Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Include - everyone? (Anne Rooney)

I'm all in favour of inclusion in children's literature. It's vital that children of all ethnicities, abilities, gender alignments and religions should find themselves sympathetically and realistically represented in the books they read. But I'm feeling a little uneasy at the moment about who inclusion tells us to include, and who we now exclude. Children for whom no one will speak out, and children who - I suspect - few of us would feel comfortable putting in our books. Children don't choose their backgrounds or their families.

Where do you see yourself represented if your parents are UKIP supporters who spout racist opinions that you - as a young child - don't necessarily see a problem with?

Where do you see yourself represented if you are - like many young people I know - crushed by the pressure to perform to the highest academic standards, to look good, and who deals with this pressure not through self-harm or developing an eating disorder (though you might do those, too), but by taking large amounts of drugs, getting so drunk you don't know where you are and what you've done - and don't see a problem with it, so don't want a moral treatise on how to fix your life?

Where do you see yourself represented if you are 16 and have a baby, and love that baby and bring him or her up properly, so are not battling against social services or extreme poverty, but just happen to have a baby - and so a very different life from your peers?

Where do you see yourself represented if you are a middle class child with enough money and all the material goods you need - but your parents are emotionally abusive or neglectful? And not because they have physical or mental health problems, or relationship problems, or whatever, but just because they have their priorities all wrong or are simply selfish, unpleasant people?

Where do you see yourself represented if you are the only white girl in your class?

Or if you are the Creationist (in the UK) or the Palestinian, or the child of the Russian oligarch, or the really bright kid, or the really, really overweight kid, or the one with eczema or something else that is not very glamorous or dangerous but makes life hard for you?

Where do you see yourself if you have a sibling with profound learning difficulties or mental illness, or a resident older relative with dementia or Parkinson's. Not only are there the obvious emotional implications, but having someone 'difficult' in the house like this makes it hard for you to take friends home, or difficult for you to get lifts to and from the places your friends go?

There are lots of people we don't write about, and lots of them - I suspect - publishing companies don't want us to write about. Some we ourselves don't want to write about. I wouldn't be comfortable portraying a UKIP sympathiser and not having that person either change or question their views. I don't see how I could write about the girl who was uncomfortable at being the only white child in her London class without the book looking anti-black. The rich are often demonised in children's books, which can't be nice if, through no fault of your own, you are from a wealthy family.

It's not about 'issue' books. It's about representing a cross-section of the population, warts and all, and we don't do it. How do we choose who to include? They should be the people necessary for the story. Rooting stories more in the real, lived world of our readers might perhaps draw in some of these characters naturally. It takes bravery, empathy and research. But we can do those, can't we?

Anne Rooney


10 comments:

Julie Sykes said...

I'm also in favour of inclusion in children's literature, but have similar issues and concerns.
Thanks for writing about this.

catdownunder said...

What if you do write that sort of thing and, even though it is good (or even very, very good), it doesn't get published because it is not acceptable to parents, teachers and publishers - maybe because it doesn't fit with their preconceived notions of what children and YA should be reading? How many authors try to be inclusive only to be told "it's not what we are looking for"?
Are there "fashions" in children's literature?
(That's just "thinking aloud" - not really expecting any answers!)

C.J.Busby said...

Really interesting thoughts. Some do indeed seem more likely to be focused in terms of 'inclusion' than others - as with everything, it's easier for some causes to get more attention - perhaps because it makes people feel less uncomfortable espousing them. They are what the mainstream/left-liberal middle classes consider worthy causes, unlikely to stir up controversy - or likely to stir up just enough controversy to be comfortable with!

Keren David said...

But it does get written and published. I write characters like these, and so do many others. Jacqueline Wilson, Eve Ainsworth, Bali Rai, Phil Earle, Non Pratt - just off the top of my head. Joe Layburn wrote a series with a main character whose father was the leader of a far-right group. I'm currently writing about someone with a sibling with profound learning difficulties and hesitating in case it's too much of a cliche!

Emma Barnes said...

Where do you see yourself if you have a sibling with profound learning difficulties ... Not only are there the obvious emotional implications, but having someone 'difficult' in the house like this makes it hard for you to take friends home, or difficult for you to get lifts to and from the places your friends go?

This almost exactly describes Sleepovers by Jacqueline Wilson - a brilliant book. I think both Wilson and Anne Fine have been excellent at writing books about children with "non standard" families - often in funny, non-preachy ways. Fine has written about dementia, also, and Wilson often writes sympathetic overweight characters.

