London Book Fair Video
Following our well-attended London Book Fair seminar last month, we are delighted to now share a video of the seminar and an associated transcript:
London Book Fair 2019
Inclusive Minds Seminar
DIVERSITY: WHERE’S THE ISSUE?
Tuesday 13 March 2019, Children’s Hub
Seminar filmed, edited, transcribed and subtitled by Jo Ross-Barrett, Inclusion Ambassador
Heather Lacey, Inclusion Ambassador and Activist
Jay Hulme, Inclusion Ambassador and Poet
Rose Robbins, Inclusion Ambassador and Author-Illustrator
Ade Adepitan, Author, TV Presenter and Paralympic Athlete
Cerrie Burnell, Author, Actor and TV Presenter
British Sign Language Interpreter
Sarah Meeks, Performance Interpreting
Ros Asquith, Author and Illustrator
Welcome and thanks
Alexandra Strick, co-founder of Inclusive Minds
Jessi Parrott, Inclusion Ambassador
Jo Ross-Barrett, Inclusion Ambassador and Author
Welcome – Alexandra Strick (AS): I've been lucky enough to be involved in quite a few of these seminars over the years, with lovely people like BookTrust and Outside In World and of course Inclusive Minds. And I have to say, they're all brilliant but I'm particularly excited about today - not least due to the fact we have this amazing, star-studded panel today (who I'll introduce in a minute) - but also because today's a really special seminar. It's been designed for us - and is being delivered by - our Inclusion Ambassadors.
I'd love to talk about them all day but sadly I'd take up all the panel's time, so I'll just refer you to our website www.inclusiveminds.com, and say this is perhaps our most exciting project. Inclusive Minds is a very small organisation with no core funding - in fact, no funding! - but we do have this amazing resource: this network that we're building of incredible young people with experience of different facets of diversity (so lived experience). We just feel that they're absolutely crucial to helping the book world to transform in terms of inclusion and diversity, so please read more about them!
And you'll hear a bit more about them over the next hour as well as from a couple of the Ambassadors who are taking part. So, I will hand over in just a minute to our team but first of all I'd just like to introduce the panel.
I can't quite believe I'm saying this, but you will have seen the face, it is really Ade Adepitan. I'm actually shaking with excitement because Ade's such a hero, even though I've known him for a few years through Inclusive Minds and Whizz-Kidz. It's amazing to have him here today - we're so grateful! For those of you who don't know him (I'm sure you do), he's a TV presenter, he's a Paralympic athlete, and he's now a brilliant author of a rather wonderful book that you can see on the top left there: Ade's Amazing Ade-ventures: Battle of The Cyborg Cat - see what he did there? It's a fantastic book so do look that one up if you haven't seen it yet. It’s published by Studio Press.
We also have on the end, trying to hide (and again I can't believe I'm saying this) - it's Cerrie Burnell, the Cerrie Burnell. She's a TV presenter who anyone who has children (especially children under the age of ten) will know so well from CBeebies, where she first really made her name. She's also now a regular performer, she's an actor and she's a very well-established children's book author with a huge number of books already under her belt. Her latest book, The Girl with the Shark's Teeth (as modelled by Cerrie) was out in January by Oxford University Press. So we're so excited to have Cerrie, thank you.
Now, sandwiched beautifully between Cerrie and Ade are two of our young Ambassadors for Inclusion. So our Inclusion Ambassadors today are: on the left, Jay Hulme. I know I’m gushing non-stop but I can’t help it. Jay is probably now one of my favourite two poets ever. I mean, Jay is exceptional, just exceptional. So if you don’t know Jay’s work just Google him, you’ll find him on TEDxTeen performing – absolutely extraordinary. I wish we had time for him to perform today, but come to one of our A Place at the Table events and you might see him do that. He’s also a published poet – you can see the Rising Stars: Young Voices in Poetry book there, he’s in that anthology published by Otter-Barry Books.
And I think – am I allowed to say this? I think there might be a book that’s a kind of solo…?
Jay Hulme (JH): It’s maybe happening. I mean, it is.
AS: Possibly. There might be a solo collection out very soon, but I don’t know if I just revealed that before it was announced publicly. Oops! Okay, moving on…
Finally, by no means least though, is Rose Robbins – hello, Rose! And Rose is another one of our Inclusion Ambassadors, but she’s also a published author, so new book out… now? About now? Next month, April, Me and My Sister - brilliant book, I’m sure she’ll say a word or two about it if she’s asked later – based on her own experience of growing up in a neurodiverse household, by Scallywag Press.
Okay, that’s enough of me rambling and gushing so I’m going to pass over in just a second to one of our final Ambassadors. But first I also just wanted to thank the amazing illustrator. As if we hadn’t got enough famous names here already, we’ve also got Ros Asquith at the front here, who is doodling away some impressions of the session today, and we’ll hopefully be able to share those on social media after today’s event, so that’s just extra exciting.
