Tuesday 21 May 2013

#ReadItMD13 - "Celebrating Inclusive and Diverse Children's Books" - An interview with Beth Cox and Alex Strick - #InclusiveMinds

Inclusive Minds - Specialists in diverse and inclusive books
We were lucky enough to "meet" Beth Cox, of Inclusive Minds on Twitter (one of these days our hectic schedules will let us meet up for a break for coffee, promise!)

Beth - a freelance editor specialising in inclusive and diverse children's books, is now one half of Inclusive Minds. Along with Alex Strick, they provide a consultancy for publishers and individuals involved directly and indirectly with children's books and publications. 

Beth (with input from Alex) at Inclusive Minds has kindly agreed to an interview with us, as part of this week's theme. 

ReadItDaddy:  Hi there and thanks for joining in with our #ReaditMD13 theme week celebrating diverse and inclusive children's books. Tell us a little bit about yourself and Inclusive Minds.

Beth @ Inclusive Minds:  Well I'm a freelance editor and consultant specialising in diversity and inclusion. i went freelance two years ago, after nearly eight years working for the wonderful Child's Play, and earlier this year founded Inclusive Minds with fellow consultant Alexandra Strick. Although Inclusive Minds is a new project, it's been in our hearts and minds of the founders for a long time. Inclusive Minds is a collective which aims to bring together all those interested in diversity, inclusion, equality and accessibility in publishing, in the hope that, together, we can make a real difference. We're working on projects such as a special edition of Write 4 Children Journal and speaking at a number of conferences. We are also involved in the development of a groundbreaking tactile book that will be published in early 2014.

ReadItDaddy: We consider ourselves relative newcomers to the amazing world of diverse and inclusive books but we've discovered some fabulous books through your recommendation and those of others passionate about them. We're going to put you on the spot here and ask for 5 book recommendations that you think get it absolutely 'right'

Beth @ Inclusive Minds:  This is tricky - we're very picky customers, and many times think we've found the perfect book only to find something that really lets it down. However, we don't want to be negative. There are a lot of fabulous books out there and publishers are really starting to do some great things.

  • One, two, three… Run! by Carol Thompson and published by Child's Play (out next month) is a great example of inclusion of a disabled child. The book features two main characters, running through fields and puddles, doing things that any small child would love, but one of them happens to have Down's Syndrome.
  • Lulu Loves Stories by Anna McQuinn, published by Alanna Books is another casually inclusive books that stars a black family (rarer than you might think) with the dad being the primary carer. Lulu doesn't conform to gender stereotypes and enjoys a bit of DIY as much as dressing up as a fairy.
  • Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, published by Hot Key Books, is an absolutely stunning book. Not only is the protagonist dyslexic, but it features (spoiler alert) a same-sex kiss which is so natural and right. When I asked the author about her decision to include it her response was - 'I couldn't not include it.' When the majority of arguments against LGBT representation in children's books are based on the false assumption that they teach children about gay sex (strange this, as straight representations don't teach children about straight sex) it's wonderful to have a book with a same-sex kiss that illustrates the depth of feeling behind it.
  • Inclusive Minds co-founder, Alex Strick, has also co-authored a book, due out in June. Max the Champion (by Sean Stockdale and Alexandra Strick, illustrated by Ros Asquith), published by Frances Lincoln. Is a story about sport-loving Max and his wild imagination. Effortlessly inclusive, the cast of characters truly reflects the make-up of society.
  • Finally, The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, published by Walker, is a light-hearted, yet powerful look at immigration as brothers who are Mongolian refugees try to assimilate and blend in to Liverpudlian culture. This fast-paced, entrancing read will really challenge perceptions.

ReadItDaddy:  What do you think are the most common misconceptions about diverse and inclusive books?

