July 2013 - Launch of 'This is Me!' Book Packs

We've teamed up with Letterbox Library to select two very special book packs. The 'This is Me!' Early Years pack is bright, breezy and fun-packed. A gorgeous mix of board books and picture books, ideal for nurturing positive attitudes to diversity and difference in the very young. Multicultural and global, with images of disabled children, a range of family set-ups and books that gently challenge gender stereotypes, this pack is a perfectly embracing collection. The celebration continues with the 'This is Me!' Primary pack which contains great stories which have been selected for their strong characterisation and engaging narratives, and the fact that they just happen to be diverse, inclusive, and promote equality.

You can buy the packs from Letterbox Library by clicking on the links. All the books can also be purchased individually from Letterbox Library

Selecting the books involved a lot of interesting discussion, here's how it went...

Creating the 'This is Me!' Book Packs

And so it was that one fine day, four people sat down – the two founders of Inclusive Minds (IM) and two workers from Letterbox Library – to eat chocolate banana cake and some sort of macaroon-type thing. We also came together to create two book packs for Inclusive Minds!

Our aim was to select and showcase books that offered great stories for children and toddlers (in this instance for ages Birth-11), which also just so happened to be inclusive. As much as possible, we wanted the final collections to expound IM’s philosophy to enable ‘every child to see themselves in books’, a sentiment perfectly captured by the title of the book packs: ‘This Is Me!’*.

Here are just some of the challenges, dilemmas and forehead-crinkles we faced when making our selections:

How to be ‘naturally’ inclusive? How could we incorporate as many identities as possible, be as inclusive as possible, without appearing to merely tick boxes? The answer, we felt, lay in focusing on high quality text and images, avoiding token gestures, spurning self-conscious voices and, as much as possible, selecting engaging stories over and above non-fiction, which is so often issue-led.

And to exactly what extent did we want to be ‘casually’ inclusive? Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon just so happens to include a child with crutches with no mention at all of the disability. So, in went Molly Lou. And yet Freddie and the Fairy is a brilliantly delivered story whose ‘drama’ nevertheless pivots on a (fairy’s) hearing impairment. Dilemma! The story is so adored by so many, its ‘message’ so important and so gently executed, its illustrations so smiley and perky – so, to be honest, it just walked its own way into the book pack! 

If we stuck to fantastic stories, would we be leaving out some fantastic books? We faced a practical problem with our early years choices – there are actually very few ‘proper’ storybooks for this age range and many more books with sparse text, songs and rhymes. But we are absolutely sure that the likes of Daddy, Papa and Me, My Face Book and Mary Had a Little Lamb have essential literary inclusion ingredients. We also knew that The Great Big Book of Families verges on being an ‘information’ book but, while it may not be strictly casual, its upbeat tone and hilarious illustrations make it utterly joyful; fabulously thoughtful but never preachy.

If a book incorporates multiple identities then is it too self-consciously ‘right on’? What about, for example, a story starring a mixed-race family and a gender-role-busting girl with a hearing aid? Is that just ‘too much’? We thought not; it is simply a reflection of reality. After all, we do have multiple identities and can’t pick and choose which bits of ourselves to highlight on any particular day. So, Being Ben went straight in! Likewise, what about a book with more than one form of disability represented? Was that too much? ‘Too much for who?’ we asked. In went Max the Champion, happily getting on with doing his thing, along with his friends, all doing their thing, some with additional needs, some without, rather like real life…

Did the books need to be recent releases? As much as possible, yes – the language and thinking around discrimination and inclusion changes so we wanted our books to be as sensitive to this as possible. But we also felt strongly that there were ‘older’ titles that actually got it right the first time around and we just weren’t ready to let go of them… so in crept the gorgeous Granny Torrelli (2003) and the fond classic, Pass It Polly (1994!).

We talked and ate and ate and talked and this is really only a tiny summary of a very long process.

But, perhaps a key question is whether, in the end, we were spoilt for choice? Has the landscape of children’s books moved on leaps and bounds? We would probably all reply: a little, yes, but… well… perhaps not as much as we would like.

Fortunately, we had the luxury of choosing from the shelves of Letterbox Library whose books have already been sourced, reviewed and approved for their commitment to inclusion/diversity by its own team of 25 volunteer reviewers. In some of the areas we wanted to cover – disabled, anti-sexist/gender positive), multicultural and refugee/migrant representations – there was some scope to actually pick and choose. With LGB representations, less so – but just enough for our purposes. When it came to Traveller/Roma/Gypsy representations for this age range we were starting to flounder; there was really very little to select from, and this was a critical gap for early years especially (some local Traveller projects have produced some excellent EY books for their local community but aren’t able to distribute these more widely). And, as far as ‘trans’ titles go, there really was only one which had passed the muster of Letterbox’s reviewers (there are a handful more when you get to teen/YA novels): 10,000 Dresses. Luckily, that one picture book is one that delighted us all and provoked a very interesting discussion about its use of pronouns.

We are, of course, left with many gaps, the most pertinent being: representations of engaged and active ‘older’ people to counteract those hunched up, doddery stereotypes; positive portrayals of people living with mental health issues in a world in which ‘mad’ and ‘crazy’ are lazy, everyday slang; looked-after children in starring roles; families from ‘poorer’ socio-economic backgrounds battling against a consumer culture which keeps ramping up the must-have messages to their children.  

But, in the end, you know what? We felt we did well. For now. And we think that you and the children you know might like some of these stories too; we’ve included fussy eaters, sporting heroes, mischievous elves, dragon-taming princesses and curly fleeced lambs. Both packs can be bought from the independent, not-for-profit, booksellers Letterbox Library here:

*A tiny footnote

The pack names were inspired by Alex’s experience of a project she worked on where a disabled child shouted this as he pointed happily to a book starring a child who shared the same form of disability as him.

By Fen Coles, Co-Director, Letterbox Library