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A Place at the Table: Increasing diversity in children’s books

A Place at the TableWe’re In!
On Wednesday we took part in A Place at the Table, an event for the children’s publishing industry to discuss ways of increasing diversity in children’s books. Hosted by Inclusive Minds founders Alexandra Strick and Beth Cox, the event took as its template a similar day held in New York, and refined and adapted the approach for the UK.

We kicked off with background from Beth and Alex, including the important point that we all have unconscious bias and are programmed to prefer ”˜ourselves’. The fact that the room was almost entirely populated by white middle class women was lost on no one. Another point of Beth’s that made me think was about unconscious decisions: we don’t have to believe a stereotype for it to affect our behaviour.

In an inspirational keynote Anna McQuinn shared her own experiences of publishing her Lulu Loves books and cited a great quote by Arthur Ashe:

‘Start where you are

Use what you have

Do what you can’

Anna McQuinn and Fen from Letterbox Library

Anna McQuinn and Fen from Letterbox Library

”˜We wouldn’t listen to anyone who said you can’t put a black character on a jacket’
The main action was a series of round-table discussions with artist facilitators including James Dawson and Jane Ray. It was heartening in many ways; we heard a lot of examples of good practice in publishing, bookselling and libraries. Many publishers felt that the industry was moving forward and thinking about diversity as standard.

On the other hand we noted that there is a lack of diversity in the publishing workforce and, to perhaps a slightly lesser degree, in the authors and illustrators we publish. We thought there was a tendency for diverse representations of children to be stronger in ”˜best friend’ and ”˜sidekick’ roles than in main protagonists. And differing family models and so forth are still more common in books exploring these specific situations so, for example, most picture books still represent traditional, 2-parent biological families.

I had to stick my Barrington Stoke oar in and say that access to books is by no means a given for many children, and access to accessible books is even trickier. We talked about the fact that there’s a supply-and-demand model at play in the booktrade and it is important that customers ask for diversity in books too.

We briefly questioned whether some of the big, attention-grabbing book prizes might introduce some kind of special commendation for diversity and/or accessibility.

What we do already
Barrington Stoke publishes with an eye to the needs of children who don’t engage with books. As well as dyslexia and other ”˜issues’, we think about other reasons they may not be into reading. One of those, we have always thought, it that a lot of children can’t ”˜find themselves’ in books.

We have published authors from all four corners of Britain and further afield. We’ve published traditional tales from across the globe. We’ve published authors writing about their own diverse communities, and other authors writing about diverse communities to which they don’t necessarily belong.

We’ve published books about children in other countries, children newly arrived from other countries, and children whose heritage may lie in another country in some dim and distant or more recent past but that is in no way the point of the story. We’ve had a protagonist with Asperger’s (it’s never said in the book), one with dyslexia and one with cerebral palsy. We’ve had LGBT characters and straight characters and many, many characters for whom sexuality isn’t the point of the story and so who knows what their orientation might be? (There’s a but, of course, as Inclusive Minds would tell me ”“ most readers will automatically assume a character conforms to a ”˜norm’ unless there is evidence to the contrary).

We also make a point of publishing stories that acknowledge that not everyone lives in a nuclear family, biological-mum-and-dad scenario and we’ve used that simply as a backdrop since, for many children, it’s just the norm. But we know that parental separation and more extreme experiences such as bereavement or time in state care can be very distressing and we’ve published stories that deal with these as the pressing item on the mind of the characters.

What we try never to do is to publish ”˜issues’ books that are nothing more or less than that. We want to transport children into an imaginative realm, and we think that children who don’t find themselves in books, or children who feel they don’t fit in in life, need and deserve that even more than anyone else.

Illustrated books ride again
At the event I mentioned having disliked a ”˜diverse’ book I read recently because the author had a girl in a wheelchair ”˜wheeling over’ and ”˜wheeling off’ and ”˜wheeling round’ all the time. It was as though the poor child had no right to the verbs ”˜go’ or ”˜come’, and for me it acted like a big flashing sign saying ”˜LOOK! SHE’S IN A WHEELCHAIR!” lest we should ever forget.

As I said it I realised that Barrington Stoke routinely uses illustration to increase diverse representation ”“ and this is easier for us because we use illustration in books in which a ”˜standard’ publisher would probably not use illustration at all. We do it, traditionally anyway, to boost readers’ comprehension. But actually we illustrate some books we don’t ”˜need’ to illustrate, with illustrations that don’t necessarily add anything to understanding of the text, other than perhaps a signal of mood or tone. Anthony McGowan’s Brock has a gorgeous collotype running across the bottom of every page, for example.

We also use illustration because we love it. Author Sally Gardner is a great advocate for illustrated books, recalling that she found it very sad as a young person that the ”˜reward’ for progressing in reading was that the pictures were taken away. Perhaps current trends for beautiful illustrated books such as Sally’s own Tinder and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls might see more artwork in children’s publishing regardless of ”˜level’. And perhaps that would offer a chance to challenge in visuals the tendency to view all characters as white, without requiring authors to foreground characters’ colour in the text (something that only happens to characters who are not white, of course). Although I do remember there was a controversy when Rue in the Hunger Games film was cast with a black actress and it turned out that many fans had missed the fact she is described as black in the book, so unconscious bias can evidently override even clear content.

A Charter for Publishing and our action plans
Inclusive Minds plan to launch a charter publishers will sign up to, with a range of commitments including, perhaps most importantly, the determination to continue to interrogate our own publishing decisions and look for examples of ways to make our lists more diverse.

Mairi

Barrington Stoke MD Mairi Kidd (left) and Shannon Cullen, Penguin Random House Children’s Fiction Publisher

We’re in. Are you?
Do you think the industry is moving forward, or is it kidding itself? Are there still big taboos? Are there big gaping holes we might think about as we plan our publishing going forward?

We’d love to hear your thoughts and will enter all commenters into a prize draw to win a selection of six diverse books from the Barrington Stoke list.

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