Despite the enormous range of children’s books published each year, representations of children from BME, or with disabilities, is still rare. Alex Strick introduces Inclusive Minds, a new organization aiming to change this.
It might be a new name, but it’s an area of work in which we have both been involved for many years.
We are both passionate children’s book people who have long shared a view that the book world could benefit from becoming rather more representative of society as it really is.
When I started working in the industry over 15 years ago, I already had a nagging sense that the landscape was rather skewed. The majority of books seemed to me to be dominated by the same kind of children, from the same kinds of families, with friends who all looked – well, the same.
My awareness of this inequality was further fuelled when I listened to the remarkable Verna Wilkins talking at an event. I shall never forget her account of her (black) son bringing home a ‘This is Me’ picture he’d created at school but drawn with pink skin because, he explained, ‘it’s for a children’s book.’ Thankfully Verna’s response to this was to set up the wonderful Tamarind Books which plays a vital role in ensuring that children from BME backgrounds are included in more books.
There is still so much to be done – and not just in terms of cultural diversity. For both Beth and I, the interest in diversity began with disability issues. One of my best friends is disabled, and it had often struck me how very few books featured anyone who – like him – happened to use a wheelchair. Where they did appear, they were inevitably either bitter and twisted or rather pathetic objects of pity. Where were the fully-rounded characters who were like anyone else but just happened to be disabled? And what about my little niece who had to wear an eye-patch but whose only children’s book role models were pirates? I was lucky that Booktrust (for whom I work as a freelancer) shared my interest and enabled me to run a project collecting children’s views on disability and books, through a series of workshops with the likes of Jane Ray, Joyce Dunbar, Pippa Goodhart and Quentin Blake. Then Beth and I worked together on the inspired Scope project In the Picture and our enthusiasm grew still further.
As we observed the way disabled children appeared to be missing from books, so other gaps and unfortunate stereotypes started to strike us. For example, a number of my friends are adopted or have step-families – and to the best of my knowledge none of them have evil stepmothers, wicked stepsisters and cruel adoptive parents. Each just has a family of a slightly different shape and structure from the next. Where are the positive images?
Our interest is in making books accessible as well as inclusive. We want to see all children have access to mainstream books which really suit their needs, not just the needs of the majority. Take visually impaired children – almost all touch and feel books that are produced by the mainstream book industry are for babies/toddlers. We’d like to see more books with sensory elements provided – not solely for visually impaired children, but for all children. So books which feature really meaningful, recognisable shapes and a variety of exciting and realistic textures, not just repetitive patches of fur. As such, one of the projects Beth and and I have been working on is with Booktrust and Child’s Play, developing a tactile book for children of two plus, based on the ideas, requests and experiences of visually impaired children.
We are not suggesting that no diverse, accessible or inclusive books exist. There are of course some superb examples out there. But we need more.
And that’s where Inclusive Minds comes in. We hope to draw together all those with a commitment to diversity in children’s literature, and work together on projects that encourage and support children’s books in reflecting a more diverse society. We want to prove that it is possible for books to include ALL children, without being contrived or tokenistic.
How do we know it’s possible? Well, I hope I helped to prove this recently with Max the Champion (published by Frances Lincoln last month). Ros Asquith, Sean Stockdale and I managed to weave nearly 40 tiny subtle visual references to inclusion, disability and equality into the images, without detracting or distracting in any way from the fun story of a sports-mad little boy in this picture book about having a big imagination. We even featured inclusive sports that have never before appeared in the pages of mainstream children’s books! In Max (and other titles like her Great Big Book of Families and Great Big Book of Feelings) Ros Asquith demonstrates that it is possible to work in all sorts of diverse images naturally, subtly and apparently effortlessly.
Sean Stockdale, Alex Strick, illus. by Ros Asquith, Max the Champion, Frances Lincoln, 32pp, 978-1847803887, £11.99 hbk
Mary Hoffman, illus. by Ros Asquith, Great Big Book of Families, Frances Lincoln, 40pp, 978-1845079994, £11.99 hbk
Mary Hoffman, illus. by Ros Asquith, Great Big Book of Feelings, Frances Lincoln, 40pp, 978-1847802811, £11.99 hbk
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.