Right, so I’m going to pass over to your chair for the hour – if I haven’t used up too much of the hour already – Heather Lacey. So Heather, as I say, is another one of our Inclusion Ambassadors. She has a huge interest in exploring diversity in books and she’s particularly passionate about disabled people’s rights. And most recently she was featured in the Shaw Trust's Power Disability Power 100 list, which I know Cerrie is also in. And before you all think ‘why did they leave Ade out?’, I think Ade was on the chair – weren’t you the chair of the selection panel?
Ade Adepitan (AA): I tried to put myself in as number one, but…
AS: But they wouldn’t let you, so you had to be the chair! So yeah, we’re very excited to have Heather here – one of the most influential disabled people, and that’s official! I’ll pass over to you Heather for the next forty-five minutes (because I’ve spoken for too long). And thank you to Sarah Meeks, our amazing BSL interpreter, too.
Heather Lacey (HL): Hi everyone. As Alex says, we’re so thrilled that so many of you are here today. This is obviously something that people want to talk about and are interested in. So hopefully we’ll have a good discussion around this. So just to set the scene really, and explain why we called the seminar what it is – ‘Diversity: Where’s the Issue?’. I don’t know how many of you are into various inclusion talks and representation in particular, but I think what we wanted to do is to use that tongue-in-cheek title – I think Jay helped come up with that, didn’t you Jay? – because we don’t want these other characteristics, we don’t want disability or LGBTQ+ or mental health to just be an ‘issue’. We don’t want it as part of an ‘issue book’. We want it to be part of a narrative as it’s part of everyday life, you can see there’s diversity absolutely everywhere and that’s what we wanted to focus on, which is why we called the session that in particular.
This is obviously a very vast subject, and I also think we should set expectations as to what we’re going to talk about. We’ve tried to pick several questions that will hopefully address most people’s queries and concerns or suggestions that we’ve had from yourselves. I just want to explain that this is the start of an ongoing conversation – so if we don’t cover something that you were hoping for us to cover today, we are going to try to in another way. We’ll keep you informed what we plan with that.
Okay, so we’ve also asked the panel, so while we heard a brief intro from Alex, about the areas of diversity that they are particularly interested in. So they’re going to address those questions and we’re going to try and touch upon some points – we’ve had a lot of points from the public generally, on social media we’ve been asking people to give us suggestions – so we’ll just see how it goes. We’re going to try and share some things via social media anyway, if we don’t get through everything in this hour, because I know we’re going to be quite busy, I think, talking about lots of different things. We will try and address those later, just wanted to clarify that with you.
First question though – and I think this is going to take up a lot of our time because I think we’re going to be quite interested in this. So first question to the panel: what kind of thing do you think makes a good portrayal? Cerrie, do you want to start with that?
Cerrie Burnell (CB): Yes, so for me I think it’s about subtlety. I think we’ve mentioned ‘issue books’ and not making diversity and inclusion an issue – which it absolutely isn’t. You know, if you live in London or if you live in any big city in the UK, diversity is just a completely normal part of your existence. (Can everybody hear me, by the way? Hello, that’s better.) Diversity is just a completely normal part of your existence and your life. So what I really love when I’m reading a text is when I perhaps don’t know there is a subtle difference with a character, and it’s not flagged up immediately, it perhaps comes out a bit later on in the story.
Some really beautiful examples of this are Lightning Chase Me Home (which has recently come out) by Amber Lee Dodd, and the main protagonist Amelia is dyslexic – you don’t know that until later on in the story, she’s just deemed as ‘unteachable’ and she’s been home-schooled by her mum. And she doesn’t even really understand why she’s been excluded and why she can’t fit in with anyone, she’s got quite low self-esteem about that. And obviously lots of young people, young women, young men, do have low self-esteem anyway so they would connect to the character just in those instances. She’s also being raised by her dad and her grandad and she misses her mum massively, and so that’s a family we don’t often see represented. Very often it’s the mum and the dad and everyone’s happy and jolly, or it’s a massive story about one of the parents not being there, or the child’s an orphan. There doesn’t really seem to be much in the middle of that.
Another really gorgeous book (which I don’t have with me) is by Katherine Rundell: The Wolf Wilder. The protagonist in that story, Theo, she’s being raised by a solo mum but she’s also being raised amongst wolves, that’s the thing you focus on. It’s a really timeless story so you’re never reading that story thinking ‘where’s the dad?’, you’re just thinking ‘oh my God, there’s wolves!’ That’s really exciting, that’s amazing! And her best friend is a boy who absolutely loves ballet, I think it’s set in Russia, and his dream is to become a ballet dancer. And reading that as an adult you think ‘okay, so he’s said that he doesn’t want to get married ever, and he wants to do ballet… okay, maybe we’re going down a bit of a Billy Elliot route here, maybe he’s gonna turn out to be gay’ but reading that as a child you just think ‘well, that’s a boy who loves dancing, he’s following his dream’. And it’s not – you know, you never really know, you’d have to ask Katherine whether he is a gay character or not. But what I love is when any child can really relate to that and it starts very gently raising questions about identity and it really shows things like all of us have different diversities. You know, everyone at this table has multiple diversities and I think diversity is just running all the way through life. We just need to be threading that, weaving that, very subtly into stories as we go so there’s better representation across the board.
HL: What about you, Jay? Do you have anything to add to that?
