Tag archives: London Book Fair

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Equal measures: ensuring equality and diversity in children’s books

I went to a great seminar at the London Book Fair on equality, diversity and inclusion in children’s books, chaired by Alexandra Strick, disability children’s book consultant.

Verna Wilkins told us the history of Tamarind Books, which she founded in 1987. At that time, it was all but impossible to find books with black children in, something I remember all to well, as a librarian in Brent then. She was horrified by the consequences of invisibility, and determined to redress the balance. She was a beacon then, and she remains a beacon now. It was wonderful to see her again. Dave and the Tooth Fairy is my favourite Tamarind book.

Beth Cox, children’s books consultant and co-founder with Alex of Inclusive Minds, Fen Coles of Letterbox Library and PhD student Erica Gillingham then shared their views on the extent to which children’s books are representative of the diversity of society.

Fen reflected on how far there is to go on this issue. This is the first year of the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award. Some publishers submitted books purely on the grounds that they had a black character. More books feature black characters now than when Verna founded Tamarind, but not nearly often enough as chief protagonists. Gendered marketing is ubiquitous. (I am very aware of this as a children’s book reviewer, and have blogged about it.) Are books about football the answer to getting boys reading? Must gay and lesbian characters in picture books really be animals rather than humans? Where are the books that show the real lives of refugees and asylum seekers? Where are the books about transgender characters, looked-after children, mental health issues, different social and economic backgrounds, Traveller, Roma and Gypsy characters? I would add books featuring characters with learning disabilities.

Erica spoke eloquently about the paucity of books with LGBT characters in the UK. We are way behind the States, she said, and there are consequences. She is particularly concerned about the lack of books with bisexual and transgender characters.

Beth regrets the lack of understanding of the terms diversity and equality. ‘It is not enough just to put a wheelchair here and there.’ She highlighted the fact that diversity is important for all children. (Tamarind books have frequently been turned down by booksellers on the grounds that ‘we don’t have those sorts of children here’.) Beth assured publishers that there is a real demand for inclusive books, and urged them to be brave. Inclusive books will not earn them millions, but they make good business sense. Publishers were also urged to avoid promoting negative stereotypes, to think about the use of language, to be authentically inclusive, not to over-sentimentalise or sensationalise, and to ask for help.

I so agree with all of this, and I am delighted to be in discussion with Inclusive Minds about ways we can collaborate in future, and that Letterbox Library and I are working on training ideas.

In the light of this seminar (which will be available soon as a podcast on the Booktrust website), I was fascinated and saddened today by a piece on the Rhino Reads blog. Why are crocodiles only boys? is a useful exploration of gender inequality in children’s books.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The importance of prizes in children’s literature

This was a fascinating seminar at the London Book Fair yesterday. Authors Beverley Naidoo and Philip Pullman, illustrator Piet Grobler and Guardian Children’s Book Editor Julia Eccleshare all spoke eloquently about the value of children’s book awards, not just to the authors and illustrators at the receiving end, but also in terms of raising awareness of books and reading. For both Pullman and Naidoo, each of whom have won a plethora of prizes, the one that gave them the most pleasure and pride was the Carnegie Award. They talked of the prestige it holds because the judges are librarians, the people who know most about children’s books. The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Children’s Laureateship were also highlighted as bestowing enormous honour, while the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Award, the NASEN Award and the now defunct Other Award, which Naidoo won for Journey to Jo’burg, were praised for opening up access to important books that would otherwise be missed. In a note of caution, Eccleshare voiced a concern that because of commercial pressures, awards, together with the ‘bestseller’ tag, may effectively narrow the choices available to children and young people. Some of the very best books fall through the award net. A question from the floor about whether awards influence children’s choices provoked an interesting discussion. Philip Pullman suspected that the reading choices children and young people make themselves are not directly influenced, but that prizes have an impact on those he called the gatekeepers, i.e. librarians, teachers and parents. Eccleshare felt that prizes judged by children, as the Smarties Award was, do inform their choices. I wish that I had thought to ask about their views on local and regional children’s book awards, which I think are very powerful, and which I very much enjoy providing courses on.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Through the looking glass: online reading communities

This was an extremely interesting discussion at the London Book Fair yesterday by a panel of authors and publishers: Keith Gray and M G Harris, plus Anna Rafferty, Managing Director of Penguin Digital and Alison Ruane, Marketing Director at Harper Collins. There was lots excitement and optimism about the opportunities social media provide for two-way communication with teenage audiences. Authors and publishers alike are seizing on digital technology to engage with existing readers and reach new ones (the latter more problematic than the former). From the inception of the Joshua Files, Harris envisaged online interaction. She and her publishers devised a blog, SMS messages, games and more. She is particularly pleased that readers themselves have initiated other online activity around the books and characters. Although hosted and devised by Penguin, Spinebreakers is run entirely by young people. A core management group come in once a month to make key decisions. The group is now also helping with commissioning: reading manuscripts, pointing out gaps in the market and so on. (Rafferty had never before realised the extent of teenage boys’ fascination with war.) Ruane aired the challenges now faced by publishers to stay relevant, to keep on top of the game and to create a 360° experience around their books. YouTube is now key to effective marketing to teenagers. [I can certainly understand the impact of YouTube in this respect. Watching the video for Flip by Martin Bedford, you can easily see how much more powerful this medium is than conventional promotional methods.] Gray talked about the excitement created by a new online story writing initiative started during his writer in residency with the Scottish Book Trust, though he voiced discomfort about the pressures on authors to have a high-profile interactive online presence, something he does not want. He urged everyone not only to think digital, but also to remember the value of reading groups in libraries, and the dangers posed by the loss of libraries and librarians.