London Book Fair seminar - April 2015

Including the Excluded: Diversity and Inclusion in Action

 

Overview:

The Inclusive Minds seminar aimed to show how and why the children’s book world is uniting in an effort to improve inclusion and diversity in books. Experienced children’s book publishers joined forces with writers and speakers with knowledge of particularly under-represented groups to demonstrate how current activity is turning talk to action.

 

After an introduction from Beth Cox and Alexandra Strick, the speakers took to the lectern. They have kindly given us permission to reproduce their presentations on this website.

 

The speakers were:

Sarah Lennox - bestselling author/illustrator of many books for children and co-creator of All About Trans

Reuben Rafferty - an 8 year old with a passion for improving ethnicity in children's books

Sarah Shaffi - senior reporter with The Bookseller, an experienced journalist

Kate Davies -  publisher, previously at Usborne and Scholastic before becoming senior editor at Walker Books

Cat Crossley - formerly at HarperCollins, now runs her own publishing company, Clavis & Claustra

Sarah Lennox

Sarah Lennox (writing under the name Richard Brassey) is the author and illustrator of nearly 40 books for children. She is also one of the creators of a project called All About Trans which aims to encourage greater understanding between the media and trans people in the UK.

I was wondering how to summarise my own feelings of the way ‘Including the Excluded’ applies to me when I came across these words by one of our volunteers, a Liverpool artist called Sophie Green in relation to her work with an organisation called Diversity Role Models who aim to prevent homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools:

Sophie wrote this:

“When I was growing up I didn’t know who I was, I didn't know the word transgender and I certainly didn’t know anyone like me. I saw approximations of people I thought were like me, caricatures on television, punchlines in newspapers. The message I was getting about trans was not good. I was a scared teen and I didn’t want anyone to know I was one of those people so I hid myself. It took 20 or more years for me to truly find myself, to accept myself and to begin to love myself.

 “Now, sharing my story in Diversity Role Models workshops, Im often impressed by the knowledge the students seem to have about transgender. Many know the word. Some know what it means and the occasional few may know someone who is trans. Some are openly trans … in a school. It blows my teenage mind.”

We don’t really know how many transgender children there are in the UK. What we do know is that the overwhelming majority remain deep in the closet just as gay kids did … and still do to an extent. But trans kids are feeling more able to come out and be themselves than ever before and I think young people are way ahead of most adults on this.

Just in the last couple of years there’s been a quiet revolution underway in authentic portrayals of trans characters in film and television. And I also think this is something the publishing industry is beginning to wake up to. In our shrinking world of the internet, global travel and migration, diversity … how we as a society and as individuals deal with difference … makes for good stories that interest us, stories that stretch our minds in a way highly relevant to our lives and the lives of our children.

So here’s my problem with most of the books which have contained supposed trans characters in the past.

Only last year … and sadly this is far from an isolated example … a young adult novel came out purporting to be written in the first person by a transgender kid. I’m not going to name and shame the author but this is what the publicity blurb boasted:

“The author is not transgender She doesn’t personally know anyone who is. There’s no ‘expertise’ on her side. She wanted to write a story about a teenager trying to find their identity and the book just ‘flowed’ out of her.”

 Imagine a white author saying this when writing about the specific issues facing a black kid in our society or a fully able author writing about the problems facing a character with a disability without even so much as second-hand knowledge of the realities. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

But I’d like to end on a positive note because I think things are improving and I hope they’ll continue to do so. I’ll pick out just a couple of books:

Earlier this year, Dial in the US published I AM JAZZ, a picture book, co-authored by Jazz Jennings, a trans teenager who’s recently been made the face of Clean & Clear.

This book is great for younger trans kids, parents and teachers especially in a class where there might be a trans kid. And there’s a serious purpose. In survey after survey around 40% of trans people say they have attempted suicide because of a lack of acceptance. In an interview Jazz herself has told how she gets messages from kids who say they are only alive because “Jazz changed their lives”.

The other book I want to recommend is THE ART OF BEING NORMAL by Lisa Williamson published by David Fickling this year in the UK.

I’m so relieved and delighted by the way Lisa, who is not herself trans, has really done her homework. I’d defy any teenager not to empathise with her trans characters … and we see the story through their eyes. The great thing is that their lives are mostly filled with the same kinds of concerns as those of all kids. What she’s written is a terrific story full of tension and pathos which had me in tears at times.

I wish I could have read a book like this when I was a teenager but as importantly I wish I could have known that many of my friends would have read it and enjoyed it too. I might have felt able to be myself all those years ago, to have accepted myself instead of staying hidden for all the years I did.