Beth @ Inclusive Minds:  When we speak about inclusive and diverse books, the most common misconception is that we are talking about ‘issue books’. This is very much not the case. What we’re aiming for are mainstream books which just happen to contain a diverse range of characters, whether that's a family headed by same-sex parents, a disabled character (who isn't always a wheelchair-user), a 'sensitive' boy, an independent girl, a youthful looking granny, a black or asian protagonist... These books shouldn’t be about the fact that the characters are any of these things (and certainly these characteristics shouldn’t define them), they should just be over and above, great stories. This is where we’re delighted to have Letterbox Library as a partner. A one stop shop for absolutely fabulous books which, due to their rigorous selection process, you can be sure are naturally inclusive and diverse.

ReadItDaddy: Do you think that through the work of Inclusive Minds and other champions of diverse and inclusive books, the publishing industry in general is slowly changing its game?

Beth @ Inclusive Minds:  Yes, but I think 'slowly' is the key word in that question. Publishers are beginning to see this as something they need to do, but they still see it as only necessary in a few books, very few companies understand that inclusions needs to permeate their whole publishing programme. I also think that there is a danger of tokenism and sensationalism when companies are looking to make a quick fix. To be truly inclusive, research needs to be done to ensure that all the characters are fully rounded and don't perpetuate stereotypes. This is where we hope they'll come to Inclusive Minds for advice. We'd love to offer training and consultancy for publishers.

ReadItDaddy: In the same way consumers are turning away from large multinational corporations and starting to 'shop savvy', do you think parents, teachers and librarians are becoming more knowledgable about diverse and inclusive books?

Beth @ Inclusive Minds:  I think they are beginning to, teachers and librarians especially. The trouble is, finding high quality inclusive and diverse books isn't always easy, which is why companies such as Letterbox Library are vital. I think parents do recognise publishers that have ethics behind what they publish, and more and more I think that this will be the case. Child's Play have certainly found that rather than being seen as a niche publisher for being inclusive, they are just recognised as a truly child-centred company.

ReadItDaddy: My daughter (Charlotte) loves practically everything Child's Play publish, and we've also been discovering a great number of 'books in translation' (that is, books that originate in other countries and are lovingly translated into English) offer more inspiration and originality than a lot of their western counterparts. What should parents ideally be looking for and what should they be avoiding in your opinion?

Beth and Alex @ Inclusive Minds: I'd say they need to be looking for, first and foremost, books that are great stories. Diverse characters should be fully rounded, and the fact that they are in someway diverse should not be the focus of the books, and should just be one aspect of their character. Child's Play are brilliant at this, as you've discovered and, as I've mentioned, Letterbox Library is THE place to find the best inclusive books. In terms of books in translation, we have close links to the brilliant Outside In World, the UK organisation dedicated to promoting and exploring books from around the world particularly translated books. The website features a huge selection of book reviews and a great 'virtual gallery' in which children can explore illustration from around the world.

ReadItDaddy: We began the year of trying to encourage parents to read to their children more with more of a focus on dads and boys - who are often the toughest group to target if they're reluctant to engage with books. Have you found this to be the case in your current role, or do you think there's a fairly even balance?

Inclusive Minds:  I think that if dads and boys are hard to target, it can be because of the gender stereotypes that are promoted in books. Reading is often portrayed as a more feminine activity and books that are specifically targeted at boys tend to reinforce this. Inclusive Minds would like to see more books that are designed for all children, as segregation emphasises difference and perpetuates inequality. It's also important to have books that show men and women in roles that challenge gender stereotypes, and books that show more sensitive boys as well as active girls; books that just show children being children, regardless of their gender.

ReadItDaddy: Last but not least, we know you've got a fairly busy and hectic year ahead of you at Inclusive Minds. Any top secret projects you're working on that you can let us in on?

Inclusive Minds:  Well, the special edition of Write 4 Children Journal will be published in the next couple of weeks, and I promise you that it's full of fascinating articles. The tactile book that we are working on will be published in early 2014, and you can be sure that there will be some joint initiatives with Letterbox Library. Everything else is top secret I'm afraid, but we're hoping to be involved in some high profile events next year. Watch this space. Exciting things are happening.

They are indeed! Thanks to Beth and Alex from Inclusive Minds for sparing us some of their extremely valuable time. Please visit their website and also check out the other links in this article too.