A Place at the Table - February 6 2018                     
Official Report

A celebration

We wanted the third A Place at the Table event to be a celebration of what has been achieved. As people arrived at the event they were encouraged to share where they had made progress in the past few years. Delegates shared achievements such as:

  • Renewed our efforts to seek out authentic Traveller voices for shelves.
  • Set up a scheme at my company to get more people from all underrepresented groups into publishing.
  • Our Diverse Voices symposium interrogated how BAME voices can be better represented in the national story of children’s literature that Seven Stories tells.
  • Started development on our first picture book on mental health,
  • Living the dream, got a publishing contract as a disabled writer.
  • Raised staff awareness of campaigns such as Black History Month and LGBT History Month.
  • Set up a diversity award.
  • Became an Ambassador for Inclusive Minds
  • Created a specific Children’s Inclusion Group to accelerate the overall strategy and work of the company.
  • Publishing our first translation from Arabic to English.
  • Published a guideline on diversity and inclusion for school librarians.

Keynote speaker - Juno Dawson

The day officially kicked off with keynote speaker Juno Dawson celebrating what has been achieved in the three years since the first A Place at the Table event in 2015. She highlighted the success of inclusive titles such as The Hate U Give, The Art of Being Normal, Murder Most Unladylike, Orange Boy, The Girl of Ink and Stars, which have won awards, been book of the year, and, in the case of The Hate U Give, been the Amazon overall number one bestseller - contradicting the arguments that inclusive books don’t sell.

Juno reminded delegates that the whole of ‘bookland’ needs to be diverse, and we are getting there. She was pleased that her overwhelming message was positive, ‘keep it up’ rather than ‘come on’, but wanted to reinforce the diversity isn’t a box to be ticked, or something that we can ever fully achieve or tick off the list. The need to ensure books and the industry is inclusive is ongoing.


Roundtable Discussions

The roundtable discussions were centered around key questions and led to some lively debate. There are still many barriers to overcome, but the strategies suggested, in contrast to three years ago, were entirely practical and achievable by individuals in their day to day work.

Some key points that stood out were:

Q1: We’d all agree that children need access to inclusive books (featuring a range of abilities, ages, ethnicities, genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, and socio-economic classes). Please say in one sentence why you personally feel that this is important?  

For full notes on the answers to this question, see Appendix 1.

  • To walk in other people’s shoes in a safe environment
  • To make sure all children from all walks feel they can achieve anything
  • If you don’t see yourself, why would you care? Why would you engage? Children who see themselves go on to be more successful and children accept what they see and so become more empathetic adults
  • To find ourselves and explore others perspectives through books
  • “We are all diverse” makes sure we learn about our similarities rather than our differences
  • Because no one should be left behind
  • I’m a lesbian and growing up I rarely saw queer characters in the books I read.
  • Because everyone matters
  • Because- children need representation role models in fiction and non-fiction as well as life outside books
  • Diverse stories give children knowledge, empathy and confidence to stand up against discrimination
  • It’s important for children’s sense of identity and development to see themselves in books they read otherwise they will look for it in alienated places

Q2: The children’s book world has come a long way in terms of diversity and inclusion in the past few years. What barriers still exist to authentic inclusion in the content of children’s books? (Think about your role or industry rather than elsewhere in the chain.)

For full notes on the answers to this question, see Appendix 2.

  • Non-diverse staff. Workforce is undiverse, publishing workforce is homogenous. Becomes an echo chamber.
  • Assumptions about the market. Massive assumptions that BAME people won’t buy books
  • Concerns about “own voices”
  • Foreign co-editions censorious (solution – be less concerned about co-editions as relatively few books will sell that well overseas)
  • Established industry so it can be difficult to make changes. There are a lot of people to convince about a book.
  • Libraries: limited by buying consortia- more difficult to acquire titles by smaller publishers. Lack of funding for libraries
  • Being pigeon-holed as diverse
  • Bookshops can be intimidating- take book events where the readers are
  • Fear of doing the wrong thing / PC culture fear of inappropriateness /fear of offending people/ ‘finger-pointing blame culture’, nervousness. Fear leads to self- censorship
  • Lack of understanding of how publishing works. Needs demystifying.
  • Geographical barriers. Financial risks of going into publishing limits the voices that work in publishing.
  • Unconscious bias.
  • Shifting blame.

Q3. What are some solutions, strategies or conversations that would help shift the barriers? What action could you take in your role to help move forward with authentic and incidental inclusion? Feel free to write any action points on a post it to take away with you.

For full notes on the answers to this question, see Appendix 3.