JH: I really like the point you made about when you don’t really notice it, and it’s there throughout the book but unless you’re a child who can relate to it you don’t really notice it. An author I’m friends with at one of the Inclusive Minds events asked me if I were to do a – so, I’m a trans man, which is a thing. Some people don’t believe it is. It is a thing. – so she asked me if one of my characters, what if one of my characters I’d had in maybe a couple of books, were to come out as trans, how would I do that? What kind of clues would I put in the earlier books to kind of suggest that’s going to happen? And I thought, ‘what a brilliant idea!’ Instead of having a whole book about a character who’s trans, you’ve got a collection of stories, a series that’s just about a group of girls or a group of boys or whatever. Then it’s book three, one of them comes out as trans and it’s just a normal thing and they carry on doing whatever it is they’re doing in the rest of the series. That’s a really, really good idea. And I love the idea that she asked what would I do to make it different, because yeah, trans people might say ‘yeah, we’re the same as everyone else’, but of course we have a lot of unique experiences that a lot of people can relate to but a trans person reading it will be like ‘ooh – that’s me, that is!’ So I really, really liked that idea, the idea of it just being subtly in there. As a kid I read a lot of my mum’s old books, I read The Famous Five, and there’s a character in there – I can’t remember their name, it might be George? I don’t know [yes, it’s George Kirrin] – and I was just like ‘yeeeah!’ She had no idea what she was writing and I was like ‘yeeeah’! …Maybe she did! So I really like that idea.
There’s a lot of things about being trans in the book that I’m not allowed to talk about, which is aimed at children and teenagers, and in the poetry book I am in that we are allowed to talk about is for kids. And I get a lot of ‘ugh, trans issues, gay issues, they’re not for children!’ And I’m like ‘What?!?’ Apparently my entire life isn’t acceptable for children! It’s just ridiculous! It’s just a thing, you know? And so I love the fact that there are, um… the Proud book that’s came out recently, by Stripes Publishing, which is really good. I got asked to read it before it came out and give it a look over and I was just like ‘oh my God, kids can read this and see themselves and it’s going to be okay!’ Because, you know, growing up in the really early 2000s, people didn’t know trans was a thing. In the late 1990s people definitely didn’t know trans was a thing. If I’d known it was a thing, it would have saved me a lot of heartache and drama later on, so I think it’s really, really important.
HL: So Rose, from your area of diversity, what do you think makes for a good portrayal then?
Rose Robbins (RR): Well, with something like autism and autistic people, it’s something that’s so rarely depicted accurately because it’s a story that’s told through the experiences of parents and professionals so much more often than autistic people themselves that it’s… I feel like subtlety – it’d be wonderful to get to a point where there’s a story that has subtle elements of an autistic character. I can’t think of any that exist yet – I mean, if somebody knows one, that’d be wonderful and I’d love to hear about it. There’s a book by Rachael Lucas called The State of Grace which has an autistic protagonist, it is a wonderful book and she’s a wonderful writer. But a lot of stories that are ‘main character autistic’ are autobiographical, and they’re wonderful but that’s not incidental at all – it’s quite the opposite. But I love those books, I think they’re wonderful. I feel there’s quite a way to go for neurodiverse inclusion in that way.
HL: I think you’re right as well that we don’t want to see books that make autistic people the spectacle of the book, we want it to be explored in the narrative. So let’s keep an eye out for these books and let us know if you see anything!
Just – Alex is giving us a nice little cue – there are pens and paper around, which I forgot to mention earlier. If there’s anything that you really want to ask us, we can try and address it during the hour, but it’s quite likely that we’ll probably address some things after. So if you want to scribble some things down on paper, if you’re not keen on question-and-answer, if you want things to be anonymous, do let us know and we’ll gather those pens and papers at the end.
So Ade, from your perspective, what do you think makes a good portrayal?
AA: It’s interesting listening to everybody else. I was worried actually Cerrie, when you were talking about a book with a child being brought up in a house of wolves, I was thinking you were going to be talking about the House of Commons! That’s full of wolves right now… I won’t go there.
But recently I was speaking to Imogen Russell Williams and she mentioned the phrase ‘mirror and window books’. And I thought that was a really exceptionally good phrase, and it comes from Dr Rudine Sims Bishop. And it’s about books which are mirrors – so some kids want to read books which are a reflection of their own reality – and some kids like to read window books, which reflect other people’s realities. I think we need to have more books that do that, that open up the world to people and also show you yourself. At the moment I’m currently reading a book called Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan, which is an amazing book. I’ve only just started reading it, but it’s about this young girl and her family who’ve been brought up in the Himalayas. At the beginning of the book they have all these different translations of Hindu words and stuff like that, and it’s taking you to a different world. It’s a book that I would’ve loved reading as a kid, because I grew up in east London in a concrete jungle, and then to read a book that suddenly transforms me, takes me to the Himalayan mountains and tells me about another child’s life in another world… That really opens up my mind, and I think that’s what we need: we need more mirror and window books. We need more books that just reflect and show that. This is about diversity.
HL: Yeah, absolutely. If you have diverse authors, you’re going to have more diverse experiences and more things to draw from.
