Over at Booktrust Sita Brahmachari is the new online writer in residence. This is a brilliant scheme to link up writers with readers and we can’t think of a better person to get involved than Sita. We are huge fans of Sita’s writing and especially of her determination to treat her readers as politically switched-on, thinking young adults who are part of real-world communities in which adults have not been handily sidelined – as they so often are in books for children and young people ”“ but are there for young people to deal with as in life.
Recently Sita interviewed Mairi about inclusion, diversity and our recent participation in the Inclusive Minds ”˜I’m In’ day. Sita’s blog post is over here and today we have a bit more of the conversation here on our own blog. Thanks to Booktrust for permission to post Sita’s sections.
SITA: I know that we share a view that stories have diversity not as an ”˜issue’ but simply integral to the process of writing for a diverse population of readers. How far do you think we have to go until this representation is achieved?
MAIRI: Quite a way! Look at Harry Potter ”“ for all there’s Cho Chang and Parvati Patil (I have a problem with those names but let’s leave that aside for the moment), Harry, Ron and Hermione are all white, and the staff and vast majority of the pupils are too. And to the best of my knowledge we’ve never really had that conversation in the children’s book world. They’ve certainly raised the point in the States, where there is awareness that genres such as sci-fi and fantasy can be very white ”“ world upon world of ”˜aliens’ and white people ”“ mostly men – where even a lot of ”˜aliens’ are white people with, say, pointy ears. Look at the Lord of the Rings films. Are there any black characters? Er”¦ no.
Some fans of Tolkein would say that there shouldn’t be black people as this is not accurate to the vision Tolkein had or attitudes to diversity at the time he was writing. But that didn’t stop the BBC putting black actors into Merlin or The Three Musketeers. And of course the argument only ever seems to work one way ”“ people who would oppose ”˜historically inaccurate’ black characters rarely take issue with the ”˜whitewashing’ that sees, say, peely-wally representations of Jesus all over the shop. I remember being in Ethiopia and loving the art that showed Bible characters as Habesha people. It was very refreshing.
SITA: Are there any obstacles in this pathway?
MAIRI: The big obstacle is unconscious bias, I think. Take Harry Potter again. J. K. Rowling once argued (or at least the internet says she did) that Harry represents the modern world in that he is mixed race ”“ magic and muggle – and Hermione salved Rowling’s feminist conscience because she is the brightest of the bunch. Thinking that one has somehow been inclusive in ethnicity terms by writing a white character is absurd ”“ and part of that mainstream worldview that the world essentially belongs to white people. And a bright studious female ”˜supporting actor’ is (a) still only a supporting actor and (b) no great challenge to the stereotypes that hold women back in the world.
In fairness to J. K. Rowling, I think that Harry Potter has been seriously overloaded by the hype and she has had to reverse engineer it into something else. It started life as a story about a wizard boy and became a sort of cultural touchstone ”“ and that makes its lack of diversity a much bigger issue.
SITA: My sense is that there is a growing awareness of your books as books that have been properly researched to give access to dyslexic readers but that they have a much wider impact. As a children’s writer for the age range I write there is not much opportunity to write short stories and I have found that I really enjoy them. Readers must also feel this. You have talked about the lack of stigma to reading a Barrington Stoke Book.
MAIRI: The most important bit for me is that we publish stories we love ”“ and we’re all ”˜good’ readers. We don’t have much truck with the ”˜oh but those are special books and my child won’t read them’ argument ”“ they’re short, but so is On Chesil Beach. And it’s so important that they’re in bookshops, not just special needs cupboards. All of us in the book industry need to grow readers if we are to survive, and it depresses me that there’s not more interest in interrogating the industry when we discuss reluctant readers. To give a controversial example, I believe that reading schemes can damage readers’ motivation if they are used for too long. It’s not always the reader that’s ”˜at fault’ – the books can be too.
SITA: Have you had any direct responses from children/ librarians and educators about any of your books where children have found themselves and what impact that has had?
MAIRI: We’ve had a lot of positive review coverage and great feedback from customers like the inclusive bookseller Letterbox Library. The letters we receive in the office tend to focus more on the impact of children being able to access the books. But I know that our authors meet young people on an almost daily basis who respond positively to reading about communities and experiences like their own in our books.
SITA: I’m interested in Barrington Stoke’s Young Editor’s Scheme. Can you give me a few examples of when comments from the editors have caused writers to re-think elements of the story?
MAIRI: We published a book last year in which one child calls Prity, an Indian girl, a ”˜Paki’. He does so without understanding that the usage is wrong and offensive.
When our Young Editors returned the manuscript, they had all crossed the word ”˜Paki’ out, because they knew that it was a word no one should use. They didn’t have the reading skills to infer from the context that this was the very point the book was making. If you think about it, an inexperienced reader may not understand that characters in books who do bad things are not necessarily endorsed by the author. (Interestingly, adults who object to strong language in books often fail to see the distinction too).
We thought long and hard about this particular issue and in the end we came up with a solution with the author, which was simply to state explicitly that Prity doesn’t know whether the boy intends to be horrible, but he has been horrible. The young editors were happy with that.
SITA: Thanks Mairi I really appreciate your time on this. I wanted to talk to you because you are doing really ground breaking work in publishing around diversity in its widest interpretation and through your modes of distribution your books are impacting on a very wide range of people across generations”¦. Giving them access to literacy and a real love of reading.
Thanks for your deeply political work in an often purely consumerist world and am very proud to be writing books for you.