I always find the IBBY UK/NCRCL conferences extremely interesting and valuable, and Saturday’s one on the theme of belonging was particularly good. From the opening slide we were exploring how we can ensure that children have access to books that are mirrors in which they can see reflections of their own lives and windows to help them understand other people’s lives.
Anna McQuinn, author of the Lulu books, talked about the damage that bias in children’s books and the lack of inclusive books inflict on children. Like a number of subsequent speakers, she insisted that it is not enough for publishers to include the odd token black character, and that issue-led books are not the answer. This is not about political correctness, but about the need for books that reflect the reality of children’s lives. She gave us a fascinating potted history of attempts since the 70s to increase diversity in children’s publishing, and her own involvement. It was especially interesting to hear the economic arguments for inclusive books. Anna posed the question: why are we still having to discuss this topic? We must ensure, she said, that we are not still debating it in ten years’ time. This was her final slide – a call to arms.
Story-teller Richard O’Neill was next up, talking about the importance of story, and entertaining us with some great tales from his childhood living in a caravan. It was wonderful hearing from him on and off throughout the day.
Alex Strick of Inclusive Minds focused on disability. She pointed out some publisher pitfalls, including gimmicks, tokenism, assumptions and stereotypes. A good inclusive book, she told us, is never issue-led, but is characterised by a great story; fully rounded characters; incidental, natural representation of disability or other issues; authenticity based on research. The authenticity of She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick is a direct result of his visits to a school for blind students. Alex gave us the social model of disability: it is not an individual’s impairment that disables them: rather it is society. So it is society that needs to change, not the individual.
We heard next about the need for books that validate refugee children’s experiences and develop other children’s understanding. Discourses of pity are not helpful; the focus should be on resilience. Julia Hope researched the impact of The Colour of Home and The Other Side of Truth. (How wonderful to hear Beverley Naidoo read the opening paragraphs.) We learnt the importance of good teaching to help children explore this issue. I found two points Julia made very striking: first, that there is a strong taboo that stops children using the term refugees of themsleves, and second that some boys derived enjoyment from the section of The Colour of Home where guns are used. This is not an easy issue for teachers to deal with, and they need support.
I was delighted to give a presentation after lunch on looked-after children’s reading, based on my article on this. LAC’s reading attainment is often well behind that of their peers. They need lots of support to find enjoyment in reading. Just like other children, they deserve books that reflect their lives and books that help them understand others. They also deserve books and other reading materials that are purely entertaining and that match their interests.
It was great to share my session with head teacher and adoptive mother Sarah Stokes, who was fascinating on the topic of appropriate books for adopted children. The Red Thread is her family’s number one favourite.
Candy Gourlay’s session was highly amusing as well as very illuminating. We heard about her childhood in the Philippines. She loved reading, but none of the books she read featured children like her. It was only very many years later, when she saw the cover of Hacker by Malorie Blackman, that she realised that children’s books with non-white children were even a possibility. I found her term ‘casual diversity’ a very helpful one to ponder. These were Candy’s opening and closing slides.
Sarah Garland, Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith were very good to listen to. All are published by Frances Lincoln, and love the fact that this is a publisher that strives for inclusivity, so they have rarely if ever had any ideas turned down. They have though had the occasional vitriolic response to their books from American evangelicals, and a previous publisher objected to the pictures of the mixed-race couple in Billy and Belle in bed together. Sarah stood her ground. All expressed admiration for libraries and independent booksellers who stock their books. (Like many others, they lavished praise on Letterbox Library, who had an array of wonderful inclusive books for sale at the conference.)
Beverley Naidoo rounded off the day in inspiring fashion. She reiterated the damage done by the paucity of diverse publishing over many decades, and reminded us about some ground-breaking books. She returned to the theme of belonging, the title of the conference. Children need to feel they belong. But they also need to know that sometimes it is important not to belong: not to collude with wrongs that people around you are committing. It’s the theme of her powerful book Burn My Heart.An amazing – if exhausting – day. And lovely to catch up with lots of colleagues and friends as well as gaining some great new acquaintances. Apologies that my photos do the conference scant justice.