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A Year of Publishing Diversely (as a prelude to doing so for ever)


Last winter we wrote about the ‘Place at the Table’ event and ‘Everybody In’ charter for the publishing industry. Last week we attended our first Independent Publishers’ Guild Sub-committee on Diversity, of which we are a proud new member.

These groups and discussions really matter in the publishing industry. In the words of Stephen Page of Faber, UK publishing falls “behind the truth of the society we publish to”. It is an overwhelmingly white, middle-class world, and its output is reflective of this. Page goes on to identify workforce development as key, and of course we agree. But we think that we also need to think much harder about our books. If huge swathes of society are not represented in what we publish, what motivation is there for more people to get involved in the industry?

Diversity is still very often seen as an add-on, an afterthought, or a niche for someone else to publish into while the big houses get on with defining the mass market as a very white place. We’re not even very good as an industry at ’fessing up to what we’re doing; an argument we read once that Harry Potter is a diverse title because Harry is half Muggle and half magic and therefore representative of mixed race persons is a case in point. There, as they say, is your white privilege in action.

Authors Nikesh Shukla and Jon McGregor have garnered press coverage recently for their Good Immigrant project on Unbound. The #diversityDecember hashtag has sprung up and a couple of publishers have made splash about seeking more diverse authors for their very white lists. At least one of these is young enough to beg the question of why it neglected diversity before.

To paraphrase another awareness-raising campaign, we believe that diversity isn’t just for Christmas. And so we’re going to do it differently. We’re going to do #diversity2016 – and then #diversity2017, #diversity2018 and so on. That’s to say, a whole programme informed by inclusion and access. We’re going to ensure that every contemporary title accurately reflects the “truth of the society we live in”. We’re going to make sure we have diverse protagonists, diverse minor characters, diverse illustration and diverse authors.

Here are some definitions we are using:

  • we consider an ‘accessible’ title to be one laid out with attention to the barriers that might prevent an individual with dyslexia, visual stress or any reading difficulty accessing the book
  • we consider a diverse and/or inclusive book as one which fairly represents the diverse context of the UK
  • we consider it important to ensure that no representation of any character is stereotypical and that minorities or other individuals vulnerable to exclusion or prejudice are not represented in reductive roles in our storytelling
  • we need books foregrounding the experiences of specific communities or individuals, as well as those embracing diversity as the natural, unremarkable context of modern life
  • we consider a diverse author roster as being one which includes BAME authors and authors with disabilities including hidden disabilities. We are aware that women writers have been traditionally less published in specific genres and are committed to equality in our publishing in these areas.

Our 2016 books

Car Wash Wish by Sita Brahmachari has a BAME protagonist who has Asperger’s Sydrome. Two historical titles are feminist in slant. Queen of the Silver Arrow by Caroline Lawrence is the story of a warrior princess of early Rome. A Dark Trade by Mary Hooper explores the powerlessness of single women in Victorian society, and in the end two female characters leave to make a life for themselves, perhaps as friends or perhaps – the suggestion is implicit – as more. Jeremy Strong’s Ostrich of Pudding Lane is set in a typical modern inner-city primary school, with appropriately diverse representations in its artwork.

We Are Not Frogs by Michael Morpurgo and Sam Usher is a picture book with dyslexia-friendly layout to help support parents and carers who struggle with reading in sharing books with their children too. The human protagonists are not white; this is entirely incidental and not mentioned in the text.

We also publish John Agard’s Going Batty, a celebration of a marvellously diverse London community. Protagonist Shona has Caribbean heritage of which her dad is extremely proud.

In Tom Palmer’s Flyboy, a young Sikh boy uncovers the story of Hardit Singh Malik, the first Sikh pilot in WWI. Bali Rai has written recently on the whitewashing of Britain’s military history and we are very proud to publish this book as part of ongoing WWI commemorations.

Karen McCombie’s OMG Blog focuses on a realistically diverse group of friends in a city school with differing family set-ups and Kaye Umansky’s Bigger and Better challenges the idea that all characters in fairytale adaptations should be white – Jack in this version is black. Gillian Cross’s Amber’s Song represents a diverse school context in its illustrations. In Malorie Blackman’s Peacemaker we have a BAME protagonist, and also a sci-fi novel written by a woman and in which women are the key protagonists.

The Crystal Stair is a follow-on to Catherine Fisher’s dystopian At the World’s End. Will, one of the two protagonists, is represented as black on the cover of At the World’s End.

Much of our May publishing is teen fiction in which no one’s appearance or ethnic origin is described or specified. While one might argue that this leaves room for these titles to be considered diverse – or at least not non-diverse – we are aware that unconscious bias means that many readers will assume that they are white. This is something we’re thinking about going forward.

Sniper, the second instalment in Chris Bradford’s action-packed Bulletcatcher trilogy, represents a very diverse group of characters. Alan Gibbons’s The Lion Roars is about a young Senegalese footballer coming to Europe.

July to November
Beyond July the programme is still subject to some change but a particular highlight is Alpha by Barroux and Bessora, a graphic novel about one man’s journey from North Africa to Europe in search of his family (read more about it here). Non Pratt’s Unboxed is reflective of the population of a typical city school and includes a storyline about coming out. Jackie Morris’s The Arctic Fox is about an Inuit boy’s quest for identity and Georgia Byng weaves a gorgeous story of love and acceptance around a Victorian girl born with no nose.

A note
As a group, we don’t quite fit the London publishing mould, we have a strong interest in accessibility (obviously) and in certain minority representation issues, and we try to remain well informed. We also consult children widely as part of our ‘Young Editors’ process and they often tell us their thoughts on representation.

But of course we appreciate that diversity as prescribed by one small group of people is no diversity truly seen, and we welcome thoughts and feedback on our publishing from any individual or group moved to respond.

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