And just thinking about how kids would like those mirror and window books, I’m not sure we’ll get time to read the quotes but I asked some children what ideas they had for books. Some of them were just so gorgeous, so lovely, we’ll try and share some of them. Children really don’t care – they would like to see different things. They just want books to be exciting, they want books to take them to different places, they want things to spark their imaginations.
AA: I think first and foremost, a book has got to be entertaining. It doesn’t matter how diverse it is if it’s a snore-fest.
HL: Yeah, they're not going to read it!
AA: They’ll see through it.
HL: Yeah, a good bedtime story, I suppose!
As well, just continuing the point about portraying things… in terms of illustrated books, do you have a way to integrate different types of diversity? How would you like to see illustrated books portray things better?
CB: In the same way really. I think with picture books in particular you’ve got more scope to show different types of families without having to put it in the text. Think about, for instance, the Amazing Grace books [written by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch] – does everyone know those books? I’ve just gone for a classic, so I’m assuming – but you know, you’ve got the child being raised by the mum and the grandma. I think there’s one book where they talk about the dad and they go to meet him and his other family in Africa, but that’s just one book out of probably twenty-five books. And the rest of the time it’s just them and their cat building houses out of cardboard boxes and just having a really amazing time.
I’ve got this book with me, I don’t know if you can see it, I saw this in a bookshop in America. I don’t think it’s for sale yet in the UK but I just thought it’s so absolutely beautiful and stunning. It’s called The Girl who Drank the Moon. It’s just so evocative, and the protagonist – you can see she’s got brown skin, she’s got dual heritage, she’s black, she’s got lovely long dark hair and I just thought ‘yes!’ We just need more of that. It’s absolutely got nothing to do with the story, how she looks, she’s just a girl who walks into a forest and drinks moonlight. And that’s just wonderful! That’s exactly what you want…
That happens in East London all the time, as I’m sure you can testify!
AA: Yes, I drink moon juice all the time!
CB: It’s so beautiful and I really think illustration… Oh, I’m just going to show my own book off as well, which also has a beautiful mixed-race character on the front diving into the sea and glowing like a star. So whether it’s a picture book or longer fiction I think yeah, you can have more fun with illustration and you can definitely be more representative of everyone who reads your work.
AA: I am really new to this game of books, writing and all of that stuff, but something that I’ve learnt quite quickly is that I think people are afraid in children’s books when they deal with what some people might see as ‘complicated subjects’ and having that conversation with their children. My book is purposefully provocative – it’s sort of angry and it has quite a tough opening chapter – but the reason why is that I want parents and their children to have that conversation. You know, Jay, you were talking about how all your life is seen as a ‘difficult’ subject to talk about. I don’t understand why, if there’s something in a book that a child doesn’t understand, we don’t have that conversation. I think that’s what books should be about.
It’s really interesting when I’ve been doing talks about my book and on the front cover it’s got a picture of the cyborg cat, and the thing that the kids first want to know about is they said ‘what’s that on his leg?’ And on the illustration… I used to wear callipers as a child and we’ve got the cyborg cat wearing this amazing calliper that’s glowing and it’s flashing in the air. And I’ve made – purposefully, we’ve made a point out of showing the calliper. And it’s something that I was very embarrassed about when I was growing up, but I’ve made it into my strength. And one of the things that kids tend to do when I show them the book is they say ‘what is that?’, ‘what is that on his leg?’ and I really enjoy that. It’s about time that kids are allowed to express what’s in their heads. I think that’s the biggest problem with us as a race: we tend to keep stuff in – if we don’t talk about it, then we can’t resolve it! And it’s an opportunity, through books, for us to resolve and deal with these issues, whether it be through illustrations or whether it be through our writing.
HL: Absolutely. And thinking about the set-up of this seminar, the reason we wanted people to submit things anonymously is because we know sometimes people do feel uncomfortable. Whereas if you ask kids, as I did, ‘what would you like to see?’ you’re getting all sorts. They don’t care, they’re just curious, they want to know about lots of different things in the world, and I think they’re completely right.
Let’s move on to the next question – I’m just conscious of time. So, talking about diversity I know Cerrie mentioned that most of us have various aspects of diversity about us. What about intersectionality? How do we achieve that without it becoming a vogue, where we’re thinking about having lots of different diverse aspects to a character?
CB: I think, going back to how I opened this, we all have multiple diversities and no-one is ever in one box, really. With me, it’s almost a case of ‘which box don’t I tick?’ And I think once you start to dig a little bit deeper beneath the surface, the majority of families – I mean, I don’t know about in the whole of the UK, but particularly in London or in a city, there’s going to be loads of different diversities. There’s going to be lots and lots of different heritages, illnesses, disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia… It’s there. It’s all there, it’s just not being reflected in literature. Or rather, it’s not being reflected enough, in the mirror or through the window. And I think one way we really can do this is going to be a slow process, it’s going to be a ripple effect, but if you change the storyteller then you change the story. So we need more diverse authors who can tell these stories in an authentic – not necessarily #OwnVoices, but certainly from an experienced point of view. And beyond that, we need the world of publishing to be less white, dare I say it (coming from the white woman!). Yes, so that’s – in a nutshell, that’s what we’ve got to do.
