Thursday, 27 June 2019

We need diverse books and better diverse book coverage more than ever - but who's actually to blame for the kidlit whitewash? Today's ReadItTorial

Last year, this infographic presented a stark view of diversity in children's books and it seems not much has changed this year either.

No one even vaguely interested in children's literature could possibly deny that there's been a huge upsurge in the number of brilliant and diverse books featuring BAME characters arriving on bookstore shelves (and, thankfully, our review pile). Yet once again a recent article in The Guardian makes it abundantly clear that even in 2019, when you could argue we're going through something of a 'golden age' for diverse titles with a good mix of genders as lead characters, there's still an awful lot of work to be done.

The article in question:…

Though the article specifically highlights a huge problem with mainstream children's titles still failing to give girls the central / lead / speaking role, it also highlights the lack of BAME / Disabled characters  - now often used as little more than 'fillers' in a story where their character could be removed and have no effect on the story at all).

Sometimes it feels like these characters are just 'stickered in' so that major publishers can comfortably say they've got the diversity base covered.

Why the hell is that happening, I mean at all?

What is the point in just adding in a BAME character in some vain box-ticking exercise?

It's just not enough, not nearly enough.

What frustrates me is that it still feels like it always has to be some sort of an uphill struggle to make any progress with this whole thing, rather than something that should just happen naturally in children's storytelling. Surely it's in everyone's best interest to ensure the widest possible audience for the books you publish?

Where is it all going wrong? I have many theories and some of them are distinctly less palatable than others but first and foremost I agree with others who believe that the problem isn't that these books aren't there, it's often that they're not well publicised / high profile enough.

PR campaigns always seem to over-hype children's books that really do not need that extra push. Book store POS displays again do the same, and the less said about supermarket bookshelves (if they even have any) the better, but find a decent bookstore (even a high street chain) and start looking through the shelves - and you'll often find the diverse books you're looking for placed edge on in the shelves.

So they're there but practically invisible to casual browsers who come in and see the bigger displays and are drawn to them without rootling through the other stuff. We visit book stores a lot and we tend to see a very predictable pattern of behaviour from some parents who take their kids in there. They seem to want to get in there, buy a high profile book, and get out again as swiftly as possible. Something we find completely bizarre tbh.

So it's all marketing's fault then? But why would PR and marketing folk purposely ignore a huge swathe of books and potential customers intentionally?

Is it that they feel that these titles would not "make bank" as much as the others? After all, if you've got a big-name author on your books, and they're getting a huge advance, you've got to make sure their books bring the money in, so the focus of attention currently seems to be to push those harder than anything else (ironically, spending more PR / Marketing money in the process. Bonkers!)

Sadly, as well as the above, I also believe that there's a real problem with representation in the industry itself, right across the board from top to bottom, and it's horribly evident if you've ever been to any non-festival PR / book tour events (a recent one made me so uncomfortable that I had to bolt for the door, it was a completely surreal experience that one of these days I'll sum up the courage to blog about in another ReadItTorial rather than bore you to death with a huge wall of text here).

We've talked before about the race / class thing in publishing and within picture books in general - and how BAME and working class folk are definitely being squeezed out of things, but that still doesn't give a solid answer why we're still seeing large-scale issues with gender imbalance and of course a lack of BAME / Disabled / working class representation too.

The most upsetting thing from a casual observer's point of view is the fact that the very people who are champing at the bit to make children's books more inclusive are the very folk who often get blamed for the shortfall.

I don't like seeing creatives getting targetted by (well meaning but obviously misinformed) folk who suspect that the issue with the industry imbalance of white / middle class folk vs BAME / Disabled / working class creatives is being perpetuated by writers and illustrators themselves. I don't believe this is the case, though others obviously do and are making a lot of noise about that.

Most creatives actually welcome the opportunity to work on a wide range of diverse subjects and titles and should not be pilloried for the types of characters they include in their books (it's very easy to see why some creatives won't touch anything that deals with human characters at all, preferring to make their stories and points with animals, monsters or - agh - anything but people - but this just exacerbates the problem, it does nothing to kick-start progress on this matter).

We've seen it so many times in articles and thinkpieces on children's books. If kids can't see themselves reflected in the books they read, they won't dig in and fall in love with reading for pleasure - and from that they also won't be as likely to branch out and embrace other cultures and diverse subjects should the opportunity arise.

We've always tried our best to champion diverse titles on the blog (both of us are really passionate about this - even C who, for an 11 year old, thankfully understands why this is so important and always welcomes the opportunity to tackle any new books regardless of the colour, creed, sex, ability or age of the central character - and I guess it's important to say "the central SPEAKING character" at that, not just the stickered-in black / girl / poor friend who barely gets to utter a word).

More needs to be done, and we can all help - at all levels of involvement in kidlit, whether creator or consumer, and the rewards will eventually speak for themselves. We will hopefully have an industry that is future-proof rather than one consumed internally by its own asshole-wallpapering.

Broaden the audience and you'll broaden the sales, broaden the sales and you have more money to put into producing even more wonderful books. paying your creatives better too (and more money to promote a wider range of titles, not just the 'big name' stuff).

Or, y'know, just carry on the way you are and watch the whole industry end up a bland and disinterested money-making operation that eventually collapses in on itself in generations to come.