Category archives: books for children and young people

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Equal Play: What does gender equality look like in childhood?

Equal Play 1The Mayor of London’s Equal Play conference was fascinating and important. (And how lovely to see children’s toys in the Council Chamber of City Hall!) These were some of the most significant take-aways for me:

  • children’s brains are not gendered by nature, and are malleable
  • gender stereotypes are pervasive and set in even before birth: expectant parents speak differently to babies in the womb according to gender
  • children are treated differently at home, in settings and in schools according to gender, both in terms of language used and what they are praised for
  • children are surrounded by messages about how they should be and these are overwhelmingly gendered
  • gender stereotypes are more pervasive now than they were a generation ago
  • ads targeted at girls use words like magic, princess, beautiful; those aimed at boys use words like power, battle, adventure
  • the collective impact of gendered marketing, language, attitudes, clothing, books, toys etc limits girls’ aspirations, confidence, self-image, career choices, earning potential
  • gender stereotypes limit boys too and fuel toxic masculinity
  • the UK is one of the worst countries in Europe in terms of the numbers of women in STEM careers
  • society needs both boys and girls to become tomorrow’s problem-solvers
  • encouraging girls into STEM subjects is critical for our future
  • play is a vital first part of this
  • inclusive toys, books and clothing enable children to see and explore a range of options
  • gender-neutral attitudes, language, and marketing can reduce the negative impact of stereotypes
  • manufacturers and advertisers need to adopt gender-neutral approaches
  • the Advertising Standards Agency is changing its rules to limit gender-stereotyped advertisements
  • campaigning by Let Toys Be Toys, Let Books be Books and others is making a difference
  • increasing numbers of manufacturers, publishers and retailers, including big names such as Boots and John Lewis are adopting less gendered approaches
  • London has a new Gender Action Award to encourage schools and pre-schools to put gender equality at the heart of all aspects of school life
  • there is a very long way to go
  • we all need to foreground gender equality in our professional lives

We heard from inspiring speakers throughout the day, not least Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society, Gina Rippon, Professor of Cognitive Imaging, Rosie Rios, the 43rd Treasurer of the US, Olivia Dickinson of Let Toys Be Toys, Shaddai Tembo, founder of Critical Early Years. Who had the most galvanising impact? Without doubt the Science Leadership Team from Gillespie Primary School. These children made their resentment of gender-stereotyped products and marketing very clear. Why do all girl dolls have long hair? Why when they go into bookshops are the boys directed to science books and the girls to fairy stories? Why should they feel judged when they go into toyshops? Yes indeed. Why?

Thursday, 4 October 2018

IBBY UK Honour List celebration

IBBY Honour awardLast’s week celebration of IBBY UK’s Honour List was very special. The IBBY Honour List is a biennial selection of outstanding, recently published books, honouring writers, illustrators and translators from IBBY member countries. It is one of the many ways through which IBBY encourages international understanding through children’s literature. Each national section of IBBY nominates three books, one for writing, one for illustration and one for translation. I was extremely privileged to be a member of the selection team for the 2018 UK list. The books toasted last week are all outstanding: for writing, Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari (on the right in the photo); for illustration, I Am Henry Finch, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz (on the left), written by Alexis Deacon; for translation, Wildwitch Wildfire, translated by Charlotte Barslund (in the middle) from Danish, written by Lene Kaaberbol.

Charlotte translates from several Scandinavian languages, children’s, YA and adult books. She explained that she only takes a book on if she can hear it in English in her head at her first reading, and only if she ‘gets’ it in her heart, as each book takes several months to translate. It matters to her to have a good working relationship with her authors, and this was the case with Lene, a hugely popular author in Denmark. They have had many rich discussions about this first Wildwitch title and the subsequent ones in the series. Vocabulary is always a huge issue in translation. Danish, along with many other languages, has far fewer words than English. There are also cultural issues to consider: how to convey things that need no explanation to a native audience but may seem very strange to an English-speaking one. Her advice to new translators: always read as much and as widely as you possibly can in the language you are translating into, to improve your vocabulary and use of language.

