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How Banji Alexander’s new book helps children to understand the Covid-19 pandemic – and themselves

This Black History Month, UCL-trained teacher-turned-author Banji Alexander (PGCE Primary 2016) discusses the inspiration behind his new book and the importance of diversity in children's literature.

Banji Alexander, IOE alumnus

21 October 2022

After delivering online classes to his year 3 students during the day, in December 2020, as the UK was going through a second national lockdown, Banji Alexander (PGCE Primary 2016) put pen to paper and his debut children’s book, Lockdown Looms: Reggie’s Birthday Party, was born.

Lockdown Looms: Reggie's Birthday Party front cover

Lockdown Looms: Reggie’s Birthday Party, which tells the story of seven-year-old Reggie as he navigates the trials and tribulations of celebrating a birthday during a pandemic, has since won praise from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who thanked Banji for going “above and beyond” to show care and commitment to his students throughout the pandemic.

Although Banji had started writing other children’s books before, he felt compelled to finish Reggie’s story for his year 3 class – to whom the book is dedicated.

Covering topics including masks, social distancing, home schooling, vaccinations, bereavements and food shortages, the book was written “to allay the fears of my learners surrounding the pandemic, help them to understand what they were going through and facilitate discussions around mental health and wellbeing,” explains Banji.

While juggling teaching and writing amidst a pandemic brought its challenges, Banji reflects on that period with pride. “By writing the book, I was able to turn a negative into a positive and inspire and motivate my learners in a creative way. It was a real career highlight for me,” he says.

Laying the groundwork

Banji’s teaching career started as a student at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society, where he undertook a placement in a school with disadvantaged pupils - an experience that Banji says prepared him fully for his career in the classroom. “I think the opportunity to train and do my placement at a very challenging school really set me in good stead for the rest of my teaching career and gave me the skills needed to teach anywhere,” he explains.

As he developed his career, Banji notes the invaluable role his UCL network played. “When I was at UCL I was very interested in networking and meeting new professionals from around the world. I’ve stayed in touch with many of the people I met. It really does help me to have a network of teachers with whom I can share best practice. There’s that famous saying, your network is your net worth!”

Addressing under-representation

After completing his PGCE at UCL, Banji worked in several London schools, most recently in South East London, where he taught many students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

When it came to writing Lockdown Looms: Reggie’s Birthday Party, Banji says it was crucial for him to reflect his students in the characters he created. “The book includes a diverse range of characters which hopefully represents all the children that I’ve come across in London.”

While the situation is now slowly improving, there has long been a lack of diversity in children's books. “As a child, if you don’t see yourself reflected in the stories you are reading, it can be very disorientating,” comments Banji.

“I deliberately made Reggie’s dad, who’s Black, a scientist,” he adds. “This was important as I wanted to expand the roles that young kids, particularly Black children, are exposed to. I wanted to offer more variety, other than the really obvious choices which they feel are accessible to them, like sports and entertainment. Representation for that reason is very important: to guide and show children that people from similar backgrounds as them have gone on to achieve things they may not have considered possible.”

Looking ahead

Now a full-time author, Banji is currently promoting Lockdown Looms: Reggie’s Birthday Party on a book tour in schools across the UK where he speaks to 2000 new children every week. He doesn’t rule out a move back to the classroom, however. “Once a teacher, always a teacher!” he says.

A return to UCL is also a possibility. “I love the architecture at UCL and spending time in the libraries. When time permits, I’ll definitely be back to enrol on another course. I miss studying – it keeps your brain young!”