A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
We’ve talked – many of us, over time, I honestly don’t know where the credit lies – of books as mirrors and windows and doors, and the importance of all three.
Books reflect our landscapes, our lives, the things we think and feel and strive for. And we need those mirrors, to show us that we’re not alone, that people have done this before, that will be all right. That we’re all right.
They can be windows into other worlds, other people’s hopes and dreams, what they eat for breakfast, and what stories they tell in the darkness. We need those, too, to help us understand the people around us.
And sometimes books let us step right through the door and become ourselves. New and better, having found a possibility we never knew existed before.
We need all of these – the mirrors, and the windows, and the doors – especially when we’re young, and figuring out how the world works and where we fit within it.
Some of our stories are familiar, and shared, told over and over in a hundred thousand different ways; each of them important in their differences and the reassurance of repeating them.
Some are less familiar. The diverse books: the stories minority voices have to tell. The black and Asian and Hispanic voices. The queer voices and the disabled. And these stories are important. Some of us have fewer mirrors, fewer chances to discover who we are, to have it validated. And, at the same time, fewer chances to hold something up and use it to explain: to say, ‘Look, this, here. This is what it’s like. This is me. These are my feelings… I am not a monster or an abstract made up thing. Look. Here.’
These stories are important.
We’re lucky – we’re at a place and time where, slowly (too slowly for my liking, but still) people are recognising this. Open, public discussions are being had right across the industry. People are calling for their voices to be heard, calling out that actually, we’d quite like to know our neighbours too. And titles are appearing with more openly diverse leads and storylines and worlds.
When I first pitched my next YA title – A South African musical f/f romance, of a sort, with underground queer culture in an environment where that’s really, really not safe – I was told that probably, now is not the time. It’s too big of a risk.
And at the same time, around the edges of that story, I’m working on the Middle Grade adventure of a genderfluid ten year old.
It’s wonderful. It’s exciting. I’m so, so grateful to be able to – finally – open the windows and share little parts of myself in story form. To retrospectively explore the kid I was, the teen I was, the adult I’ve become.
I am not a monster. Look: it’s me.
But it’s not all balloons and party hats, it’s not all brewing coffee before your guests arrive to make your inner secrets smell inviting. Sometimes opening up your house, your inner self, is terrifying, especially when you haven’t yet seen anything really like it, no common stories mirrored back at you.
I wasn’t entirely prepared for that when I started working on these books.
There’s a feedback letter on my hard drive full of disbelief and misunderstanding: this isn’t real. Unbelievable. Couldn’t you change…well, everything? That letter left me gutted for a week, sobbing, hurting, feeling so unwanted. Books have always been my safe space, and suddenly I learned I wasn’t a believable character. Myself and my friends had no place in books.
What was I even doing in publishing?
It is not that reader’s fault. They’d never seen a story featuring lives like that, attraction like that. They’ve probably never met – or talked long and deep enough with somebody to know – anyone who’s felt like that before, and without that frame of reference, without the tools to understand, it’s hard.
But without that frame of reference, it’s hard to live those things. We need those books.
After a week, trying to reconcile my feelings and theirs, I sat down and, shaking, wrote a long response to that letter, point-by-point explaining why those narrative choices were there. I outed myself in the most detailed, personal way I ever have to anybody, explaining all the nuances of my queerness. Because even if we never worked together again, at least I could try to explain. Maybe it would make a difference, if not now, for me, at least for someone further down the line. I told my story, in the hopes that she would understand.
This week, I had the privilege of working with a group of teenage girls in Hull. A full day of workshops on setting and self and how they intertwine, followed by a literacy awards ceremony, celebrating the achievements of some wonderful young people.
I was to give the keynote speech.
I hesitated, for a second, over whether to gloss over my own identity. There were parents there, governors and teachers, and a massive group of teenagers that I didn’t know. But there’s nothing wrong with who I am. So, as I talked about the importance of all stories, I shared.
And in the interval, a group of nervously excited readers found me. We talked about books and writing and how, yes, their stories matter and they should write them. And then one of them asked, ‘Did you say you’re queer?’
I nodded, and she breathed, relieved-excited-happy. ‘I’m a lesbian, and she’s bi, and she’s bi, and she’s a lesbian…’
Visible representation matters. And no, opening the windows and the doors to strangers isn’t always easy, but it changes lives. I think it’s worth it. And I’m leaving mine wide open.
Sarah Benwell is the author of THE LAST LEAVES FALLING. She lives in the picturesque city of Bath. Which is nice, but she’d much rather be off exploring deserts and jungles elsewhere. Having seen a good chunk of the world, Sarah is a keen advocate for diversity in life and on bookshelves, and she loves nothing more than acquainting herself with both.