Photographs by Emily Davison, Joanna Sholem and Alexandra Strick © Inclusive Minds 2016 

A Place at the Table 2016

 

‘A Place at the Table’ took place on 15 June 2016.  Run by Inclusive Minds, this workshop-style event for the UK children’s book industry followed the success of our flagship event in January 2015.

 

The ‘Place at the Table’ concept brings key parties together to discuss the issues around inclusion, and to help inspire the commitment to turn that talk into action, as well as agreeing and planning next steps to support the children’s book industry to do this. The model was inspired by a similar event run by the Children’s Book Council, in the USA through their diversity initiative, CBC Diversity

The Publishers Association (PA) once again hosted the event, and the room was packed with over 50 delegates from the children’s book world. As well as publishing representatives from across the industry, ranging from small independents to all of ‘the big five’, we were delighted that there were a number of authors and illustrators (including Catherine Johnson, Eileen Browne, Philip Ardagh and Ken Wilson-Max) also in attendance to participate in this important discussion, as well as key organisations such as BookTrust, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) and the Booksellers Association.

After a brief welcome and overview from Alexandra Strick and Beth Cox, the event was kicked off with a powerful keynote speech from Candy Gourlay, reminding participants why they had given up their time and money to take part in the event. Candy saluted them for their commitment and urged them to continue this important conversation, which, she said, was only just beginning. We all need to become “story mad”, she told us, and to ensure that all children can find themselves within the pages of a good book. The passion for inclusion in the room was truly demonstrated as Candy finished her speech to whoops and cheers from the audience.

Steven Pryse of Pickled Pepper Books in Crouch End was up next, to give us the first of two booksellers' perspectives. He spoke about how the books sought by his customers include books featuring strong female protagonists, differently shaped families, fostering and adoption and characters on the autistic spectrum, as well as books that encourage children to be comfortable in their own skins. Steven also talked about the way in which his bookshop both includes diverse books within the main collection but also finds ways to highlight and use such books.

Fen Coles of Letterbox Library described how hers was an organisation working towards a time when it would no longer need to exist. A time when diverse and inclusive children’s books would simply be ordinary, everyday children’s books. She urged publishers to get behind their great inclusive books and make use of the many opportunities to promote them. Fen described some rather disturbing attitudes towards inclusive books. One example was a fabulous story book by a very well known author not being promoted by a supplier because they saw it as an ‘issue’ book, just because it featured a character with a hearing aid.

Alex of Inclusive Minds then gave an update on three examples of key developments since the last A Place at the Table.

She informed the audience about the new diversity coalition set up by the PA and its members. The aim is to provide a regular meeting of key organisations, bringing them together to discuss how the industry can better represent UK demographics. The coalition includes publishers of all sizes, diversity organisations, the BA, IPG and PA. Thanks to the PA and its coalition, a Guide to Diversity Organisations in the UK has been produced.

Alex then discussed the ‘Everybody In’ charters for inclusion and diversity, developed at the previous event and drafted in consultation with key partners. The aim of the charters is to provide publishers and booksellers (and other parties) with a useful tool, both to publicly demonstrate how inclusively minded they are but also to help them commit to specific actions.

The first draft charters for publishers and booksellers have been available since March 2015. Inclusive Minds have also been discussing the charter format with the key library agencies (ASCEL and YLG). Consultation showed that library structuring would mean it would be difficult for individual libraries to sign up to an extensive charter so these discussions have led to the development of a ‘condensed’ version, forming more of a pledge or a statement of intent. Alex shared the draft with delegates and the option for this simpler manifestation of the charter to be be explored as a possible model for other parties was discussed. This draft will be available for all to view soon. 