 

Reuben Rafferty and mum Carmel

Reuben is 8 years old and loves to read. Reuben was upset that he couldn't see people like him in stories and so decided to write his own with his grandma. Reuben was supported by mother Carmel.

Carmel: Our interest really began around the time of World Book Day 2014. At that time Reuben became upset about having to dress up as a character which is something he’ll explain. I contacted anyone and everyone I could find online for help and support and Inclusive Minds were the ones who got back in touch – bringing us here today.

Reuben: School had asked us to dress up as a book character for World Book Day but I couldn’t think of anyone to be. I like books and read lots with my mum. She kept suggesting all these characters from stories we had read but none of them were right. I’d either have to have my face painted or wear a mask. None of them looked like me. She thought I was being fussy but when I told her why I was upset she understood and set out to find some stories with people like me in them.

Carmel: This was no easy task! I found myself for hours at a time trawling through endless books online but they all seemed to be ‘issue books’ – the type that say “look, we’re all different and that’s ok”. I spoke to my mum who suggested she and Reuben could write their own books. Reuben liked this idea and they set about planning and writing.

Reuben isn’t asking for much. Is he being unreasonable to expect to see himself in a book like the majority of other children in his class can? Is it unfair of me as a parent – and many others I know – to ask that we can find books with characters that look like our children in mainstream bookshops or online without having to search for hours?

Reu was asked at the Everybody into Books event, (organised by Inclusive Minds as part of Southbank’s Imagine Festival), recently what research authors need to do to create characters like him. His reply – none, he’s just an 8 year old boy with the same interests and likes as his 8 year old white, black and Asian friends. For him it really is that simple. Same character, different colour.

 We are an average mum and son combo – we don’t necessarily have the answers as to why there seems to be unequal representation of diversity in children’s books. Is it lack of authors of colour? Probably not – we’ve met lots now. Reluctant publishers and book sellers? Maybe. We don’t know. We just know that it’s not fair and needs to change. I would welcome any answers or ideas as to how this can be changed from anyone here today so that more children like Reuben don’t have to have this same problem.

 

Sarah Shaffi

Sarah is a senior reporter with The Bookseller, writing for online and print on a variety of issues, from recruitment to diversity to mergers and acquisitions. A journalist with a decade's experience, Sarah has worked for both local and national newspapers and websites.

Hi, I'm Sarah and I work for The Bookseller, looking at a variety of issues across the trade.

I thought I’d start with a little bit about my reading habits.

When I was young, my favourite books often featured female protagonists. I related to Frances Hodgson Burnett's Sara Crowe in A Little Princess, mainly because her name was Sara (it’s spelt a bit different, but I like to think it’s pronounced the same), and to Anne of Green Gables because she was a bit clumsy (although I never accidentally fed a friend wine instead of cordial), and I loved Roald Dahl's Matilda because she was a reader, just like me. But what all of these protagonists have in common is the fact that they are a little bit different. Because, in the absence of books with people who looked like me and my family, I had to seek out differences where I could.

It wasn't until I was about 10 that I finally found a book that featured a young Muslim girl as the main character - and I still treasure that copy of Anita Desai's The Peacock Garden. But while the character shared an ethnic and religious background with me, she still wasn't like me - a young British Muslim. Plus, the book was written in 1974, so it was hardly contemporary even when I was a child, as long ago as that seems.

I explain about my childhood reading because I think we're still largely asking the questions that I unconsciously asked myself as a voracious young reader - where are the books about people like me? Why is no one writing them? Is it because no one cares? Is it because I'm not important?

Since I was a child, many moons ago, publishing has taken great strides, and young people now can, if they know where to look or have someone to guide them, find books about people like them. Malorie Blackman writes fantastic books with characters from a variety of backgrounds, Keren David's Salvage, about siblings adopted into different families, recently made the YA Book Prize shortlist, and Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal has been a hit among reviewers and bloggers. But, walk into a bookshop or a library, or look online, and you can see that the number of books with diverse characters are still vastly outnumbered.

So how do we get more of these books? What are the barriers to getting more of these books? And what are publishers doing about it?

I'm happy to say that publishers are doing a number of things. Look at us now, discussing this issue. Would publishing have done this 20 years ago? Probably not. The first stage to change is self-awareness, and publishing is definitely aware of its shortcomings when it comes to diversity.