  • Constantly remind creators to be inclusive in their books
  • Less homogenous creative teams. Look at candidates without degrees. Industry mentors in schools.
  • Treat characters as individuals not as representing entire communities. A character doesn’t have to represent everyone.
  • Use consultants with “lived experience”
  • Industry-wide guide for aspiring authors/ illustrators
  • Must see diverse authors
  • Look at candidates without degrees. Industry mentors in schools.
  • Reach out to different /demographics groups Get beyond the usual crowd
  • Publishers to talk to young people and listen to their views.
  • Publishers can work with authors in an edit to make a book more inclusive.

Insights into Inclusion

We had two Insights into Inclusion sessions during the day where delegates could share highlights and case studies, featured WriteNow, Imagine Festival, the launch of Usborne Academy, and insight into Knights Of’s unique hiring process and shadowing opportunities, and the Amnesty CILIP Honour attached to the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals, as well as case studies or Rising Stars from Otter-Barry Books, The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan (Lantana), I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson, Hats of Faith from Shade 7. Delegates also heard about Reconnecting Rainbows. For full details of the insights and case studies, please see Appendix 4.


Jay Hulme

Before lunch, Jay Hulme, performance poet, blew the audience away with his pre-lunch performance, which was “Emotionally charged, startlingly raw and completely captivating.” (Fiz Osborne). He performed My Lungs and I am a Man (you can see him performing these at TEDxTeen).


Robin Stevens

After lunch Robin Stevens spoke about how consultation with Inclusive Minds Young Ambassadors has impacted her work and made it more authentic, and how she wouldn’t now write without them. This led smoothly in to Sarah Shaffi and Alex Strick introducing the new forum session.

Robin spoke about how although she is not conventionally diverse, her books are full of diverse characters because that is the world she lives in. However, with her first few books she didn’t realise that she could ask for help in getting representation right. After working with an Inclusive Minds Ambassador, she now uses ambassadors/sensitivity readers as a matter of course.

She reflected that the mistakes she made weren’t really bad, but they did reflect where she didn’t have a true understanding of a subject. She gave an example of one of her books where a reader pointed out that there were no aspirational black characters. As a result of this she changed the ethnicity of one of the aspirational characters to make them BAME and instantly saw that her book balanced better as a result. She suggested that authors and publishers should be looking at how books can be enhanced and made better.

Robin ended by saying that one of the ways we can use our privilege is to lift other people up. When we work with ambassadors to improve our stories, we can give back to them and support then in their aspirations.


Forum Sessions

The new forum session saw small groups of delegates in discussion with an Inclusive Minds ambassador and subject specialist. After introducing themselves and talking about some of the pitfalls of misrepresentation, delegates were able to ask questions about the direct experience of the ambassadors to find out how to ensure authentic representation. The discussions varied across the different forum groups, from a transgender ambassador giving tips about the little things he has to think about, such as what type of clothes he can wear,, to ambassadors reminding delegates that they want and need to be seen as real people who are more than just their gender identity, disability or race. One of the overriding points was that they all wanted to be featured in beautiful books, or books where the obstacle they are overcoming isn’t linked to their disability or gender identity. A book, for example, with a trans character living their life and overcoming obstacles not relating to their transition.

A few of the specific comments collected from some of the discussions included:

General

  • People without direct experience don’t understand the nuance of experiences. Need to speak to people with real experience
  • Inclusion and diversity can be joyfully celebrated
  • Consultation is vital. Needs to be put at the heart of everything you do. Will help with individual projects and general understanding of inclusion
  • The character should come first, before the diversity

BAME representation

  • Must not just be a box-ticking exercise.
  • The young Ambassador for Inclusion mentioned that she hadn't minded reading books about white people when she was young, and still doesn't. She found the common humanity in the characters regardless of background.
  • However under-represented groups should not always have to ‘do the extra work’ to find the commonality in order to enjoy a book.
  • Sarah Shaffi mentioned Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence and how the white people were backgrounders and how interesting that was to read.
  • Fantasy is a genre that highlights diverse characters.
  • Quality of production is vital - important that inclusive books look wonderful and appealing.

Deafness

  • Deafness is a spectrum, many different experiences
  • Avoid making assumptions (eg that all deaf people sign). Develop a real understanding of the Deaf community
  • Authors can portray deafness authentically through consulting those with first hand experience and consulting the NDCS
  • To avoid appropriation, perhaps not in first person?
  • Start with characters, experiences, personality first, deafness secondary to their identity. Character quirks and personality should shine through
  • Deaf characters living their lives like any other child, but also books acknowledging isolation and mental health issues
  • Deaf children need a language-rich environment. Noises/sound can be referenced, just sensitively
  • Deaf role models - teenagers, adults, work life, parents
  • Important for readers to see visual cues in books.

