A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
DIVERSITY NEEDS TO BE … MORE DIVERSE
If I start out this post by saying I have a problem with the notion of diversity today, it may prompt a bit of concern. I bet there’ll be a bit of sucking air in through the teeth and you may think you can smell an illiberal, reactionary type who doesn’t like having to acknowledge that society has changed since the 1950s.
That would be wrong. I sincerely hope I am the opposite of this sort of person. What I mean about the notion of diversity is that I don’t think, yet, that it goes far enough.
I like to champion diversity in all things, because I know, firsthand, how important it is to see characters in a book that are something like you. We absolutely need to have books that reflect all kinds of ethnic and social backgrounds and which show children with disabilities as heroes. What we shouldn’t do, however, is create boundaries that suggest that some types of diversity are somehow less important than others.
When I was growing up, for example, I suffered from alopecia and so I was very conscious of any mention of hair in a story. When Anne (of Green Gables) complained about her red hair and tried to dye it black, I was furious with her for being so ungrateful. If she was bald, she’d have something to moan about, I reckoned. When Jo in Little Women sold her hair to raise money, I felt a pang of inferiority, because that wouldn’t be an option for me. And don’t get me started on the way heroines are portrayed as physical beauties, whether they realise it or not, with long locks often being part of the accepted image.
At the age of nine or ten, I’d have loved to read about a heroine with alopecia and I think it would have done wonders for my self-esteem. There were no such books back then, and there are very few today, as I discovered when I wrote The Serpent House, whose main character Annie has the condition.
There is now a great movement afoot to increase the range of children’s books and ensure that young readers from all sorts of backgrounds can find someone like themselves when they read. The We Need Diverse Books campaign is a fantastic idea and I hope it succeeds in its mission.
But let’s remember that while diversity is about ethnicity and disability, it’s not limited to those issues. Children feel excluded because of class, perhaps even more so since the global recession. Gender is still an issue and although the movement to get more boys reading is great, an unintended consequence is that female protagonists are less attractive to publishers.
And while conditions like alopecia may not count as disabilities, they can be socially and psychologically debilitating, so let’s recognise the need to reflect these too in children’s literature. Let’s not have diversity campaigns that only recognise some forms of difference. If we’re going to champion diversity, please, let’s make it all-inclusive.
Bea Davenport is the writing name of former newspaper and BBC journalist Barbara Henderson. The Serpent House, a historical time fantasy was published by Curious Fox in June 2014. Her next novel for adults, This Little Piggy, is published by Legend Press on October 1st. She lives in Berwick upon Tweed with her partner and children.