AA: I totally agree with you, Cerrie. I actually think we need to find a way to make it feel like everybody can be a writer. Since I started writing, I get so many people who say ‘I’ve got this idea, I’ve written this’ – they come to me on Twitter or Instagram. But it always seems like such a huge mountain that you have to overcome in order to become a published author. So many people have amazing ideas, so many people are out there, we’re only just touching on them. I actually only learnt about the word ‘intersectional’ because I’ve got a dictionary app on my phone and I thought ‘oh, this will be great for Scrabble!’ I just think we need to create a situation where any child – you know, I go to schools and I speak to lots of kids. Most of them think to become a published author, a writer, is something that’s going to be extremely difficult. It’s an absolute world away. And it shouldn’t be like that. And as long as it is like that, we’re only going to have a small section of society who become authors, who become writers, and we miss out on all of that talent. There’s some Booker-Prize-winners, there’s some amazing illustrators out there, who are just not getting the opportunity because they don’t believe that they can write, and that has to change.
HL: Without having this diverse model demonstrated, publishers are just not going to know. We briefly touched upon Knights Of in London. I don’t know if you heard about the pop-up shop that they had, #ReadTheOnePercent*, so they’re very keen on making sure that we do have diverse representation. [*Useful link].
CB: Also, what’s astonishing about them is they crowdfunded to get their shop open, a specifically diverse bookshop in Brixton. When they did pop up, people were banging on their door at ten o’clock at night saying ‘I need to come in, I need to get a book for my son! I’ve never seen a bookshop like this before, where I can literally find more than three books that represent my life!’ It’s just such a positive and necessary and amazing feat that they’ve done, so please go and see them whenever you can.
HL: I think one thing to sum it up that I think is so beautiful, is that I read online that a child said ‘look, Mum, it’s me!’ And I just think: how wonderful is that when a child can find themself represented in a book? There’s something so valuable in seeing your own experience there.
So, let’s move on to something Jay might be able to talk to us about a little bit more. I know we touched upon this. As a published author yourself and as a trans man, how would you address some people’s concerns that writing about LGBTQ+ topics is ‘too inherently sexual’?
JH: I think the important thing to note is that being LGBT+, it seems like it’s so completely different to everyone else’s experience but it’s really not. It’s not about being inherently sexual. I don’t know if anyone’s watched Queer Eye recently – very gay, nobody talks about relationships except ‘don’t take your wife on a date at Wal-Mart’! So I really liked when that show came out because people are like ‘ooh, the gays, they’re so sexual’ and I’m like ‘just… watch the show.’ If you don’t have any gay friends, just watch it. I mean, the thing with gay issues is that gay is a sexuality and then trans gets lumped in there but trans isn’t a sexuality. Trans people can be any sexuality. People are like ‘oh my God, trans people, they can’t be gay’ and I’m like ‘yeah they can! There’s loads of them!’ So that gets lumped in as well and then the worry sort of spreads with the whole ‘LGBT+’ acronym conflating things.
But I think the important thing to remember is that kids get bashed with the idea of being straight their whole childhood. [This is termed ‘heteronormativity’, where heterosexuality is assumed as ‘normal’ and privileged above other sexualities by a society.] You know, you get those awful baby-gros that are like ‘Future WAG’ and ‘Lady-killer’ and I’m like, if that isn’t pushing sexuality on a child I don’t know what is. A rainbow isn’t going to change that! You get three-year-olds and they make friends, a three-year-old boy makes friends with a girl and they’re like ‘ooh, is that your girlfriend?’ And it’s like ‘No. We just throw rocks at things together.’ And I feel like it’s really important to note that if you’re going to start doing that and then you’re going to complain that your child saw a gay person, then you’ve really got to question your motives and any biases you might have that maybe you aren’t fully aware of. (Or maybe you are and you’re just a dick.)
But I feel like it’s really important to realise that relationships aren’t and don’t have to be inherently sexual. Do you know what I mean? Like, when a kid is gay and they’re younger, their whole relationship is ‘let’s go bowling or watch a movie’, it’s not inherently sexual. No relationship is inherently sexual. If you think it is, just look at your own relationship and think ‘do I have sex 24/7?’ No. Relationships aren’t inherently sexual*. [*Useful links: AVEN and the relationship anarchy manifesto]
HL: Absolutely. And also there’s other challenges that people have remarked about when we asked for more comments. So what are the risks of coming out stories? I know we talked about subtly weaving things into a narrative, not making it the focus. But some people might like to portray that. So what do you think the risk is of a coming out story in particular?
JH: I feel like coming out stories are really kind of rubbish, because you never stop coming out. Do you know what I mean? Like, I just came out to you guys at the beginning of this panel. And every time you meet someone and you introduce your partner and they’re the same sex as you, you’re coming out to them. If you write a coming out story, what is that? Is it a ‘coming out to your parents’ story? Is it a ‘coming out at school’ story? Then if a new kid starts at school you’ve got to come out to them as well! So I think coming out is a scary part of accepting who you are but it’s not the biggest part, and it’s not the most important part, and it happens every single day in really small ways. And I think the idea of making it into this grand thing, ‘you have to come out’, that adds a lot of pressure on to kids. A lot of coming out stories reflect mainly the negative side – and yes, it’s important for kids to realise that maybe it won’t go well, but it can also scare them into never coming out at all.
