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Children’s literature needs a reality check, writes Neelam Dongha

In the world of education, buzzwords are ever popular. Words like diversity and inclusion trip off tongues like ice-cream down a toddler’s top. But how can we make such concepts more than just the current flavour of the month? How can we engrain them into the fabric of our educational framework?

The list of sayings propounding the virtues of variety and celebrating our differences is seemingly endless. We are all used to hearing phrases like “variety is the spice of life”, “each to their own” and “horses for courses”. So why is that we have such an incredibly narrow spectrum of life represented in our children’s literature?

There are over 11 million people with a disability in the UK, according to government statistics, which equates to nearly one in five people. However, children’s literature does not reflect this. It is rare to find a character with a disability, much less so where he or she is the main character. It is not just disability that is underrepresented but other groups too. I will refer to diversity and inclusion as “D and I” and mean it to include a range of diverse characteristics such as those relating to mental health, ethnicity, race, religion, non-traditional family structures (such as gay parents), socio-economic status and so on.

Supply and demand

For me, the chasm between reality and the way it is depicted in children’s books raises three important questions: why do we have this misrepresentation? What is its impact? What can we do about it? 

It is worth thinking about these issues, as an economist might, in terms of supply and demand. On the supply side, I think it is quite daunting for authors to write about characters with conditions or backgrounds that are different to their own. An author might find it easier and perhaps safer to research and write about a character set in a historical age than about a child with a disability. A writer might be nervous to assign feelings and get it “wrong” so there may be a tendency to avoid tackling these subjects. The fact is, we would not expect writers to try to represent every diverse group in their fiction; what we want is for authors to make their fictional worlds honest and authentic. My 11-year-old son has just finished reading The Football Boy Wonder, book one of the Charlie Fry series, where the main character has cystic fibrosis. When I asked him what he thought of it he said, “It was different in a good way. It is more exciting because you do not know what is going to happen to him because of his cystic fibrosis.”

Having said this, it is easy to lay the blame at the feet of the authors and say that there aren't enough books that cover the D and I spectrum. There is another side to the coin. We need to dig further and look at the whole supply and demand relationship. Authors are not purely altruistic beings: they write books that they think will sell. Publishers select books that they think will sell. Therefore, publishers have a role to play by selecting and promoting books that advocate D and I. We can all chortle at the well-known story of J.K. Rowling being turned down by lots of publishers. I wonder though, would Bloomsbury still have had the last laugh if Harry Potter had been black, disabled and gay? 

So let's go further up the demand chain where we find parents, teachers and even libraries. They can play a part by actively encouraging and promoting books which feature characters from all walks of life with their children and pupils. I am not advocating any book that ticks a D and I checklist; we want real, three-dimensional characters, not just token gestures.

Diversity matters

So what are the ramifications of limiting the range of characters in children’s literature? Does it send out a subconscious message that having a disability is a bad thing and we shouldn't talk about it, or that people from diverse groups are inferior? It must feel quite isolating to never be able to relate to any of the characters in the books you read. In Pea's Book of Holidays, Susie Day created a character who has hemiplegia. A young reader, Alice, who has hemiplegia herself, said “It was really nice to read a story with someone in it who has the same condition as me.”  

In a recent article, former children's laureate Malorie Blackman recounted how she felt growing up: “I didn't see myself reflected in what I was reading at all. I'd see the world of white, middle class eyes, and that was not my world. Then she came upon Othello as one of her A Level texts and recalls, “I was stunned that he was black.” 

Clearly, in an age where there are so many different pressures on our children – such as societal pressures to achieve in education, sport, music and employment, or pressures to look a certain way – inclusive literature can offer a real lifeline. Children's author Cerrie Bernell is a real D and I advocate. Born with one hand, she struggled as a child to find characters like herself in books. “As a writer, this is something I champion because it resonates in my own heart. We need to show every child that they belong between the pages of great literature, regardless of heritage, faith, ability or financial security.”

What can we do?

The problems with diversity and inclusion in children’s literature are complicated and long-standing, but I believe a great deal can be achieved if we all take a brave and positive approach.

Authors: get out of your comfort zones! Do your research and dare to venture into unknown territory and create amazing characters from diverse groups. Let's have more authors like those mentioned above who are striving to redress this serious imbalance. Imagine how wonderful it would be for more children to be able to find characters like themselves and to lose themselves in the joy of books.

Publishers: choose books that feature diverse characters and actively promote them!

Parents and teachers: buy books for your children and pupils that include authentic characters with disabilities and that promote diversity.

With PSHE now an integral part of the curriculum, D and I in literature should underpin this. In an SEN Magazine article (SEN77, July/August 2015), Sandra Saint wrote: “PSHE education helps us all continue to recognise that every individual is unique, different and special. The most effective education generally (and specifically within PSHE education) is that which is truly inclusive and which, by default, celebrates these differences.” What better way for children to learn this than through their fictional worlds?

When considering all these issues, I am often reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Dr. Seuss: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

We all want our children to have self-esteem and to feel proud to be exactly who they are, just as they are. We also want to raise them to be empathetic to others and accepting of differences. So let’s work together to put D and I into the children’s literacy landscape. 

Further information

Neelam Dongha is Press and Communications Officer at HemiHelp, the national charity for hemiplegia: www.hemihelp.org.uk  

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