Friday, 5 September 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooksUK by Savita Kalhan

Recently I wrote a blog here about diversity in children’s literature Black and White and Everything in Between. I'm returning to the discussion again today.

Malorie Blackman has talked and written and discussed the lack of diversity in children’s literature. Recently she was interviewed about the issue and egregiously misquoted, which led to a lot of racist comments on her Twitter feed. On the Edge Writers blog, Paula Rawsthorne discussed this and the issue of diversity. You can read it here..

Bali Rai has talked about the lack of diversity in children’s literature, as have many other writers, librarians, readers and reviewers.

In the States a huge campaign was launched after it was revealed that all the ‘luminaries from the world of children’s, teen and YA writers invited to the panel discussions at the BookExpo America were all white and all male’. After the campaign, a much more diverse group of children’s authors were invited to sit on a panel to discuss the issue.

The American Association for Library Service to children also initiated a programme to address the lack of diversity in children’s literature available in libraries.
I blogged about the whole US #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign on the Edge Writers blog, which you can read here.

When I talked about the issue on Twitter I was told by an editor at a very big publishing house that it wholeheartedly promoted diverse writers, and already had two on their lists, (the inference drawn was that obviously that was quite sufficient). But, she said, the problem really was that British writers from ethnically diverse backgrounds were not submitting manuscripts to publishers, and she could not understand why...

I know the truth to be a little different.

I also know she did not grasp this concept at all: that if children from ethnically diverse backgrounds rarely see any version of themselves, other than occasionally as stereotypes or as bit parts, then they are in danger of believing that books are the preserve of the white middle classes, and also that the children’s publishing industry might not be a place for them when they grow up. Perhaps I’m painting it too black and white, but I’m sure you know what I’m saying.

Children’s fiction, teen fiction and YA fiction is a tougher market than it ever was before, it’s also become far narrower than ever before, both in terms of the books commissioned and published, and the apparent ‘market trends’ as dictated by the publicity and marketing departments. This is reinforced by the lack of diversity in terms of ethnicity, age, background, and sex of most of the editors at most of the publishing houses in the UK. You only have to go to a book publishing event or conference to see that for yourselves. There are few people of colour.

Everything has been squeezed. The market-driven publishing houses are all on the look-out for the Next Big Thing, mid-range writers are often fighting a losing battle, teen/YA shelves are now full of very, very similar books on very, very similar themes, and you’ll be very lucky if you find much diversity in theme never mind anything else.

Something has to change surely. So I wholeheartedly support Malorie Blackman in her endeavour to promote diversity in children’s literature. I know lots of children’s writers who feel the same way and are blogging to raise awareness.

Here’s a hashtag we can all use to help promote diversity in children’s literature, and I use the term diversity in its widest possible sense - #WeNeedDiverseBooksUK
And I very much hope that the publishing industry pays more than lip service too.

Savita's website


catdownunder said...

We have some wonderful books here Downunder - like Nadia Wheatley's "My Place" - but there are others which are simply there because adults think they should be. They can be self-conscious or didactic or both.
Like physical and intellectual differences ethnic differences need to be handled in ways that enhance the story, not overwhelm it. If diversity is the central theme of the story then surely it has to be rooted in reality as well? If it becomes the all consuming issue then it ceases to be believable for me.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Yesterday I was in a classroom in a big enough primary school to have its own 'inclusion officer' ... And yet the display of book jackets of the wall of a classroom showed about a dozen books; every one of them by a white male. It is amazing quite who still don't 'get it' on this front. It seems so blooming obvious!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

You've just made me wonder if the reason I couldn't get an adventure series placed here in the UK, although published elsewhere... might be because the protagonist is white (from the UK) and his best buddy is a black girl he meets in Africa. That's not such a great thought if it's the case! I always took the remark... 'its not for us', meant the editor didn't like the writing.

Sue Purkiss said...

This is a depressing picture of children's publishing, but it rings true. Hm. It's not just about ethnic diversity, is it? There just seems to be a very blinkered vision of what might sell, and therefore what can be published. I suspect it goes right back to the Thatcherite vision. Suddenly, everything had to be about making as big a profit as possible. (Not, I'm sure, that publishers weren't aware before that of the need to make a profit.) There was a seismic shift in the mindset of this country at that time, a change in priorities... sorry, I feel an apocalyptic vision coming on, and I'm moving away from the subject under discussion - time for breakfast!

David Thorpe said...

Very good post, totally agree, and I will use the hashtag, Savita!

David Thorpe said...

Very good post, totally agree, and I will use the hashtag, Savita!

Savita Kalhan said...

Cat - really my point is not that diversity should be a central theme in itself, but that books need to reflect the diversity of ethnicity, experience, gender and culture that exists.
Pippa, Dianne and Sue, yes it is depressing and very blinkered, and past time to start the unblinkering.
David, thank you!

catdownunder said...

82Understood - but so many books make an "issue" of it and then, at least for me, it ends up being about the issue rather than the people. I wrote a play for a school once - a school for children with severe disabilities. I wrote it so that individual children appeared in it as themselves. The kids loved it and so did their families but I was told I should have made an issue of their disabilities - not made them be "normal" kids!

Stroppy Author said...

That's rather long for a hashtag...uses up 21 of the 150 characters! Hashtags are more likely to be taken up if they are short. But good luck with it, Savita :-)

Savita Kalhan said...

It is long, Anne, but the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag was already being used widely, so I thought adding the UK to the end of it wasn't making it too much longer. Maybe stick to the original hashtag.