HL: Yeah, absolutely. And we’ve also had comments that we’re not seeing other portrayals – like non-binary portrayals. Do you have any suggestions that people can look at? I mean, I think people are concerned they’re seeing sort of ‘common portrayals’ of being trans [within the gender binary] but we’re not seeing non-binary.
JH: Yeah of course. I mean, I’m kind of the stereotype – well, I’m not, because I’m a bit too poor, but I’m most of the stereotype of a trans guy. But of course trans people are of all ethnicities, from every country in the world. They enjoy completely different things. Trans people are just people who happen to be trans. And so whenever you see a story about a trans person it’s always about the stereotypical trans woman, or the stereotypical trans man (occasionally, maybe, if we make it in), and then you just completely ignore the non-binary people because you can’t even stereotype them!
AA: It’s kind of a problem with society full-stop, is everything has to be black and white. You get that with all different intersectionalities: whether it’s gender, sexuality, disability, there’s two narratives that are always there and you get fed up with it. With the disability narrative, there was a period where we always got fed up of ‘oh, it’s the poor disabled kid’, ‘oh, it’s the inspirational disabled kid’, you know?
CB: It’s the same kid!
AA: Yeah! And I think it’s about having the story told by more different people, to create that nuance.
JH: It happens with gay people as well. I obviously know a lot of gay people because that’s what happens when you’re trans. My best mate from high school, he came out as gay. I mean, he’s Indian – he’d never seen any portrayal of an Indian guy coming out as gay when he came out as a teenager! I recently went and did some poems at a gay wedding of a friend of mine, that was a mixed-race lesbian wedding and one of them is a priest – haven’t seen that in a book yet! So the idea that there is always the two white gay men getting married, and the two white women in the bride dresses, or one of them’s in the suit or whatever. That’s not what happens, you know? I was looking at cards for them, for their wedding, and it was all two brides in the dresses and they were very white. And I was like ‘well, they don’t look like that!’ It happens in books as well, of course. And then you get a child, like my mate, who wonders ‘can I even be gay and Indian?’ And I was like, ‘Yes. You can and I love you.’ But the books need to say that, so that they don’t have that panic when they’re younger, and go through everything he went through.
HL: So thinking about representation, where is the line between meaningful representation and representation for the sake of it?
RR: I think I’m being a bit stereotypically autistic when you ask me this question, because I’m thinking about there being a physical line in between meaningful representation and representation for the sake of it, because I imagine them as being two separate types of representation that don’t really meet, with a line between them. And they both have benefits, but I see meaningful representation as the best kind, obviously, where you have experts by experience telling their stories. If we have more books like that, then that informs people who are doing representation for the sake of it, which may be a good thing, for the greater good. But if we have more books from people who are experts by experience then that informs them, and then we can have better representation across the board.
CB: I thought that was so beautifully phrased, when you said ‘experts by experience’, and I just think that’s absolutely gorgeous. That’s something I think we can take away. I haven’t heard that phrase before.
RR: It’s from the care industry.
CB: Is it? I think we need to adopt it into the world of books, because it just very, very quickly sums up exactly what we need. We need people who have experience and an expertise through having lived through that really. And it ties back into what Ade was saying: change the storyteller and you change the story. All of those things just need to come together. Obviously we have publishers like Knights Of, who are very quickly changing things in a really radical way, but everyone else can be part of the change as well. I know that it is already happening, and I’m in some ways preaching to the converted here, but there’s always more that you can do. There’s always more support that can be offered, there’s always more organisations that you can engage with, more networking, more drawing people in and growing things from a very base level – going into schools, talking to children, encouraging them to own their stories, to know that their stories have worth.
And I know yes, it is very beautiful for a child to walk into a bookshop and say ‘look, it’s me!’ but why is that only happening now? You know, I feel an anger about that and a sadness about that. My daughter is – I don’t want to make this all about me, but – my daughter is dual-heritage. And we went on holiday to Barbados and I thought ‘great, I’ll be able to get loads of books here!’ And I went into a bookshop and it only had picture books of white children. This is in Bridgetown, this is in the capital of Barbados, and I said to the woman ‘I don’t understand – why?’ and she said ‘Well, I don’t know either.’ And both of us were at a loss, just at a complete loss, as to why even in the Caribbean, a whole nation of black children are being read stories with white characters in! I just don’t understand!
AA: That’s a long conversation.
CB: Yeah but why – why is it still happening? I understand the reasons why it has happened, but why is it still happening?
AA: I think meaningful representation’s also about creating change. I mean it sounds like a really worthy thing but it’s telling people that if we have books created by experts by experience, it will elicit change in our mindsets and we do need that. As a race we need to have that change. All of us can see through a tick-box exercise – you know, when there are books which you know are written just to tick boxes. There is nothing more annoying or frustrating than seeing that. We have to move on. We have to find those books that will create that change in society.