At the beginning of this year Inclusive Minds held an event called A Place at the Table, bringing together children's publishers to have honest discussions about the barriers to diversity, and to try and work out ways to break those barriers down. The day resulted in the Everybody In charters, one for booksellers and one for publishers, each containing a list of practical guidelines to make books more inclusive and diverse. The charters recognise all facets of diversity, from race and heritage, disability, and gender identity to sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, religion and culture.

 Another key to diversity in content is diversity in workforce. If your staff is largely white, middle-class and Oxbridge educated, with the best will in the world you're not going to relate enough to some content to see its value to different sectors of your current and, this is really important, potential, readership. But if your workforce is diverse - from North, South, East and West, university educated and not, from different socio-economic backgrounds, and of different political and religious beliefs, to mention just a few - your content is more likely to be diverse.

When it comes to gender publishing is super diverse - the majority of people working in publishing are women, and the majority of people who buy books are women. But what about other kinds of diversity? Can you walk into a major publishing house in London, and see the staff inside reflecting the make up of the people on the streets outside? Probably not. Last year, The Bookseller looked at diversity across the trade, and found that many still feel there is more to be done, and just today, the writer development agency Spread the Word released a study showing that 84% of publishers and 97% of agents think that publishing is only “a little diverse” or “not diverse at all”, with this of course having an affect on the way authors from diverse backgrounds think they are perceived.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom. Things are changing when it comes to workforce diversity.

The Publishers Association and the Independent Publishers Guild have revived Equality in Publishing, commonly known as EQUIP, to guide and help publishers when it comes to diversity. Publishers including Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan and Carcanet Press have signed up, and by doing so, it means they can be held to their commitment to diversity.

Traditionally, publishing is a career that, a bit like journalism, can sometimes depend on who you know and how wealthy you are. Unpaid work experience has, in past years, been a key way to get into the industry, but if you're from a low economic background, your parents probably can't afford to support you while you do unpaid internships, and you'll find it difficult to hold down a job and work for a publisher for free at the same time. This is an easily solvable problem, and publishers have stepped up to the plate – Profile, for example, pays all interns the London Living Wage so that they can get the experience in the industry they need, while also not being out of pocket.

Publishing isn't a career that young people necessarily think of when they're at school or even university, so it's important to reach out to children and students and make them aware that publishing is an industry for them, and that will welcome them. Hachette UK regularly holds what it calls Insight Into Publishing days for university students. The events are open to all students, regardless of university or degree subject, and the aim is to show the range of jobs available at a publishing house, from editor to rights professional, from sales rep to accountant.

One argument brought up is that there isn't the audience out there for publishers to worry about investing in diverse books, but what if the audience is there, and publishers just aren't speaking to them when it comes to publicity and marketing? That's something being looked at by Penguin Random House, the biggest publisher in the UK (and the world), which has just launched The Scheme, a programme to find what it is calling the 'marketers of tomorrow'. As their HR director put it, "The Scheme is about breaking down perceived barriers and getting creative people who might never have thought about working in publishing to think again". He added that Penguin Random House wants to "hear new voices, see different perspectives, and find fresh ways to tell our stories". By finding people who wouldn't traditionally have considered a career in publishing, and finding them in the spaces they already are - The Scheme recruits via Tumblr - Penguin Random House is showing that it is willing to diversify its workforce, and also its content.

It's disappointing to think that in 2015 we need to have measures in place to make sure publishing reflects society, but we must look at the various steps being taken, like EQUIP and A Place at the Table, and see them positively. It's great that this discourse is happening, that it's happening honestly, that’s it happening because people are working together, and that it’s happening because people are committed to more diverse books, because publishers have a responsibility to produce great books about the world. That responsibility means children, and adults, should be able to pick up books that reflect society, whether that means stories about one-parent families, refugee children from Syria, a boy with two mums, or a girl in a wheelchair. With the steps being taken today, more of those books shouldn't be far off.

Kate Davies

Kate worked at Usborne and Scholastic before becoming senior editor at Walker Books where she now works across fiction, non-fiction, novelty and picture books.

Hi everyone. I’m Kate Davies, and I’m senior editor at Walker Books. I work on everything – fiction, non-fiction, novelty, picture books and baby books – and I’ve always been passionate about making sure children see themselves in the books they read. I’m gay, and growing up I don’t remember reading a book with a gay character in it. Obviously I went to school at a different time – during section 28 – so there wasn’t much discussion about sexuality. It was pretty isolating. I like to think that if I were growing up today, things would be different. Because books are much more inclusive now, I think – but we still have a long way to go.

