UK Book List: ‘Diverse Voices: The 50 Best Culturally Diverse Children’s Books’

Diverse Voices logoA very special book list has been issued today – ‘Diverse Voices: The 50 Best Culturally Diverse Children’s Books’ has been launched by Seven Stories in conjunction with Frances Lincoln, whose Diverse Voices Book Award was founded in memory of Frances Lincoln (1945-2001) to encourage and promote diversity in children’s literature.

The book list includes books published in the UK from 1950 to the present, divided into reading age-groups from birth to teens, and it really is a wealth of diverse reading. Publishers Frances Lincoln and Walker Books dominate the picture book categories, offering some food for thought for other publishers, I’m sure (and I hope!).   Julia Eccleshare, Guardian Children’s Books Editor and Early Years Diverse Voices Champion and a member of the selection panel, alluded to this in her presentation of the Early Years section, as well as the importance of including a plethora of diversity in a child’s reading from the very start:

The images and stories that children hear from the very beginning of their lives are instrumental in expanding their view of the world and in shaping their later attitudes. Born without any sense of the artificial divisions between people or hierarchies in their status, which may later be imposed, pre-schoolers are open-minded: they see animals in pictures and have no difficulty in knowing that they represent humans. They jump effortlessly over ‘barriers’ and differences. For that reason, making sure that everyone is represented in pictures and words is vital. Happily, there are some excellent examples of books that do this. But, the campaign to make books for the very young has a long history – forty years and more from the earliest days of The Other Award – and the growth in the output of these titles has remained stubbornly slow. This selection shows what can be done and why it matters. Let’s hope it encourages writers, illustrators and publishers to add to it.

Sarah Smith, Libraries Development Manager, Brent Libraries and Young Readers Champion, introduced the Young Readers (5+) section, making the point that while the books selected have been bracketed under the 5+ age-group, they can be enjoyed by children within a broad age-group – and the very first book in this section (they are arranged alphabetically by title), the award-winning Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland, totally confirms that…

This is a delightful selection of books with stories that are timeless and can be enjoyed time and time again. There is much to discover and pleasure to be gained through re-reading many of these titles missed on first readings. Whilst targeted at emergent readers, this selection works well with both less confident and more proficient readers. The text ranges from ‘wordless’ stories, to advanced picture books, graphic novels and short chapter books. The collection ensures there is something for everyone and richly promotes and celebrates the diversity of Britain.

Katherine Woodfine, Arts Project Manager, Booktrust and Older Readers Champion continued the discourse in her introduction to the ‘Older Readers (8+)’ section, and as well as reiterating the importance of diversity, she emphasises the need for children to find themselves and their own lives/cultures reflected in the books they read:

As children grow older and become more confident readers, they will want to choose what they read for themselves – so it’s all the more essential that they are given access to a wide range of books that will grab their attention and demand to be read. The books on this list showcase the tremendous variety and richness of the best writing for this age group – here are stories that will take children on journeys to new places, introduce them to different people, and widen their horizons. Yet what’s perhaps even more important is that young readers are also given access to those books that reflect their own lives and experiences, and the diversity of their communities – showing that children just like themselves can be heroes and heroines too. The publishing industry still has lots of work to do to improve the diversity of books for children,  but the books on this list are great examples of the way forward.

Finally, Children’s Book Consultant and Teenage Readers Champion Jake Hope touched on some of the themes that grab YA readers and the depth of social awareness they are open to and want to explore through a rich diversity of reading material:

Young people on the cusp of adulthood are able to grapple and contend with ethical dilemmas and morality, contemporary literature aimed at this age has richly explored this leading to many dynamic and innovative works. Diverse titles focus around subjects like migration, immigration and nationality and show the ways these can become politicized and the impact of that happening. Philip Ridley’s playscript, ‘Moonfleece’ is a striking example. It offers a razor-sharp insight into the way narratives can be manipulated and the prejudice and inhumanity that can result from this. Being a playscript it is a work that young people themselves are able to engage with fully, witnessing firsthand the thoughts, motivations and feelings of the characters’ affected and leaving its readers and audience with heightened understanding.

Just pulling out a few personal favourites from the list… From the Early Years selection: Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Brown (Walker Books) (my boys’ copy nearly disintegrated from overuse); Not So Fast Songololo by Niki Daly (Frances Lincoln); Ramadan Moon written by Na’ima B. Robert and illustrated by Shirin Adl (Frances Lincoln); Where’s Lenny? by Ken Wilson-Max (Frances Lincoln) – which I recently reviewed here on MWD along with Lenny Goes to School.

For Young Readers, I’ve already mentioned Azzi In Between.  You’ll also find The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by  Karin Littlewood (Frances Lincoln) and Mirror by Jeannie Baker.  For older readers, I am so happy to see Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story included here – do read my recent interview with Candy.  Also, Armin Greder’s powerful The Island (Allen & Unwin) and Little Leap Forward by Guo Yue and Clare Farrow, illustrated by Helen Cann.  It’s no surprise to find Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (Lothian Books/Hodder Children’s Books) – and all the books in this final YA section (in fact, all the sections) are or are set to become classics – so rather than me getting carried away and listing all 50 books, head over to the Guardian website and see the list for yourself.

…And what’s really great is that this is not a definitive list – I’m sure there will be lots of discussion of people’s favourites for their own lists – I would have a hard time not including Miriam Halahmy‘s Hidden, for example…

You can read the full press release for the ‘Diverse Voices – 50 of the Best Children’s Books’ here on the Seven Stories website – and Book Packs and resources will be  available to buy from the Seven Stories shop.

All this week the Guardian is focusing on Diversity in Children’s Literature – could this become an annual event?!?  You can find the full schedule here, along with some background to the initiative.  Along with the booklist, start with John Agard’s podcast with riveting readings of his poems ‘Half Caste’ (included in the book list) and ‘Rumplestiltskin’; Julia Eccleshare’s article ‘What are the best books on immigration and adapting to life in the UK?’; and a visual introduction to the stunning new book of nursery rhymes from all over the world, Over the Hills and Far Away, compiled by Seven Stories co-founder Elizabeth Hammill and illustrated by 77  renowned illustrators – my review will be coming soon!

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