Diversity in children’s and YA books in the UK will be the focus of this year’s IBBY UK conference , taking place at the end of this week (last chance to book tickets is TODAY!). A few weeks ago saw the release of the ‘Diverse Voices: The 50 Best Culturally Diverse Books‘ booklist, and the Guardian Children’s Books website then followed this up with a week of articles and features focusing on diversity of all kinds. It was exciting to read and participate in the conversations that arose in comments and via Twitter – and now I want to bring together some of the links and share with you some of my observations arising from the week’s focus.
You can read what I wrote about the booklist itself here, including inspiring words from each of the members of the selection panel. An immediate reaction could justifiably be that the selectors had an impossible task, especially as enough internationally renowned books were included to offer a global perspective – but, in fact, publishers were invited to submit their books for consideration rather than some far-flung net pulling in all the possible contenders; and (reasonably enough) all these books are readily available in the UK.
This throws open the difficulty and yes, sometimes, frustrations of getting multicultural books into the hands of readers. So what are the challenges? Well, here are a few that come immediately to mind, and what we can do to overcome them…
They are hard to find.
Authors Alexandra Strick, Sean Stockdale and Ros Asquith set a challenge in their article ‘Making children’s books more diverse: what you can do’, to go into a library and pull ten children’s books off the shelves at random… chances are, there will not be much evidence of diversity in their characters, or settings…
BUT there are books out there; we just need to be a little bit more proactive in finding them than relying on pulling random books off the shelves. Using lists like the Diverse Voices Best 50 or recommendations from blogs/websites (like Mirrors Windows Doors!) whose writers focus on diversity is certainly one way to find them. Follow #everybodyin and #weneeddiversebooks , which have both gone far beyond the original hashtags to official campaign websites, with practical goals and outcomes (go to Inclusive Minds (UK) and We Need Diverse Books (US)). These are exciting times for diversity in children’s and YA literature!
There are relatively few diverse books published in the UK each year.
Emily Drabble’s article introducing the Guardian’s ‘Diversity in Children’s Book Week’ was slightly misleading because she glossed the 2013 figures for multicultural books published in the US (and note, they do not focus specifically on other areas of diversity such as LGBTQI or disability): ‘Now here are some shocking stats: of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people, 34 about Native Americans, 69 about Asians and 57 about Latinos… Not too good!’
Nevertheless, the scenario is probably pretty analogous with the UK; and the statistics are indeed shocking and have given rise to deeper and more concerted focus over the last couple of years (in fact, they are what launched the We Need Diverse Books campaign). The figures cited are compiled rigorously each year by the CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center), part of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US. You can see their criteria and year-on-year statistics here – and they include figures for books written by as well as about people of colour.
Unfortunately, we do not know the exact figures for the UK and children’s books are not separated out from the information generally available …
BUT since, as I said, the general picture won’t be so very different from the US, the CCBC is a good place to find articles and regularly updated reading lists that not only focus specifically on multicultural or GLBTQI books but embrace diversity, whatever the theme.
There is not enough ethnic diversity across the spectrum of published authors:
as also highlighted in the CCBC data collected each year. And that is one of our greatest challenges – authenticity is key in any book and while I do not agree with those who argue that a book’s creator must come from within the spring of the diverse voice they are expressing, we are really missing out by not accessing those diverse voices that are out there, waiting to be heard, simply because the conduit from storyteller to publisher is generally restricted and restrictive.
So what to do about it? Publishers need to be open to finding books from all walks of life – and, in fact, the industry itself needs to open up to becoming more representative of people from all walks of life to enable that to happen as a natural process. Publishers also need to make demands of their authors and illustrators – not to manipulate their creativity but to ensure that they are embracing diversity and, for example, avoiding sloppy stereotyping.
BUT the good news is that there are many, many wonderful authors and illustrators whose work is out there. And there are some wonderful imprints and independent publishing houses for whom diversity is their niche: Lee and Low, Cinco Puntos Press, Tuttle, Pemmican, Magabala, Janetta Otter-Barry Books (Frances Lincoln) and Tamarind Books, to pick a few off the top of my head…
Publishing budgets have tightened over recent years so that many authors have become largely responsible for their own publicity; and publicity is always a challenge for small, niche publishers. So we may need to research a bit deeper to find authors whose work, once discovered, often becomes a must-read as soon as it hits the shelves.
And you are more likely to find these authors and their books in independent book shops where the booksellers choose their books with love and care than in the large, chain warehouse-type book shops. Take the experience of this sixth-grade class, for example – and publishers take note: if you are ‘white-washing’ your book covers, you are not only showing a lack of integrity, you are out of step with the young people you hope will be reading your books. I had a similar experience a few years ago on my first visit to the US – after being immersed in all the wonderful, diverse books I had encountered through my work with PaperTigers.org, I expected to come face to face with them in Barnes & Noble and was deeply shocked to find only two, literally two, of all those books we had been writing about.
There is not enough world literature available in the UK.
Most children’s/YA books originate in either the UK itself or come from the US, including multicultural books. Only a tiny percentage of books published each year are translated from another language (and again, there are no specific figures for children’s books). Very few books that are published outside the UK, even if written in English, find their way here: and often, when they are, it can then be frustrating because there’s no follow-up with other books by the same author.
BUT that’s where the internet comes in! We may not be able to read books published in other languages but we can certainly find out about what’s being published (in print or e-book format) in different countries in English or with English as one of the languages in bilingual books – whether through the publishers themselves, or bloggers who are talking about them: Saffron Tree in India, Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind in the Philippines are two that spring immediately to mind. Indian children’s publishers offer a bench-mark as there are several, all producing excellent books with a mail-order service on their websites – Pratham, Tulika, Tara Books, for picture books and Duckbill Books for younger readers through to YA.
These are just some of my thoughts arising out of the Guardian Children’s Books’ focus on diversity. If you missed it, head over there and catch up on some fantastic articles from the likes of John Agard, Bejamin Zephaniah, Sita Brahmachari, Na’ima B. Robert, S F Said, and Shaun Tan.
Overall, I think one of the most important things to bear in mind is that diversity per se is not a theme, although it can be an issue: a book that embraces diversity still belongs to a genre – it can be funny or sad or coming-of-age or dystopian or poetry or historical or fantasy or non-fiction or you name it. I can guarantee that there is a selection of books out there to suit the tastes of each and every young person that at the same time embraces diversity. When we recommend books to the young people in our lives, it is usually on the basis of the kind of books we know they like – or might like, because of course exploring is one of the joys of reading. We should also be sourcing books we think they will enjoy and at the same time, yes, maybe even learn from: children learn from the examples of these books – they don’t have to be didactic (in fact, it’s better if they’re not). The issues surrounding diversity can and should be themes that are embraced – racism, intolerance, acceptance, refugees, social mobility, identity. These are the books that really help to break down stereotypes and engender empathy. And it is our responsibility as much as anything to get as diverse a range as possible of diverse books into the hands of readers – so that they can find themselves, so that they can grow in empathy for the other, and so that they can see their potential to fly beyond current horizons.
Whilst we campaign for more diverse books to be published, let’s remember that there are many superb books out there already. The numbers published each year may be comparatively low but their quality is generally high and they have sticking power. Their readership spans years not seasons – and they live on in the hearts and minds of their young readers. They may not be immediately visible among the latest new releases that crowd the book shop shelves, but they are out there; we just have to make sure we find them.