And we should remember that this isn’t just about children being able to see themselves in the books they read, though that’s really important – it’s about seeing people who are different from you, too, and learning about diversity and difference that way. A book with a mixed race character isn’t just for mixed race children. Inclusive books are for everyone.

When I first started in publishing, publishers were quite nervous about representing things like non-traditional family set-ups in books – they were nervous they wouldn’t sell. In the past, publishers were worried about putting non-white characters on book covers, as they thought white parents wouldn’t buy them for their children. But things are absolutely changing. The We Need Diverse Books campaign, the work Inclusive Minds is doing, things like the Everybody In charter – these are all making a difference. A brilliant example of how campaigns like this can change things is the Let Books Be Books campaign. Publishers used to routinely publish blue books for boys and pink books for girls – because these products do make money – but most publishers have changed their policy on this as a result of the campaign. I know Walker wouldn’t dream of publishing a ‘bedtime stories for girls’ or anything like that.

I think we should celebrate the inclusive books that are being published – just to look at Walker, we have a great history of publishing inclusive books – Blood Donors, Handa’s Surprise, So Much and The Unforgotten Coat were all on the Guardian’s Diverse Voices list of 50 best culturally diverse books. We publish the wonderful Patrick Ness, who includes gay characters in his books, though they are absolutely not ‘about’ being gay. We’ve just published Remix by Non Pratt, which features a mixed-race protagonist, and two main gay characters, Better Nate Than Ever, a middle grade about a young boy who’s questioning his sexuality, who runs away to audition for ET: the Musical, we’ve republished Heather Has Two Mommies, a seminal American picture book about a girl with same-sex parents, and we have a book coming soon from the brilliant Melanie Walsh called Isaac and his Amazing Aspergers Superpowers.

The point is, when good, inclusive books are submitted to us, we will publish them. We will not reject them because they feature a trans protagonist, or whatever. On the contrary. There’s a hunger for good inclusive books. I’m sure lots of you have read The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson? We adored this book on submission and were one of many publishers that wanted to buy it. But we don’t get enough ‘inclusive’ books submitted to us. Perhaps there’s a vicious cycle – if people don’t see books featuring trans, disabled, black characters, they won’t think they’ll get published if they write one. If people don’t see themselves in books, they won’t think people like them can be writers. And we have to make sure inclusive books aren’t seen as a trend – we don’t want people to say, ‘We’ve published a trans book. One is enough’, or for writers to think, ‘Oh, someone has already written a book with a trans main character’. There are many, many stories to tell.

 Where we can, as publishers, make sure our books are more inclusive is when we’re generating books in house, or briefing illustrators. When commissioning illustrations, I always specify that I want to see a range of people – people of different races, disabled people, two people of the same sex holding hands in a crowd scene, say. I try to show girls doing things that aren’t ‘girl’ activities, and vice versa, and I actively tell my authors and illustrators that we’re interested in inclusive books.

 Because being inclusive should be at the forefront of our mind all the time, and the reason children’s books aren’t more inclusive is that publishing itself is so undiverse. We need to do more to recruit a more diverse workforce – offer paid internships where possible, state on employment ads that we encourage applications from minority groups, visit schools and talk about our jobs so people know that publishing is an option for them.

 We need to encourage writers and illustrators from diverse backgrounds to write and draw and try to get published. And until there are more writers and illustrators from diverse backgrounds, we need to empower writers and illustrators to write from perspectives that are not their own without the fear of being accused of appropriation, which I know is a huge issue. We need to tell agents we’re actively looking for diverse submissions. And we need to talk about inclusivity more as companies, to make sure it’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Publishers can get outside experts in to talk to people about it – I invited a speaker from Stonewall to Walker last year, and he talked about how important children’s books can be in combatting homophobic bullying. He was happy to do it for free, and it started so many really productive conversations, and made people much more aware of the positive impact our books can have. If a publisher isn’t sure how to talk about an aspect of diversity, they can get a book checked by an expert in that field. If more in-depth training or consultancy is needed publishers can always contact Inclusive Minds, who do brilliant work in raising awareness of these issues. And this sort of event is so important in making sure inclusiveness stays at the forefront of our minds. We all want our books to be inclusive. There isn’t a lack of willingness. And we, as publishers, writers, illustrators, agents and readers – are the people who will make it happen. We just need to encourage each other and remind each other to keep going until making sure that our books are inclusive becomes second nature.

Cat Crossley

Formerly Operations Manager at HarperCollins and founding chair of their diversity-in-content forum, Cat now runs her own publishing company, Clavis & Claustra, which promotes diversity and heritage. 

