How can we ensure that children’s books reflect the real experiences of kids?
In recent years, diversity has become an increasingly hot topic in the children’s book industry, with articles and campaigns both in the UK and the US calling for more diverse children’s books.
However, in using the term “diversity”, people often assume the discussion relates solely to culture, race and heritage. In fact, the need is wide-ranging, with a dearth of books relevant to additional needs and disability, for example. Gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, family composition and religion also need to be more visible. For this reason, talking about the need for “inclusive” books sometimes seems more appropriate than “diverse” books. When we discuss inclusive books we refer to great stories that happen to include a diverse range of characters, without necessarily focusing on what makes them diverse.
Why does it matter?
Inclusive books not only provide the opportunity for children who are often underrepresented to see themselves in books and as equals, but for all children to become familiar with characters who may look or behave slightly differently, or use different equipment to them, but who are fundamentally just the same.
Having worked with children with additional needs, we’ve seen directly the impact that an inclusive book can have – from the huge grin when a child recognises a character in a book who is wearing a wrist splint just like the one they (reluctantly) wear, to the partially sighted child enjoying a tactile book designed specifically with his needs in mind.
What makes a book inclusive?
Inclusion isn’t necessarily difficult, but it has to be authentic. For a long time, a child using an oversized old-fashioned wheelchair (usually being pushed by someone rather than self-propelled) was the only representation of additional needs that could be found in a children’s book. Fortunately, this has changed in recent years, with children now being shown, for example, wearing eye patches (and not just pirates), signing, and using other forms of mobility equipment. Some books even challenge the idea of being “wheelchair bound” by showing characters out of their wheelchairs – a wonderful antidote to stories in the past where children were magically “cured” by their “goodness”.
In order for inclusion to be authentic, the writer, illustrator and publisher must consider the whole character rather than just their impairment, or whatever else it is that might make them “different”. Any reader will find it much easier to relate to a fully rounded character with a wide range of interests, than to someone who is one-dimensional and only included in order to tick a diversity box.
Selecting inclusive books
When choosing books, research and selection is key. There are an increasing number of great inclusive books available, but there are also a number that perpetuate stereotypes, or reinforce a single story.
When selecting inclusive books for use in school, it’s important to look out for books with an engaging story and high-quality illustrations, characters who have a variety of interests and those using modern equipment and who are playing alongside their peers. Books that show that parents and grandparents can be disabled too are also essential; children need to see that disabled people can have relationships, careers and a family, just like anyone else. The case of the child who thought their impairment would disappear when they grew up because they never saw any disabled adults is indicative of the importance of this.
Making a difference
So what’s being done about this and how can you be involved? To ensure real and lasting change in terms of inclusive and accessible books, all sectors of the children’s book world need to be involved. Writers and illustrators from different backgrounds need to be given the opportunity to get published; agents and scouts need to be on the lookout for compelling stories which include characters from under or misrepresented backgrounds; young people and adults with real experience need to be consulted to ensure authenticity; publishing houses need diverse workforces; libraries and booksellers need to be able to find, stock and display more inclusive titles; schools need the tools to source good inclusive and accessible books; book reviews and blogs need to highlight the best new inclusive titles – and so the list goes on.
Schools can support this by, for example, carefully selecting the books that they stock, and aiming to have a fully inclusive book collection (rather than a separate section) and by seeking out and supporting publishers, authors, illustrators and booksellers who create and curate high-quality inclusive books.
Various events and initiatives are allowing the children’s book world to explore ways of achieving true inclusivity. One of these encourages people, from publishers to teachers, to consider what action they personally could take as a step towards inclusivity. Because if we all do one small thing to make a change, the cumulative result will be far greater than the sum of the parts. Are you in?
Charters for change
Everybody In charters have been developed for the publishing and bookselling industries as a result of the recent A Place at the Table event, a roundtable forum where publishers, booksellers, teachers and librarians came together to show their support for a more inclusive children’s book world, debate the barriers to change, and identify practical and commercially sound solutions. The possibility of developing charter material for use in schools and libraries is being explored with the relevant agencies and organisations.
Alexandra Strick and Beth Cox are the founders of Inclusive Minds, a collaboration of consultants and campaigners working towards inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s books: