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Alexandra Strick looks at how books from around the world can inform the UK landscape for children’s books 

The UK children’s book industry appears to be enjoying something of a heyday.

The digital era has not killed off the printed book, as many predicted a few years ago. But rather, we see a UK industry publishing 10,000 children’s books a year, and reporting record sales and a healthy increase in exports. The popularity of big names like JK Rowling, Julia Donaldson and David Walliams attracts hosts of enthusiastic new young readers and plays a key role in bolstering sales. What’s more, having seen a previous decline in high-street bookshops, the tide appears to have turned and we are seeing a new wave of independent children’s bookshops.  

And while we worry about the amount of time our children spend looking at screens, where books are concerned, it seems, children actually favour the traditional paper format. In a study of children in Year 4 and Year 6 (The Digital Reading Habits of Children, BookTrust, 2016), those with regular access to devices with e-reading capability tended not to use their devices for reading – even when they were daily book readers.

So all in all (and library cuts aside), one would think this is a positive time for the humble book. Added to this positive news is an increased awareness of the need for real diversity – it’s a key theme on every conference programme and in numerous articles and media pieces. So with all this in mind, surely it follows that there must be a wealth of books out there to suit any and every child?  

My answer (rather irritatingly) would be yes and no. It’s true that book creators and publishers are now more aware of the need for every child to be represented in books.  As a result, children’s books are becoming more inclusive in their imagery and storylines. One can now find many more books featuring disabled characters than a decade ago – and not just wheelchairs and other more obvious forms of disability, but also the less visible conditions, such as dyslexia, mental health disorders and selective mutism, to name but a few. 

However, where accessibility is concerned, I would argue the book world is doing rather less well.  

Listening to young people with SEN and disabilities

Pitifully few mainstream children’s books take into consideration the needs of disabled children. Even when one considers basic levels of accessibility (such as adequate font sizes, strong contrast, uncomplicated backgrounds), the vast majority of picture books would fail on many counts. When we move into the realms of more complex needs, the landscape is disturbingly barren. 

One interesting development in recent years is the emergence of a greater number of inclusive and accessible books from around the world. Whilst not yet published in the UK, these are books with much to offer – new approaches, ideas and learning points – that could surely help strengthen the UK industry and help fill gaps where inclusivity and accessibility are concerned. 

Such gaps surely include books featuring communication symbols. There is a gem of a book, in this regard, from Sweden called Pelle In Space (Pelle på planetfärd ) by Jan Loof. In addition to the standard mainstream book, the publisher had also worked with a disability charity to create and publish an alternative version with abridged text and Widgit symbols. The book was also supported by a series of flash cards.  Surely it is worth encouraging mainstream publishers to consider collaborating with specialist manufacturers or charities in this way to create accessible versions of books to supplement mainstream editions. 

A series of board books from Italy called Pesci Parlanti features fairy tales designed for children with autism and created by a specialist, Enza Crivelli. These are books designed specifically to be more accessible to those with reduced communication skills. Clear illustrations are printed on the right-hand side, while the story is structured in simple sentences accompanied by Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) on the left-hand side. The pages are softly curved and feature a unique “easy turn” format – a simple but extremely effective enhancement to the standard board book.

Understanding sensory needs  

Books with tactile content are also, of course, of great value to many children with additional needs. In this area, the UK book industry could be seen to be quite prolific, producing many mainstream touch and feel books. However, such books are aimed almost entirely at pre-school audiences. As a result, themes are generally limited – as is the range of textures and shapes. Completely missing are books to engage older children with sensory or learning difficulties – books with real narrative, supported by relevant, varied and stimulating tactile experience.  

To support a diverse range of needs, tactile books need to offer meaningful and identifiable shapes, as opposed to random patches of fur.

The book industry also needs to look for opportunities to include braille in a few mainstream books, ideally also supported by tactile/embossed images or braille descriptions of images. Braille must be appropriately sized, spaced and projected from the page to allow the desired audience to read it.

There are also ways of ensuring deaf children are better supported, although at the moment there seems to be an absence of British Sign Language (BSL) in the mainstream book landscape. Whilst ideally some books could include BSL throughout, even simply including a glossary of signs at the end of a book could really help deaf children.

E-books and audio books have a valuable role to play in enhancing accessibility and bringing books to life for children with different needs. E-book production is on the decline in the UK, but it is important to remember that for some children, these books offer an important opening into the world of reading. Similarly, large-format books are of huge value in supporting group readings. 

Positively speaking

More positive images of disability are unarguably needed within the children’s book landscape. Historically, disability has tended to be depicted in a negative light, with disabled characters being associated with evil, unfortunate or less pleasant traits. It is also worth noting that we all have a natural “negative bias”, meaning that anything of a less positive nature has a greater effect on our processes than the same levels of positive or neutral matter. More recently, many books may have tended therefore to go to the other extreme, glamourising disability, or presenting disabled characters as having exceptional powers or inevitably saving the day.  As such, in a desire to present a positive and inclusive picture of the disabled child, the children’s book landscape risks failing to show reality. Books, in the UK in particular, are also at risk of trying to “play it safe”.

Stereotyping has also been a common pitfall in children’s books, particularly where the form of disability featured has not been adequately researched. Many of the most convincing depictions of disabled people are written from personal experience or after having clearly undertaken extensive research, thus helping ensure authentic depictions. Books also need to avoid sensationalising conditions such as autism or showing only extremes. The landscape must reflect a range of different experiences of any condition, to ensure that readers see a spectrum of different views and experiences, as opposed to a single story.

In terms of good practice, there are many books which have adopted innovative ways of looking at disability.  Particularly worthy of note where deafness is concerned, for example, is a book called Answer Me Leila by Nadine Kaadan, published in Syria. This beautiful picture book tells the story of a deaf princess, based very loosely on Rapunzel. However, in this case, the princess is an empowered figure, while her prince learns that it is he who must change, not her. Another highly original title, Zitti’s Cake Shop (La pasticceria Zitti) by Rosa Tiziana Bruno, features a deaf pastry chef and explores the extraordinary and universal properties of food as a form of communication, reminding us that real understanding does not always need words. 

Turning interest into reality

In conclusion, it is admittedly an exciting time for children’s books, with healthy industry growth and genuine interest in diversity and inclusion. So surely now more than ever is the time to take action to strengthen the UK’s provision for children with additional needs. Books such as those highlighted in this article don’t just serve to improve accessibility for a minority but they actually enrich the landscape and improve understanding for us all. Looking forward, let’s hope that many more of the thousands of children’s books each year genuinely include the perspectives, needs and experiences of all children.

Further information

Alexandra Strick is the co-founder of Outside in World, a small not-for-profit organisation set up to celebrate books from around the world, particularly children’s books in translation. With funding from Arts Council England and the Unwin Charitable Trust, the organisation ran a project called Reading the Way to identify books originating from other countries which were significant in terms of being accessible and/or inclusive. The project’s findings have informed this article: 

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