and avid fan of all things hip hop. He's also an MMA and history enthusiast who tries to keep his love of anime under wraps.