Thank you to Cat Crossley of CLAVIS & CLAUSTRA for writing the following guest post.
Diversity in children’s publishing
“Stories can change the way we look at people.” My eleven year old friend is explaining to me why she thinks diversity in children’s publishing is important. It’s a topic I feel very strongly about and have spent many years pondering, so I am interested to hear what she thinks as a reader responding to the question for the first time. It’s an issue to which major publishing houses seem slow to respond and one with which some seem even to struggle, so it’s a pleasant surprise to hear my friend understands it pretty much straight away. If you only have one type of people in a book, she says, people might think that type of person is perfect and everyone else is unimportant or somehow flawed. If we don’t read about different types of people with disabilities, or different colours of skin, or two mums, or less money, then there is a risk, she thinks, that we might think there is something wrong with them and that some people might be more likely to bully them. We believe authors, she adds, so if there are no books about girls who play football or boys who like gymnastics, then children may end up with the impression that there are certain things which are off-limits to them.
The case for diversity seems really clear and urgent when a primary school child can articulate it so thoughtfully and so fully. So why are publishers so slow to join the debate? There are, of course, children’s books which do celebrate different cultures, feature diverse characters, and challenge stereotypes. Have a look at 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert or Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood for just two examples. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule, and they are often published by smaller publishing companies. What is stopping the big publishers from investing time and money in more diverse books? Surely it is a sensible business decision to broaden your audience as far as possible by making books which appeal to the broadest number of readers? Is there a perception that a story about a black girl, for instance, will appeal to fewer people than a story about a white boy? Do we see white boys as the default identity? To what extent do girls like reading about princesses because they have an innate love of princesses and how much are they conditioned and limited by a narrow and disproportionately pink & princessy range of stories which encourages them to nurture this as part of their identity? How much do publishing companies care about challenging these norms when the books sell well?
Later in 2016 I will be publishing what I hope to be the first of many children’s books which celebrate diversity. The Bringernooks of Wetherton Bee is a tale in verse by Amanda Redstone with watercolour illustrations by Genevieve Lowles, both incredible women who are, like me, very much invested in the value of diversity in the content of children’s books. Apart from the fact that this is a great story, I love the premise of the Bringernook world because the characters are little tree-dwelling creatures who all have beards, the boys and the girls. They are colourful beards where each strand is formed of a memory or experience, and in Wetherton Bee they are all the same colours. I won’t spoil the story here, but in meeting characters whose gender is not obvious from their looks we are forced to confront the assumptions we make about characters based on whether they are male or female. Indeed, why should a character’s gender be of any relevance if fictional people can do anything? A good children’s book tells a great story. A great children’s book should make us believe anything is possible.
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