Another year Is drawing to a close and a first glance at 2014 does not inspire a great deal of optimism. Public libraries continued to be closed. Professional children’s librarians are no longer the norm as posts are removed or staffed by unqualified assistants or volunteers and there is little incentive for anyone to become qualified. School libraries are also suffering because of spending cuts. Bookshops are continually struggling as Amazon’s shadow seems to stretch ever further. And literacy – or the absence of literacy – is still making headlines.
But the landscape is not completely gloomy. Liverpool Council announced a reprieve on its proposed closure of 11 of its 19 branches, though staffing may still be hit. An influential report on school libraries, The Beating Heart of the School, drew attention to their importance. The recently-launched Read On, Get On campaign is raising the profile of reading as a valuable activity for all ages. Literacy and reading for pleasure are once more on the curriculum. Reading and how it engages or affects the brain is attracting attention and research in this area continues; indeed a recent article suggested that it is not just reading, but reading the book as a physical object, that has particular value. Other initiatives – for instance the Summer Reading Challenge, World Book Day, the growth in children shadowing book awards like the Carnegie – all attract publicity and excitement. It seems the book is far from dead. In fact, children’s book sales have increased with YA – yes, the age notorious for not reading! – contributing substantially to that, and public libraries are seeing a rise in borrowing. We must hope these positives continue into the coming year.
There are still many other challenges, of course, for 2015. One of the main ones is the issue of diversity. Thirty years ago there was an active campaign to ensure that the books children read reflected the diversity of contemporary society. The Books for Keeps Guide to Children’s Books for a Multi-cultural Society 8-12 was published in March 1985, sold out in 5 weeks and reprinted at least twice more. It was followed by second, for children aged 0 – 7, with two more, edited by Rosemary Stones, publishing in 1994 and 1999. The Other Award was set up. Picture books with black protagonists, like Nandy’s Bedtime by Errol Lloyd, and Jafta’s Mother by Hugh Lewin and Lisa Kopper were published. There were guidelines for assessing material (In Black and White ) and an excellent booklist showcasing non-sexist titles (Miss Muffet Fights Back). However there is still a long way to go as Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, recently felt impelled to point out when she criticised the lack of diversity in the UK children’s book market today. She was referring to diversity in its widest sense. How often do we see protagonists who are deaf or need aids for mobility? As well as black characters, where are the Indian, Asian, or even Eastern European?
Stories help shape thinking and imagination, and so diversity in books is very important – children need to see people like them and others around them depicted in these stories. This was made very clear at the recent one-day conference organised by IBBY UK in partnership with the National Centre for Research into Children’s Literature at Roehampton. The theme of the day was ‘Belonging is … an exploration of the right to be included and the barriers that must be overcome’. Richard O’Neill, a Romany storyteller, told of his experiences of belonging and not belonging. Keynote presentations by Anna McQuinn, Berlie Doherty and Candy Gourlay illustrated the difficulties and brought home negative aspects of a failure to be inclusive. The conference also celebrated positive developments, of which there are many. Organisations like Inclusive Minds are raising the consciousness of readers and publishers. The recently launched initiative, Diverse Voices, has produced a welcome booklist: 50 of the best …. There is the Little Rebels Award and the Let Books be Books campaign (which goes hand in hand with Let Toys be Toys). Publishers like Barrington Stoke, who are now well established, publish dyslexia-friendly books and draw attention to the needs of dyslexics. Letterbox Library tirelessly promotes a wide range of inclusive books. And the translated book, which is a vital element in the inclusive landscape, is finally making an appearance through the courage and vigour of small independent publishers like Pushkin Press, Flying Eye and Phoenix Yard.
It is up to us, the reading community, to ensure this push for diversity continues, and maybe this time next year we will be celebrating real growth. I do hope so.