Viviane was in celebratory mood, as her British citizenship had come through that day. She always drew from childhood, and had a comic published at thirteen. In her teens she was told she didn’t have a sense of humour (ironic, since humour is immensely important to her in her work, as she told us later), and she took to writing science fiction. Luckily someone advised her to be an illustrator. She trained in the UK as her native Germany had no suitable courses and was quickly published. She and Alexis Deacon have worked together on a number of books, in particular ‘books about small animals that explore big ideas’. It was she who suggested a finch as the protagonist for I Am Henry Finch. She loved depicting Henry’s development into a self-aware and philosophical little bird. The book remains one of her favourites, along with her Tiny Cat books. She gains a huge amount of ideas and inspiration from her creative workshops with children. She never aspired to be best at drawing, caring much more that children see that they too can be artists.

Sita told us that she hadn’t intended to write a third book about the artichoke charm that first appeared in Artichoke Hearts and was given away to a poor child in India at the end of Jasmine Skies, although children told her they didn’t like the story ending there. Several books later though, she returned to the theme. The first draft of all her books is very abstract and fairly incomprehensible. She and her editor then work together, something that suits Sita, with her collaborative theatre background. All her books draw on real world issues such as poverty and hunger. ‘We writers taste the news’ she said. Authenticity, integrity and respect are crucial to her and she does a great deal of research, for instance about bat-mizvahs for Tender Earth. It was a very emotional book to write because Simon, one of the characters, was based on a friend of hers who died. She is passionate about children having access to inclusive books, and appalled by the decline in school and public library provision.

tender earth bannerMany thanks to Chitra Soundar for this photo of Sita with one of Laila’s banners from Tender Earth.

A fascinating evening. And good news at the end that the IBBY UK nominations for the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen award for 2019 are John Agard for writing and Helen Oxenbury for illustration. Two giants in the children’s book world!

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Inspired by India

Inspired by India 2Lantana Publishing held an illuminating and thought-provoking event at the Nehru Centre in London last week, inspired by two of their recent picture books: You’re Safe With Me, written by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Poonam Mistry and Nimesh the Adventurer, written by Ranjit Singh, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini.

The authors and illustrators each told us about factors that influenced them. Chitra’s love of story-telling dates back to her early childhood in India. She remembers hearing stories from a very young age. Enid Blyton, particularly The Magic Faraway Tree, inspired all the stories she told her friends and relations.

Poonam, also born in India, was always fascinated by Indian folk art, with traditional textiles a particular inspiration. Aboriginal art has been another major influence on her style of illustration, along with the art of William Morris.

Born and raised in Southall with parents from India, Ranjit said his real education came from the local library, his haven when truanting. Japanese and Bengali film directors, Shakespeare and Sanskrit epics taught him how to tell stories.

Mehrdokht’s interest in books goes back to her childhood in Iran. Her mother taught literature. She fell in love with illustration when an art teacher asked the children to illustrate a children’s story. She chose one of Andersen’s tales.

Both You’re Safe With Me and Nimesh the Adventurer have been extremely well received within the children’s book world, and more importantly by children themselves, both in the UK and internationally. We heard that huge numbers of parents in India want books in English that feature children with lives like theirs.

Alice Curry of Lantana asked the panel their views about ‘the diversity label’ and whether they felt pressure to reflect their backgrounds in their work. All had experienced such pressure, and all agreed that the label is limiting and unhelpful (although Ranjit pointed out its marketing value). Chitra told us she gets more rejections for books without Indian characters, and that publishers frequently request Indian folk tales. Poonam and Mehrdokht were united: ‘We are illustrators. We should not be defined by our ethnicity or religion.’ Alice said Lantana never imposes limits on their authors and illustrators. How refreshing to hear that Chitra and Poonam’s next picture book for them is set in the Arctic.