A few months ago, a former colleague of mine, an Editor, took two Maths textbook covers to a design meeting for approval, one featuring a picture of a male mathematician, the other a female mathematician.  The Sales Director pointed to the latter and said, “Who’s this?  I don’t think anyone will know who she is.”  The woman in question was Ada Lovelace, better known as the daughter of Byron: a distinctive looking woman, credited with inventing computer programming, and so famous she has her own day in mid-October and a computer programming language named after her.  But my friend the Editor simply pointed to the male mathematician and asked the Sales Director, “Who’s this?”.  He could not answer.  In fact it was Isaac Newton, and fair enough, I couldn’t pick Newton out of a line-up either.  He is the very image of authority and learning: white, male, middle-aged.  Ubiquitous and unquestioned.

 I share this story with you, not to shame the Sales Director, but because any of us could have made the same mistake.  We cannot change what we fail to challenge.  Despite working among colleagues who are liberal, progressive, and - dare I say - feminist, still a lot of the content remained overwhelmingly middle class, predominantly white, often reinforcing of gender stereotypes, and generally not as varied as our potential customers.  So I set up a think tank inviting anyone who would listen, to interrogate why this might be and how we could challenge it and broaden our horizons as a business.  There was some hesitation from a few colleagues who worried it was too politically sensitive an issue, some who believed we were doing ‘enough’, some who imagined it could be too difficult, too costly, or too low down on the list of priorities to really invest a lot of time in the conversation.  I’ll come back to why none of these objections makes any sense.

 One question came up again and again: ‘But what is the business case for making our books more inclusive?’  Here it is: people of colour read; queer people read; people from different socio-economic backgrounds, from different cultures, from different generations, with different gender identities, with different abilities or disabilities and with different family structures all read.  If we don’t cater to all of these people, we are losing out on a lot of business.  That’s not to say that people only gravitate towards content which directly matches their identity.  Personally, I’m just so bored of reading about bisexual, polyamorous, northern ginger feminists.  (If only.)  But if we publish content which disproportionately represents or appeals to one group of people at the expense of another, we’re doing more than shortchanging the business, we’re shortchanging our readers.

This very real and pressing concern is what precipitated A Place at the Table in January and I’d like to thank Inclusive Minds for hosting this event.  It is so invigorating to be in a room of 70 people who see these problems, who see the possibilities, all determined to work together to make publishing a more inclusive industry.  The most valuable realisation, for me, was seeing exactly how many different people in the publishing process need to be involved in this discussion; how all the cogs need to turn together to bring about real change.  Because this isn’t about ticking boxes; it isn’t about quotas or tokenism.  We need to be asking ourselves questions every step of the way: why do our agents send us content from mainly middle class authors? Why are we defaulting to white protagonists? Why does the cover art depict uniform body types? Why do we have low reader engagement with certain demographics?  It’s not enough to have ‘diversity’ as an afterthought.  We need comprehensively to change our thinking from the start.  We need an intellectual revolution.

Happily, there are already many signs of progress.  The frequency of articles on diversity in the media is rising, the conversation is attracting more attention and serious consideration.  There are more groups raising awareness and committed to rectifying the imbalance: Letterbox Library, for instance, whose impressive catalogue is testament to the proliferation of children’s books promoting and celebrating diversity.  Before I left HarperCollins to set up my own pro-diversity publishing company, already a lot was beginning to change in-house in terms of process, for instance: the rigour in photo research; the attention to detail for briefing freelancers in inclusive language; the avoidance of gender and cultural stereotypes; and in general the awareness of the issues we refer to when we talk about inclusivity.

All publishers could benefit from the charters that Inclusive Minds are proposing.  These industry standards will bring consistency, guidance, communication, and a positive model for inclusive publishing.  Being a signatory will be a badge of good practice, something no publisher can afford to be without, particularly where children’s books and educational books are concerned.  And this is why none of those objections I mentioned earlier makes any sense.  If we are committed to publishing the best quality books for children, that must include all children.  Challenging ourselves, our assumptions, our prejudices, our privileges, costs effort, yes, and takes courage.  But the idea that diversity is a politically sensitive and difficult issue ignores the fact that the current publishing landscape is itself the product of centuries of cumulative political bias.  Neglecting to acknowledge and rectify this is an indefensible omission.  Creating great books for children of all identities must always be a priority and will help to foster a generation of more engaged readers, future writers and artists, customers, parents, and teachers.  With the help of the Inclusive Minds charters publishers can be confident that when it comes to diversity, we’re all on the same page.