HL: Absolutely. And (shameless plug for Inclusive Minds): we are a bunch of ambassadors who will help out at that initial stage. If you are an author who wants to write about something and you want to sort of – not ‘fact-check’ but just see whether things are authentic. I know Jay’s done some work on this. And it’s invaluable to have that from the very start – there’s nothing worse than someone going ‘oh, maybe we need to change this’ when you’ve already got the whole script together. It needs to happen right at the start because then you’re embedding things more subtly if that’s what you want to do. And as Jay said with trans depiction, you can embed it from the very start, which adds something really to that representation.
JH: Of course, it’s not too late – if you have written something and you want someone to check it over, we can always fix it! It’s fine!
HL: Yeah. But, I mean, from our perspective we’d always say that it’s better at the very start to acknowledge that then.
Okay, so I know we’ve spoken about Knights Of and the wonderful work they do. What would your advice be to publishers when they talk about things ‘not being commercially viable’ when we have diverse representations in books?
JH: I’m just going to start this one with a very well-known joke on gay Twitter, which is that –
AA: Is there a gay Twitter?
JH: Yeah, there’s a gay Twitter! I’ll hook you up, it’s great! Trans Twitter is a bit sad, but gay Twitter is where it’s at.
Yeah, there’s a running joke that if you put a lesbian in your TV show, every single lesbian will watch your show. And then when you kill the lesbian – because they always kill the lesbians! It’s true, watch anything – then all the lesbians will stop watching your show. And it’s true with books. If you write a character that reflects someone – whether they’re a child or an adult – into a book, they will read your book because they want to read about themselves, particularly if they’re underrepresented. And so when you’ve got those people flocking to it for that reason, not only will you gain a load of readers, who may then read other books in that series whether they’re in it or not (making it commercially viable)… not only will they read all of the books, they’ll feel more represented.
But the thing is when you’ve got an audience like that, you’ve got to get it right. Because if they’ve come to your book to find something that they’re familiar with and to see part of themselves in it, you can’t represent that part half-heartedly. It can’t be like ‘yeah, well, I met a lesbian once and this is what I think they’re like, so… this is my lesbian character, got it a bit wrong though – it’s kind of stereotypey.’ So you’ve got to get it right because when you do, people will read your books because of the diversity. I mean, it’s been proven with films and movies: Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel is the new one… And it can be proven with books, that’s the whole point of Knights Of and their success.
CB: I’m also looking at authors like Angie [Thomas], you know, with her amazing work. That book [The Hate U Give] has just completely taken America by storm really, and the UK. And I think her recent book is called On The Come Up – I don’t know if anyone’s read that, I haven’t had the chance to read it yet. I hadn’t read anything like that before, and I’m absolutely sure that we’ve got authors like that in the UK who could tell equally moving and amazing stories, we’re just… we’re not finding them, and that’s what needs to go on first.
AA: For my whole career, I’ve kind of been told that I was a ‘confessional’ writer. And I’m not kind of saying it as ‘oh, you need to feel sorry for me’. I just find it really funny. You know, when I first dabbled in the media industry, friends said to me ‘oh yeah, you’re not going to make it on TV because of the way you speak and the way you look’ and all of that. I just kind of think: the public don’t look at it like that. First and foremost, the public look at: are they entertaining? Are they interesting? Have they got something to talk about? And I think that’s what publishers (and everyone in all the industries) have to look at first of all, first and foremost.
And I think because I come from a disability sort of background, I look at things from a completely different perspective. When we play wheelchair basketball, we look at people’s disabilities and their classifications and we look at them and think ‘what strength can they add?’ I mean, I am probably the one person that will see someone walking down the road with a limp and think ‘how good is he going to be in my basketball team? He can add something!’ or if I see someone with one arm, I’m thinking ‘wow, their classification is going to be great!’ I’m actually looking at someone if they’re tall thinking ‘can we slightly maim them a little bit?’ I think it’s about having that mindset where you’re open and seeing that everyone has something to add.
HL: Yes, absolutely. And that’s not just in sports or anything like that, it’s completely across the board.
AA: It’s about having an inclusive mind.
HL: Absolutely, Ade! And I know we’re starting to run out of time now, unfortunately – I know we could talk about this all day, there’s so much we could cover. From each of you then, what is one thing you could say to everyone here that they can do to actually make a difference and make a change in this way?
CB: Well, I’m going to repeat myself here but I’m going to come back to it. In all senses really, it’s about changing the storyteller and you change the story. So we just need more diverse storytellers, whether that’s women, whether it’s people of different ethnicities, whether that’s sexualities, whether it’s gender… There’s a myriad of different diversities. Even just a child being raised by a single parent – just that can be really powerful, because that’s not the story we’ve been told. You know, we’ve been just told one story really, since the time of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. It’s always the same characters and it’s always the same set-up. Really, it’s always the same story. Those are lovely, but we need to now start welcoming others.
HL: Jay? What about you?
JH: I think I’m going to say that well, kids and young people, they look to the media they consume to explain the world to them. You know, they’re still learning. And if you only ever show them one aspect of the world, that’s what they’re going to go through their life – or at least begin their life – thinking. And if we want to raise a new generation of thoughtful, inclusive, amazing, knowledgeable children then we’re going to have to show them the whole world in our books, not just the little bit of the world that they already see in their day-to-day lives.