Finally, Alex introduced Inclusive Minds’ latest project that was developed to explore ways of really bringing together true experience and expertise with the book world. The network of young ambassadors that Inclusive Minds have been developing is a team of young people aged 8 to 30, as well as parents of younger children. These are people with real interest and personal experience in one or more facets of diversity and all willing to share their knowledge. The ambassadors can help in a variety of different ways, including talking at events and festivals (some of our ambassadors have recently spoken at London Book Fair and read chapters of Matilda at the Imagine festival) and taking part in media opportunities (ambassadors have already appeared in the national press, on radio and TV, including Blue Peter and Newsround). They can also actually work directly with authors, illustrators and publishers, sharing valuable personal experience, views and expertise. Alex gave one example - an author currently working with several of the ambassadors to ensure a fully-dimensional depiction of a British Hindu character. Inclusive Minds is currently managing the network voluntarily, and needs funding to sustain and grow it.

The value of the ambassador network was then illustrated further thanks to the final two speakers – both young people in their early twenties who attended A Place at the Table to meet delegates and represent the wider ambassador network.

Emily Davison is a blogger, writer, presenter and campaigner. Emily (who is visually impaired and uses a guide dog) spoke powerfully about her own experiences, the difficulties of feeling different at school, and how positive images in books could have helped. She urged the book industry to undertake real research and consultation to ensure all children can find themselves in books.

Taz Virdee, also an ambassador for Inclusive Minds, was the final speaker. Taz described how he and his sister Aminder had first noticed the absence of positive images in books some years back and this had prompted them to approach the book world, meet Alex and get involved with this work. He spoke passionately about the importance of putting personalities and good stories first. He urged publishers to be aware of the risk of pigeon-holing and referred to the term ‘intersectionality’ - the fact that people do not always fit into one neat ‘diversity’ box. 

After a brief break, delegates took their places at the table to discuss four key questions, about what has happened so far and what is needed next. The tables were buzzing with lively discussion, and because each table held a mix of people from different organisations of varying sizes, delegates got to hear a real range of perspectives. The questions and a few of the many ideas and responses they generated, are listed below.

The Inclusive Minds team are now hard at work looking at ways to respond to their requests and explore all the suggestions and ideas. Working together, across the children's book world, we can make a real difference.  

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Round table discussion questions:

1)     Awareness of the need for diverse and inclusive books has grown dramatically in recent years. Thinking about your role and industry, what obstacles are still perceived as being the most problematic to achieving true inclusion?

Examples of some of the feedback and replies: Confidence, unconscious bias, the need to change adult minds (eg parents) and get past gatekeepers, not finding the real voices, need for role models, limited range, commercial constraints, sales figures, industry retention problems, class and nepotism, sales and agents, challenges of non-fiction, co-editions.

 

2)     For those who attended last year, how did the action point you came up with impact on your work? For all – what (other) action/s have you taken to ensure better inclusion? Or what changes have you made?

Examples of feedback: Setting up working party groups, auditing current book stock, consulting Inclusive Minds, considering facets of diversity beyond race, creating resources and booklists, briefing authors/illustrators, Creative Access schemes, talking to agents, paid internships, using the charters.

 

3)     If you haven’t already signed up to the charter, what would encourage you/your organisation to make this formal commitment to inclusion? What do you think has prevented your organisation from signing from the charter?

Examples of replies/feedback: Industry red tape, scale of company, many teams, time, awareness, need to include agents, desire to sign up as individual rather than company, ensure big booksellers sign up, giving signatories use of the ambassador network, creating a sense of a kitemark, offering a simpler ‘pledge’ format, offering a forum or newsletter.

 

4)     What practical help do you still need in order to create/publish/stock truly inclusive books? Inclusive Minds wants to support the children’s book industry by offering what you need – but we need to know what that is.

Examples of replies/feedback: Consultancy and training (perhaps with a sliding scale), mentoring, awards, evidence and research into the demand, partnerships, working with agents, book giveaways (like the Dolly Parton model), funding pots, child reviewers, the ambassador network, certificates and stickers, metatags, a regular forum, online resources, booklists, publicity for inclusive books.


Huge thanks to all those who shared their time, energy and ideas as participants or speakers at APATT2016.

Photograph J Sholem © Inclusive Minds 2016