Alexandra Strick of Inclusive Minds explores the current interest in diversity issues and looks at how to turn good intentions into action.
Diversity is a word very much on everyone’s lips at the moment. It’s the subject of many blogs, press column inches and social media campaigns, as well as being brought to the fore recently by children’s laureate Malorie Blackman. There’s a strong feeling that children’s books are not diverse enough and there’s growing pressure on publishers to change this.
Many people associate the word ‘diversity’ principally or even solely with cultural diversity. But of course it incorporates all marginalised groups including disabled people (whether physically or intellectually), those who identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender (LBGTQ*) and those with LBGTQ* parents, people of all ethnicities and heritage including mixed heritage, and people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. We also need to think about gender, as we still haven’t achieved equality in this area.
Beth Cox and I set up Inclusive Minds because we believe that books need to reflect society as it really is in all its diversity. ALL children need to see themselves in books – and not just themselves, but their families, peers, lives, communities and the world they live in. At the moment, this simply isn’t the case.
However, books which feature marginalised groups are all too often perceived as niche or specialist. Many publishers admit that they steer away from publishing these books, as they think they’re of interest to only a small minority of readers. Inclusive Minds aims to spread the message that such books are important for all children.
Even when they are published they tend not to be promoted in the same way as ‘mainstream’ books. If they do make it as far as public or school libraries, they are often found only on shelves labelled ‘special issues’ or ‘diversity’. This means the majority of children don’t come into contact with them, and it also reinforces negative messages about difference and normality..
We need to make sure we offer books which feature an aspect of diversity as a key theme, as well as those which include it casually, without any comment.
It’s important that they are ‘good’ inclusive books. At Inclusive Minds people often recommend titles to us purely on the basis that they feature a disabled character, a gay protagonist or a same-sex couple. However some ostensibly inclusive books actually exacerbate common myths or reinforce stereotypes. For this reason, a key role of Inclusive Minds is to work closely with children’s publishers to help them develop their understanding of diversity and apply that knowledge to their individual lists.
First and foremost, inclusive books must have good stories, be well written (and well illustrated in the case of picture books) and appeal to the target age group. If this isn’t the case, the benefits of any inclusive elements fast become irrelevant.
Here are some things to consider when selecting inclusive books for your library:
– Does the book actively challenge some of the stereotypes and accepted norms about gender and gender roles? Boys don’t always have to wear blue and play football, girls don’t need to have unfeasibly long eyelashes and play with dolls. Seek out books portraying nurturing, caring boys and adventurous, ambitious girls and avoid books that are labelled for a particular gender.
– Does the book feature a broad range of disabled characters (not just wheelchair users)? With a bit of research, you’ll find books featuring everything from a princess who wears glasses to an adult with mental health issues.
– Remember families come in all shapes and sizes. And where a family is ‘non-traditional’ this doesn’t always need to be depicted as an issue, challenge or problem. Lone parents and same-sex parents can appear naturally and without comment. Stepmothers aren’t all evil and an only child isn’t automatically spoiled or forlorn.
These suggestions are merely a starting point. The list below contains just a few of the many gems we have found. Letterbox Library offers a vast array of diverse and inclusive books, including many not readily available in the UK. We hope you enjoy researching ideas for your inclusive library.
Malorie Blackman in the Guardian:
Book suggestions from Inclusive Minds:
One Two Three . . . Run, Carol Thompson, Child’s Play,
In this series of baby books about the joy of movement, we see that even simple board books can feature characters with additional needs. Carol Thompson’s vibrant illustrations are a sheer delight.
Max The Champion, Sean Stockdale, Alex Strick and Ros Asquith, Frances Lincoln, 978-1847805195, £6.99 pbk
This book features forms of disability never before included in books, subtly and without reference.
Welcome to the Family , Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, Frances Lincoln, 978-1847804617, £11.99
This offers a wealth of positive images and different family structures. Also look out for The Great Big Book of Families and The Great Big Book of Feelings from the same team.
The Lost Stars, Hannah Cumming, Child’s Play, 978-1846434167, £5.99 pbk
What happens when the stars decide to take a holiday? A subtly inclusive picture book about appreciating the world’s natural beauty, featuring same-sex parents, a female mechanic and a wheelchair-using businesswoman.
Made By Raffi, Craig Pomranz and Margaret Chamberlain, Frances Lincoln, 978-1847804334, £12.99 hbk
Meet Raffi – a delightfully understated hero who quietly refuses to accept traditional gender stereotypes, choosing to learn to knit instead of playing football. A lovely story about finding the confidence to go one’s own way, further enhanced by a good inclusive cast of characters.
Lulu Loves Stories, Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw, Alanna Books, 978-1907825002, £4.99
Lulu loves stories – and the books she reads inspire her to be everything from a fairy to a farmer, a mummy to a monster, a tiger to a tiny pilot. Shows Dad as primary carer and even comes with audio version read in English and then in 18 other languages.
Because Amelia Smiled, David Ezra Stein, Candlewick, 978-0763641696 £11.99 hbk
One child’s smile causes a chain reaction, putting smiles on the faces of different kinds of people right across the world, creating all sorts of affirmative gestures and finally making it back to the little girl herself.
The Django, Levi Pinfold, Templar, 978-1848771017, £6.99 pbk
Based on the story of legendary jazz musician Django Reinhardt, this visually spectacular book depicts the Romany gypsy traveller lifestyle that the young Django lived as a child. Funny, fascinating and beautiful in its authenticity.
Fussy Freya, Katherine Quarmby and Piet Grobler, Frances Lincoln, 978-1847800459, £6.99 pbk
A little girl decides to start turning up her nose at the food her family puts in front of her, announcing that the dhal and rice “are just not nice.” Her grandparents have to play a mischievous trick on her to return her to her usual eating habits.
Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury, 978-0747564683 £5.99 pbk
Rosie and Bailey are best friends, but things are changing and Bailey (who is visually impaired) is going to a different school. Thankfully their journey towards independence is made easier by the inimitable Granny Torrelli with her wealth of life advice and mouthwatering Italian recipes.
Replica, Jack Heath, Oxford University Press, 978-0192737663, £6.99 pbk
A wild rollercoaster of a science fiction read which won’t let you pause for breath, this book boasts strong central female characters and some interesting questions about identity and freedom. However, what makes it stand out for us is the ‘non-issue’ inclusion of LGBT characters.
Whisper, Chrissie Keighery, Templar, 978-1848775466, £6.99 pbk
As well as the subtly inclusive books, we need books which help to develop a deeper understanding of subjects like (in this case) deafness. It is rare enough to find a book featuring a deaf protaganist, but few books come close to this one in terms of reflecting the spectrum of emotions, views and experiences of deafness. It also happens to be, quite simply, a great teen read.
Alex Strick has worked in the children’s book world for much of the past fifteen years. At Booktrust, she managed programmes like Bookstart and Children’s Book Week, was deputy executive director and regularly reviewed children’s books for the Guardian. She is now a consultant to Booktrust on all aspects of disability and diversity.