This piece was written for Armadillo Magazine.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Picture books and their value – and some useful websites and publications

KFP2

I was very lucky to attend the Klaus Flugge Prize shortlist announcement last week. The prize is for the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration. These are the books in contention.

I’m a huge fan of picture books. They have an enormous role to play for children of all ages. Is there any better route into reading for pleasure? Surely there is no aspect of literacy they do not benefit. Picture books are great for building empathy, and for supporting every area of social and emotional development. They increase children’s knowledge and understanding of the world. They develop thinking skills. They stimulate curiosity, imagination and creativity.

I felt very privileged to write a guest blog ‘In praise of picture books’ for the wonderful charity Give a Book recently. It gave me the opportunity to try to encapsulate all they offer and think through good practice in using them. They are on my mind again now as I am in the midst of preparing a picture books training course. All this has made me realise it might be useful to list some online and printed resources about picture books that I find particularly valuable.

Lauren ChildAt the start of this I mentioned the shortlisting event last week. Lauren Child gave a delightful talk about her development as an illustrator. This is one of the pictures she shared. How lovely to discover that the wall here is a National Trust one. She photographed that beautiful sky in Hackney. And the plants? They were growing in a New York allotment.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Mind the Gap: Celebrating Authentic Inclusion

One & StrikerMind the Gap: Celebrating Authentic Inclusion was a fascinating and important a discussion hosted by Inclusive Minds and IBBY UK at the London Book Fair. Authors Sarah Crossan and Peter Kalu joined inclusion ambassadors Emily Davison, Heather Lacy and Megan Bane to explore representations of disability in children’s literature. Portrayals in the past were rare and where they existed were often negative. The Secret Garden was not the only book with an underlying message that disabilities could be cured with positive attitudes, fresh air and exercise. The ambassadors spoke of the distress this caused them as children with disabilities that did not go away. The panel agreed that the situation is improving but that there is still a long way to go. Publishers often think children will be put off by characters with disabilities, but it’s not the case. Children are very open-minded.

More nuance and understanding about disabilities is needed. For instance visually disabled characters in children’s books are almost all totally blind, whereas in real life the vast majority have some sight. Sensitivity readers can help authors with authenticity. Depicting every character with a disability as good and/or inspirational is neither authentic nor helpful. Children with disabilities need books that show them ‘it’s OK to be you’.

A character’s disability should not be the main element of any book. Many readers of Crossan’s YA novel One, a sensitive and deeply moving story about conjoined twins, are so gripped by the plot and the characters that they forget the twins are disabled. She never knows whether that’s a good thing or not. She did a huge amount of research before writing the book, and found she had to get rid of her own prejudices. It had not occurred to her that conjoined twins would want to stay together. In Kalu’s book The Silent Striker the main character’s increasing hearing loss is an important part of the plot, but far from the first thing the reader knows about him or the key issue they care about. Because Kalu himself has hearing loss the portrayal is very natural. (Having recently reviewed the book for The School Librarian, I can vouch for this.)

It was useful to be reminded of the IBBY catalogue of outstanding books for young people with disabilities. These were the UK books nominated in 2017. The asterisked titles were included in the international list.

Ian Beck, Grey Island, Red Boat
Cece Bell, El Deafo
Anne Booth, Girl with a White Dog
Holly Bourne, Am I Normal Yet?
Tim Bowler, Game Changer
Sita Brahmachari, Car Wash Wish
Cocoretto, Getting Ready
Cocoretto, Off to the Beach
Sarah Crossan, One *
Vanessa Curtis, Baking Life of Amelie Day
Susie Day, Pea’s Book of Holidays
DK Braille, Counting *
DK Braille, It Can’t be True *
Amber Lee Dodd, We Are Giants
Julia Donaldson, What the Jackdaw Saw
Mary Hoffman, Great Big Book of Feelings
Kim Hood, Finding a Voice
Pete Kalu, Silent Striker
Gill Lewis, Scarlet Ibis
Cammie  McGovern, Amy and Matthew
Gemma Merino, The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water
Ann Rand, What Can I Be
Jackie Wilson, Katy