Disability

  • Bring ideas of disability to the modern day, e.g.  cool colours and light up wheels
  • Seek out examples of good practice, e.g. Renegades.
  • Look for new ideas, e.g. a dragon in a wheelchair
  • “Hospitals suck!”
  • Conversations as part of the publishing process
  • Avoid stereotypes – superhero vs pity, the “magic fix”. A disability aid should not give someone a superpower
  • It is incredibly important for readers to see visual cues in books - guide dog, magnifying glass, cane, hand/ arm splint, spiral shoelaces, environment – holding onto banister.
  • Disability isn’t just something that happens to a child – remember the grown ups too
  • It would just be nice to see disabled people living their lives
  • There is always a person behind the disability a disability does not define someone.
  • Accessibility is also so important. Think about the fonts you use - dyslexia friendly etc
  • A disability aid should not give someone a superpower

Representation of Trans/ Non-Binary People

  • Give children the language to talk about themselves
  • Avoid falling into stereotypical narratives or oversimplifying. Everyone’s story is individual
  • Trans identity is internal feelings not external signs
  • You don’t just have to write “the coming out story”. Normalising through incidental trans rep and across story genres
  • In picture books, please focus on family and children’s relationships with parents as natural part of life – not just themed stories eg: Mama and Mummy getting married.
  • “I have never seen a beautiful book about a Trans person”
  • Use their name
  • Demonising of trans people in the media. Need positive stories
  • Supporting trans people, trans people need allies
  • Commission trans writers.  We are missing out on talent
  • More variation of representation of LGBTQ people – not just femme or camp representations. There is not enough representation of non-binary people
  • Need a range - some books with trans characters as main characters and others about being different – talking about the confidence to be who you are, some that emphasise internal journey.
  • Importance of doing your research - asking ambassadors and real people and reading biographies
  • It’s the little things that ensure authenticity – clothes, haircuts etc, avoiding certain patterns. The little things that a trans person needs to think about for day to day life.

For comments from ambassadors on the value of the forum to them, see Appendix 5


Keynote Speaker - Cerrie Burnell

Cerrie Burnell brought a personal touch to proceedings talking about how as a child she found herself excluded from books in more ways than one, and how when the same happened for her daughter, for different reasons, she was inspired to write herself.

Outwardly Cerrie didn’t look like a reader (she struggled with reading due to dyslexia, but enjoyed stories) so librarians and bookshops felt closed off to her. She spoke about how accessibility is important and how for children who don’t appear to be keen readers or who struggle with reading, reading out loud and audio books are vital - otherwise those children miss out on storytelling altogether. Although Cerrie didn’t see children who looked like her in books, she was keen to point out that inclusion isn’t just about how people look. Including children in books means reaching children who don’t come from a house where books are valued, or there is just no time for reading. Those children have a right to know of the wonderful world of books.

Delegates enjoyed hearing extracts from books that had got inclusion right. Cerrie read sections from The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock and Cilla Lee Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan.

Cerrie also spoke about specialist books, similar to ones she was given as a child, that are very much about being disabled. She spoke about how there is such a problem with only seeing yourself in these types of books and how it can limit a child, and make their world smaller. She wanted to see children like her in The Faraway Tree, having adventures, not in a book about children with foreshortened limbs, or getting a prosthetic. She wants to see a child with a feeding tube going to Hogwarts. This is what we should be aspiring to; inclusion should be fed in in an interesting and subtle way. Children are just there, not the focus.


Di Airey - Diversity Dynamics

Finally delegates heard from Di Airey, director of Diversity Dynamics. It was really valuable to have someone from outside the industry to sum up the day. Di painted a sombre picture of the current state of the world and the biases we have that are so hard to change. The impact of reminding us that children aren’t born with these biases, and that as part of the children's book world we can help to ensure that children stay open-minded, reinforced the vital role we have. She reminded us that although the day had created momentum and energy, what really counts is what happens after we leave –, i.e.what delegates do with that momentum.


Going Forward

We’re really grateful to all those who have provided feedback as this is vital for future planning. Key points that have come from the feedback were:

  • The chance to speak to ambassadors was really valuable, and many delegates would have liked the chance to talk to more than one group. This is something we hope to be able to facilitate in future.
  • Delegates would ideally have liked the chance to move tables in the afternoon.  This was not possible for this particular event - due to the time constraints and number of attendees, it would be logistically complicated. However, we hope to explore ways to develop this initial model to make this possible in future.
  • Delegates found the opportunity to learn from others in the  Insights to Inclusion session really valuable. In future, delegates would like more of this, and perhaps more examples of how to take practical action and work with senior colleagues to achieve this.
  • We’re aware that the room was quite crowded and some people found it hard to see and hear. This was not helped by the fact that  the microphones we’d requested failed to materialise. Many thanks to any delegates affected, for their patience on this matter.
  • Some would have preferred and earlier start. This is noted for future events, although we are also aware of the need to  make the event accessible to those living outside of London (including ourselves) and to allow sufficient time to set up for the day!

For testimonials from delegates see Appendix 5.