A BLOG OF BOOK REVIEWS, LIBRARY NEWS, EVENTS, WEBSITES AND MORE!
Friday, October 17, 2014
Making children's books more diverse: what you can do
Authors and illustrators Alex Strick, Sean Stockdale and Ros Asquith set a couple of challenges for the next time you go to a library or bookshop – and here’s something you can do to make a difference with the ‘Everybody In’ campaign
Here’s a little challenge for you when you are next in a library. It might be your school or college library, or perhaps a public library or maybe even a bookshop. Anyhow, just pluck ten children’s books from the shelves – at random.
Now let’s see what you’ve got. We’re willing to bet that the majority of the leading characters in the books in front of you are white (unless you chose from the picture book section – in which case they may well be rabbits or bears!). You’ll almost certainly find more leading male characters than female (yes, even amongst the bunnies and bears). They will probably live in the UK or USA; the chances are they have a fairly conventional family structure and we’d also be willing to bet that none of the characters are disabled in any way.
So what’s wrong with that? Books need to cater for the majority, after all. But there are at least two problems with this argument. For one thing, it’s fine if you happen to be white, male and non-disabled (or a bunny or a bear) but what about all the children who are black or mixed race and those who are disabled or whose family doesn’t happen to conform to the ‘usual’ structure? Isn’t it important that they can see themselves in books, too? What about the little girl wet met last year who had never seen someone in a book who, like her, wore a hearing aid? And the boy who couldn’t find a mixed race character to dress up as for World Book Day?
Secondly, do children really only want to read about other children who are like them, anyway? Surely not – wouldn’t it be boring if everyone was the same? Books can play such a valuable role in exposing us to new ideas and experiences, allowing us to walk in other people’s shoes. They need to offer us ‘windows’ as well as ‘mirrors’.
And there’s another problem: if you leave out all those thousands of people who happen to use a wheelchair or have two mums or are from a traveller community, are you not also indirectly saying something about what society considers normal or acceptable?
The problem isn’t simply that there just aren’t enough books out there which do feature such characters. There is also the fact that where they do appear, the messages aren’t always altogether helpful. To illustrate our point, another challenge for you. Try to think of a book featuring a disabled character. Or if you can’t, how about a story featuring a stepmother. Or perhaps an orphan. Once you’ve thought of one, think about how that person is depicted. The chances are it’s less than positive. Traditionally, many books (and indeed films) show disabled characters as villains (think Captain Hook, James Bond villains with facial scars or pirates with eye patches and wooden legs), or alternatively, they could be depicted as weak and sickly (think Heidi or The Secret Garden). Likewise, fairy tales tell us that all stepmothers are wicked and children who came from unconventional family set-ups are isolated social misfits. And what about those who are just different? How about a boy who really enjoys sewing, while his step-sister combines ballet with particle physics? Or perhaps their granny prefers watching Breaking Bad to making tea?
Those are extreme examples and things are starting to change, but we’ve still got a long way to go if we are going to counter all those rather dated pictures of society. We believe that alongside all the other wondrous things – robots, aliens, gruffalos, vampires, dragons and wizards – that they have to offer, books need to show a few more images of society as it really is: diverse. We feel that there should be a place for every child and it doesn’t need to be overt – books can include all children naturally, subtly and without comment.
We feel this so strongly that we set out to do exactly that in the picture book we all worked on together (Max the Champion) where we managed to ‘casually’ include a vast range of disabled children. And of course it’s not just disability we are talking about. Ros has also successfully shown how diverse families can be in her Great Big Book of Families and offered up lots more natural inclusivity in the equally wonderful Great Big Book of Feelings,both created with Mary Hoffman. More recently,Welcome to the Family also reminds us that there are many ways to make a family.
So there is a small but growing number of diverse books out there but we’d like to see many more – and for all ages. And we would like to see the books which do feature a diverse range of characters getting the recognition they deserve. For just that reason, we’re pleased that there’s now a new initiative calling for all publishers to look at how they can make their books as inclusive as possible. It’s called ‘Everybody In’ and should pave the way to a new diverse world of books for all of us!
So come on, are you in? Tweet “I’m in” to @InclusiveMinds using the hashtag #everybodyin to show your support!