Where do you see yourself represented if you are a middle class child with enough money and all the material goods you need - but your parents are emotionally abusive or neglectful? And not because they have physical or mental health problems, or relationship problems, or whatever, but just because they have their priorities all wrong or are simply selfish, unpleasant people?

Actually I think there's a lot of children's fiction - especially American and YA - which fits this category!

But I still agree, children's fiction feels too narrow. I think the biggest problem is with some of the other aspects you mention - politics and religion,which just don't seem to turn up much in children's books, especially realistic fiction, and also race and ethnicity. Yes, they should be there, but there's all kinds of obstacles for writers writing outside their own "comfort zone" which I think CJ Busby wrote about well here http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/feel-fear-and-do-it-anyway-by-cecilia.html

The other thing that strikes me from your post is that writers should not patronise their readers - that children and teenagers want their perspective recognised, whether they are single mothers, drink-fuelled high achievers or UKIP supporters...

Nick Green said...

I'm really not convinced that you have to 'see yourself' in fiction in such explicit, like-for-like terms. Case in point: one of the most popular films of the 70s, and still a classic, was the original Rocky movie. Now, very nearly every single person who loved that movie was not a boxer and was never going to be one.

It's about identification with someone, not necessarily seeing yourself reflected. Anyone who struggles against any kind of adversity can identify with the underdog boxer.

I agree with you Anne that we can't just have a tick-box approach to inclusivity, and ensure that every single permutation of a human being gets their fifteen minutes of fame as a protagonist in a book. Or else where does it end? We're not so simple-minded as that. Broad strokes are enough.

Stroppy Author said...

Yes, I was going to add a bit about Jacqueline Wilson - but then forgot! She does deal with quite a bit of this. And some of the categories are more written about than others, certainly. On the whole, those that editors feel middle-class parents will pay for. And there's more in YA, particularly, about some of these (such as the neglectful parents).

Basically, I agree with you, Nick. I think we identify with human emotion and response in books and that we don't need to be 'like' the people. But that's not the same as not representing people of different types so that they feel excluded by the world of books as a whole.

Yes, Cat, in my experience editors have said things such as 'can't show self-harm just as a part of life' without it leading to some reassessment in which the child either stops selfharming or realises it's not a good idea. And although I've written about a character defending a sibling with special needs, I don't think I would have got away with a character resenting that sibling's impact of their life. As I said, I don't mean books *about* these things - just that they feature in books as part of the normal population around us.

Nick Green said...

'...not representing people of different types so that they feel excluded by the world of books as a whole.'

True, it is important to keep one's eyes open and reflect the world as it is. But any half-decent writer should do that without thinking about it. My first book The Cat Kin was set in north London, so naturally the cast of characters including people who were black, Asian, Muslim, middle-class, working-class, etc etc. But this wasn't a conscious decision to be 'inclusive' - it was simply that I'd lived there so I knew it would be improbable to have a random selection of kids which wasn't highly diverse. There was also a child with a disability, but again I must admit I wasn't being inclusive, he was intrinsic to the plot (though I hope he ended up as much more than a plot device).

The problem with self-conscious inclusivity is that it quickly becomes patronising. And it really shouldn't be necessary. If someone has a fascinating story attached to them, they'll make great fiction. In fact, having a good story often goes hand in hand with being a minority - it's much harder to write interestingly about someone who has no obvious 'issues' at all. If not impossible. (But then, such an issue-free person probably doesn't exist).

Nicola Morgan said...

Very interesting as always, Anne. "Diversity" really isn't used in a very diverse way, often. And yes, it is really hard to know who to include, even when we follow the "whatever the story needs" rule.

Keren, I quite agree. ("But it does get written and published. ") Good writing and story-telling will transcend all prejudices.

I'm currently writing a book where the main character's father is the director of an animal research institute - or was till he lost his job in public disgrace - and I'm looking forward to the challenge of showing the reactions to that. I also have an array of "issues" represented in the book, including several mental illnesses, bullying, class differences, and Aspergers. All part of life's rich tapestry and none of them is even the central point of the book. It's not a book about any of those things or any particular type of person, just people behaving like people. And I need them all there.

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Great post. I agree with some of the earlier comments that there's a filter laid down by publishers/agents/producers/directors, sometimes a zeitgeist one where some things are thought to be "hot" for inclusion whereas others are "out of date." Similarly there are also value judgement filters that are uncomfortable with representing certain points of view - and not just in children's publishing, I've got a theatre background and many things that are deemed "right wing values" wouldn't get funding (which on the one hand suits me as a left-winger, but it doesn't exactly represent the full spectrum of society.) Often it feels that there's so many hoops to jump through before your manuscript/script gets released onto the wide world!