Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Diversity in Books

Over the past ten years I have spent a lot of time in schools, whipping children up into a frenzy of excitement about books and reading and writing.  It has been nothing but joy for me to see faces light up and hands shoot up bursting with ideas.

There is no doubt in my mind that books can inspire children. Books can give children a different perspective on life and can really open up their imaginations and truly raise their aspirations across the board.

I often have teachers approach me at the end of the day telling me about a child in their class who has written a story that takes up a whole page.  A child who had barely ever written a sentence up until that day.  I can't tell you how truly satisfying this is.

But visiting schools has also opened up my eyes to a world I had no idea existed.  A world I am shocked and saddened to discover is all too common.

I was in a school a couple of weeks ago in area two stone throws from some of the biggest mansions and richest footballers-wives' haunts.  An excellent school filled with bright images and a brand new library.  A school were 78% of parents are unemployed, and 68% have NEVER had a job.

Two years ago, when the current headteacher arrived, he began asking children about their aspirations. What did they want to be when they grew up?  Of the some 400 children in school only two... TWO wanted a job. One wanted to work at the local Co-op.  The other wanted to work at ASDA because it was further away and a job there would mean she had to learn to drive a car.
Another child, a boy, seven years old said his dad told him he had to get a girl pregnant so he could get a house.

Are you shocked?  You should be.

These are children who rarely leave their estate.  Many have few or no books at home.  Few visit the library because it is an hour away.  And what is more shocking is that this is not unusual.  I have visited scores of schools in similar situations.  And we wonder why these children have no aspirations?

Over the past two years, this school has worked tirelessly to bring in working adults to talk to children, they have created a beautiful library at the heart of the school where children are bombarded with books.  They walk through book shelves to access their classrooms. They walk past books to get to the hall.  Any child excluded from a classroom for poor behaviour will be sat next to a bookcase, from which they are free to pick up a book and read.  And over the past two years aspirations have started to improve.

During my visit children told me they wanted to be:  an author or a dancer, a firefighter, a footballer, a kangaroo, a doctor.  This is progress, and yet I do wonder just how many of these kids will break free from the cycle they are in and pull themselves up enough to lead more fulfilled lives.  Perhaps that is a white middle-class judgement, perhaps their parents feel they DO have fulfilled lives.  I don't want to patronise or judge, but I can't help thinking that these children deserve more.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have worked with children in private schools who are so disciplined and so channelled in their thinking that they find it hard to let go and have fun.  One four year old told me he wants to be a banker AND a lawyer.  Four years old!

Which brings me to the point of this piece.

Children need role models.  They need to see a world beyond the end of their own street.  They need to see and identify with lives that are different from their own. Books give them that.  And I feel now, more than ever, how important it is for the books we make to reflect the diversity of the culture we live in.  Children need to identify with the characters  they are reading about.  They need to be able to imagine themselves in the shoes of the characters they see and read about.  They need books to be relevant and accessible no matter what their own background may be. No matter what their home life may be like. No matter what their parents expectations may be.

For me, a vital part of creating books that really speak to children are the illustrations.  I admit that when I first started writing, the thought didn't even enter my head.  Because the only people I ever really met were white, middle-class people like me.  But having spent so much time in schools, some with up to thirty languages spoken, my eyes have been well and truly opened and I now make it clear with all my editors that I want my books to reflect at least some of the great diversity of race, culture and socioeconomic backgrounds of the children (and parents) that I'm writing for.

So I am very proud to be working with Lauren Tobia on a first experiences series for Walker Books. Lauren has a fantastic track record of creating beautiful, culturally diverse illustrations.  This series is no exception and I'm absolutely thrilled to be part of this project.

I hope that when you read my other books, you might notice that I include both male and female characters. I include characters with different skin colours and from different socio-economic backgrounds.  Most of this is hopefully subtle.  I'm not about producing in-your-face messages. I just want to create books that children from all backgrounds will love and identify with.

And I hope other authors and illustrators, editors and designers will work more and more to do this too.

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