David Cameron’s muddled speech on multiculturalism delivered earlier this year left many confused. ‘Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism,’ he said, ‘we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.’ Nothing to do then with Cameron’s foreign policy or housing policy? And what is ‘state multiculturalism’? However, the furore over Cameron’s speech prompted BfK to revisit its stance on multiculturalism. Rosemary Stones explains.
When I became Editor of Books for Keeps in 1997, first generation Black British writers had made many of us aware of how excluding they had found it as children to be growing up in a culture in which their presence and history were rarely, if ever, reflected. I thus introduced a new policy for reviews. If a book featured, eg, a character from an ethnic minority background (at that time not such a frequent occurrence), I asked the reviewer to include that information in their review. (The same approach was applied to the depiction (even rarer) of characters with disabilities or LGBT characters.)
But, now more than a decade later is this review policy redundant?
The views of BfK reviewers
BfK reviewers are divided. David Bennett comments: ‘Things have changed over the intervening years. It feels that such a range of these issues and topics are covered now that specific, conscious flagging is redundant. Sledgehammer and nut come to mind!’ Janet Fisher agrees: ‘I would hope that by now it would not be necessary to highlight a character from an ethnic minority background except in those cases where it formed the main point of the book, in which case the ethnic background would have more than a mention.’
Becky Butler disagrees: ‘As a disabled person myself, I consider it extremely important if not vital that you do not change the current editorial policy. Positive portrayals of multiculturalism or disability in children’s books should be mentioned.’ Urmi Chana adds: ‘As a reviewer, I have often commented on these very issues and more so if I feel negative messages or stereotypes are being conveyed.’ Annabel Gibb agrees: ‘I suspect that this is still important info.’ Felix Pirani adds: ‘I would say it is still worth pointing out principal characters in these categories. The suspension of the al-Azhar-Vatican talks, the claim that an anti-Muslim position is now socially acceptable and the recent hullabaloo over the censorship of Huckleberry Finn suggest that there are still a lot of issues here.’
Tricia Adams, Director of the School Library Association, says that school librarians still seek out books which reflect aspects of multiculturalism and ‘the diversity of those multi-cultural issues is growing’. School librarian Margaret Pemberton adds:
‘I thought I would let you have this anecdote from something that happened last week. On a visit to Peters with a group of teachers from a range of our schools, we were asked for books on “people who help us” and this was also to include positive images of people from various ethnic backgrounds. An actual cheer went up when they finally found some titles that fitted the bill. It would appear to be a real confirmation that in both fiction and non-fiction there is still the need and desire to be signposted toward this type of book.’
Chair of the CILIP Carnegie and Greenaway judging panel, Ferelith Hordon comments: ‘I feel that we still have a very long way to go. I am of the opinion that it is still very useful – and important – for reviewers to mention ethnicity if it is relevant.’ Publisher Michael O’Brien agrees: ‘The situation here in Ireland was fairly unique within Europe in that our society went from being all but monocultural to being vastly multicultural in the space of about five years… teachers and librarians continue to raise awareness about multiculturalism by sourcing suitable books and making them available to children all over the country. They quite rightly recognize the huge role literature has to play in promoting cultural integration.’
Artist and writer Errol Lloyd says, ‘It can be counterproductive to be drawing attention to ethnic differences, especially in an age when young people themselves seemed to have moved on in their relationships, and when the wider British public often seem to conduct themselves without particular reference to race: eg the voting in popular shows like The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent or when there are weekly images of footballers of all racial backgrounds working amicably and successfully as a team. However, these perceptions may give the false impression that the advances which are apparent in other spheres apply to the world of children’s books which, in my opinion, would not be the case. There appears to be no demand for the sort of books reflecting the ethnic diversity of British society that there was in the 1970s, 80s and 1990s. This is ironic as there are far more black children in British school now than in those earlier decades.
The marketing of multicultural titles
And what about children’s book publishers? Should they market titles as of multicultural relevance?
‘I feel there should be no need to draw attention to the ethnicity of the characters for the purposes of marketing a title – by now we should take it for granted that the diversity of our communities is represented and that stereotypes are avoided,’ says Urmi Chana.
Ferelith Hordon agrees: ‘I am less keen for publishers to do so since I would fear that the books that show a genuine portrait of today’s society might get shunted into a corner.’ Tricia Adams is concerned that ‘it may limit the book’s market in some way, and publishers in the main are selling individual books to individual children on the basis of the story not necessarily the culture of the characters.’
Publisher Michael O’Brien who developed O’Brien Books ‘Bridges’ series to bridge the gap between children from different cultures living in Ireland today thinks it is a complex issue. ‘I don’t think there is a pat answer. While the aims of such a policy are admirable, there is a real danger that it could have the opposite effect to the one desired: it could contribute to the marginalization of minority groups.’
BfK’s editorial policy?
So, what does all this mean for BfK? On the one hand, providing useful information such as multicultural content for those searching for books for the children they live or work with is still important and BfK will continue to do just that. On the other hand it is also important for reviewers not to distort their response to a book or overburden their review with such responsibilities. It can be a difficult line to tread but I believe that BfK reviewers tread it well, responding to each book appropriately.
Rosemary Stones is Editor of Books for Keeps.