HL: What about you, Rose? Have you got anything to add there?
RR: Well, I think there are lots of things being done already to help with this, but I think the industry in general just needs to be more accessible and welcoming to diverse voices across the board.
HL: Ade, have you got anything else to add?
AA: I would say, just try to change your mindset and… difference is cool. To me, difference is cool.
HL: Absolutely, yeah. And I was thinking, you know, when you were talking about your basketball team – Cerrie and I would be pretty good…! We would be great!
AA: Oh yeah, we’ll get you in the team!
HL: Cerrie’s like ‘oh, I’m sorry’!
AA: There’s a guy who plays for the Italian national team. He’s got one arm and he’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.
CB: I’m just not that sporty!
AA: Cerrie! C’mon, Cerrie!
HL: Well, I think that sort of brings us to an end. If you’ve got anything else to add that you’re dying to say while we’ve got a bit of time…? No? Does anyone actually have anything written down that they’d like us to collate and maybe feed back? If so, leave it on your chair maybe and we can come and collect it, so don’t forget about that. And as I say, we’ll continue this conversation because it’s an important one. Thanks so much for all your interest, and I’ll pass you over back to Alex now.
AS [over applause]: Thank you so much! Thank you. Sorry to interrupt the conversation, I feel bad cutting it short when we could carry on all day. But I’ve just got something very exciting to share in a minute, so don’t run off – I know it’s me again, but stay just for a minute.
I just wanted to reiterate firstly what Heather said at the beginning – this is such a vast area, there’s no way you can do much more than scratch the surface. Although actually I think they did a lot more than scratch the surface, I think we started to really dig into some areas there so thank you so much for that. There’s so much more that we need to do and I think that’s why we need to keep these discussions going. So we want to think of today as being a starting point for this particular debate, and as Heather said please share your thoughts and your questions, and what we’re going to do over the next few weeks on social media (through the @InclusiveMinds Twitter handle) is to really share some of those questions, those ideas and your comments. There’s so many things we could have covered and so many questions that came in from the public and on social media that we just didn’t have time to fit into an hour, but we still want to talk about those so let’s just carry that debate on.
I think that’s also why we need seminars like this and why we keep coming back every year. You might think ‘oh, we’ve done diversity’ – I mean, we haven’t! We’ve gone so far past the point where we say #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and now we’re being able to really push ourselves and really develop and learn from people like our Inclusion Ambassadors and Ade and Cerrie, and see quite how much more there is to do and how we can get there. I for one keep on and on learning.
So I really want to thank the panel so much for stretching us a bit and bringing new ideas that some of us wouldn’t have thought of. I think you’ll agree they’ve really done an amazing job. In a moment I’m going to ask you to thank them one more time – I just want to say another couple of quick thank-yous.
Thanks to London Book Fair and all the team here for having us again. Thanks so much to a couple more of our Inclusion Ambassadors who are at the front – Jessi and Jo, we are so pleased that you’ve come. Do come and chat to them afterwards!
Please don’t ambush the rest of the panel once we’ve given them a round of applause – don’t just jump on them! We might try and get them off the stage first. But some of us will be around in the café area there – some of the Inclusion Ambassadors in particular will be sticking around to have a chat, so come over and talk to us and we can get to know each other better.
And remember, to find out more about the Inclusion Ambassador network and how it works (as Jay and Heather said) – behind the scenes, when they’re not being glamorous on a stage like this, they’re also helping us look at manuscripts all the time. They come in from authors and illustrators and publishers. So look on our website [inclusiveminds.com] to find out how you can apply to become an Ambassador (if you have any diverse experience) or if you want to use the Ambassador network. If you’re working on a book and you want to make sure it’s authentically inclusive, get in touch with us at an early stage, like Heather said, and we can put you in touch with some of our Ambassadors who will work with you. And you can find out more about what Inclusive Minds does because this is just one aspect of what we do.
So huge thanks to Jo and to Jessi, and thanks to Sarah for signing. We’ve mentioned a few individual books today, please look up the wonderful Letterbox Library. For those of you who don’t know them, look up Letterbox Library, you can find the most amazing inclusive books in the world there!
And then I promised you I was going to share one more thing. Well, on social media we will share some of the amazing doodles that Ros Asquith has been doing for us over this entire hour with her impressions of today. We’re so excited we’ll be able to share some of those over the next few days on Twitter so thanks again Ros for joining us and doing that.
And a little announcement for you – this is a real exclusive – we can tell you that as well as them appearing today, we have our first ever Champions for Inclusion for the Inclusive Minds Ambassador network. So can we have a massive round of applause for Cerrie Burnell and Ade Adepitan, our new Champions? What that means is they’ll join us in looking for opportunities to highlight the work of the network of Inclusion Ambassadors over the coming months and years, highlighting the amazing work that our team do. The team really are amazing, and I want to say thank you once again to the Ambassadors and particularly to Heather Lacey, our chair, who has done the most amazing job. So one final round of applause for our panel, and for Heather, and for all of you. Thank you!