IN-clusively minded – what I want for Playing by the Book

Towards the end of last year, I signed up to the Everybody In Charter, an initiative “to help all those involved in the book world to move forward in making books more inclusive.

By signing up, I confirmed that:

  • I am committed to playing a part in ensuring that all children can find authentic representations of themselves in books, as well as seeing those who are different from them
  • I understand the wide-ranging nature of the term ‘diversity’ to encompass race and heritage, disability, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, religion, and culture
  • I understand ‘inclusive books’ to mean great mainstream stories, not isolated as a separate genre or segregated strand of literature
  • I aim to keep up to date with matters surrounding diversity and inclusion

  • As a blogger and reviewer, I specifically committed to:

  • Actively promoting and displaying books that are inclusive of a diverse range of characters
  • Asking, for each book I (consider for) review, ‘Who is represented in this book, and how? Are the characters reflective of the world we live in? Is the representation authentic?’
  • Discussing inclusion and diversity with colleagues and challenging those who downplay its importance
  • Seeking out and supporting those who create and curate high-quality inclusive books

  • Being conscious and deliberate in embedding this set of principles in my approach to all things Playing by the Book is something I’m working on, and as a first step I decided to work my way through the School Library Journal’s Diversity and Cultural Literacy Syllabus. (The School Library Journal is one of the two or three key US publications dedicated to books and related resources for children and teens.)

    Then, this week I heard about the ‘We Need to talk about Cultural Appropriation’ Event taking place later this month in London. Unfortunately I can’t attend, but the organisers have made their Reading List available in advance, and so last night it formed part of my bedtime reading.

    Along with the documents to be found on the the SLJ’s Diversity and Cultural Literacy Syllabus, this second reading list is full of ideas I’d love to be able to talk to others about as I know that in talking with others I will find it easier to tease out my own thoughts and feelings, especially on topics which I don’t often attempt to publicly articulate. I haven’t yet worked out a good way of enabling such a conversation, but if you’d like to read these various resources and want to chat about them, let me know and maybe we can find a good way to do it despite being unable to physically meet.

    In one of the pieces I read last night, I was struck especially by the discussion around “low thresholds for enduring any discomfort” and I had to acknowledge that this applies to me; I worry about reviewing books and commenting on diversity issues (or not) and then having to face up to the fact I got it wrong, or was offensive, or hadn’t thought things through. I’d rather avoid difficult conversations, and one consequence of this is that I can find myself not reviewing books because I’d like to avoid my own discomfort.

    But how does this sit with what I’ve pledged to do? How do I marry my actions with what, in my heart of hearts I believe is the right thing to do i.e. talk about diversity as a small way of breaking down barriers and building up better cross-cultural understanding.

    Recently I read a book which I really enjoyed but I wasn’t sure about reviewing it because it features a series of Native American characters, and I have no idea whether they are portrayed authentically, or whether any of the scenes described would be felt by members of Native American communities to be disrespectful or perpetuating stereotypes. I could have spent time talking to knowledgable people, such as Debbie Reese, who is tribally enrolled at Nambe Owingeh and who runs the website American Indians In Children’s Literature, or a perhaps member of the Inclusive Minds Ambassador Network but I took the easy option and wrote the shortest of comments on Good Reads, avoiding any mention of anything relating to diversity or inclusivity.

    Not a very good start to acting on my pledges, heh?

    Another book I’ve had on my reviewing shelf and not quite known what to do with is Our Special World: My Friends by Liz Lennon.

    This is a non-fiction book for young children (2-5, I’d suggest) all about making friends, how that can sometimes be difficult but can also be great fun, how friendship involves things like taking turns and sharing, and how friendships can change, either in the short term due to falling out, or naturally over time as we grow up. In many ways its an ideal book for nurseries and schools.

    One thing I immediately really loved about it was the photographs used to illustrate the book; they feature a good mix of boys and girls with many different skin colours and a variety of disabilities, alongside children with no disabilities and with white skin. All the kids are playing together, learning about being friends and having a good time. The pages are packed with smiles. If ever there was a book that “normalised” inclusivity this might be it – a books about all sorts of people being friends.

    And yet, the book left me feeling uncomfortable.

    It’s part of a series, “Our Special World”, which aims to help children “find out about diversity in the world around them.” How can I not applaud this? Well… something about the use of “special” sat uncomfortably with me. I felt this was a book that might get forgotten about, put away on a “Diverse / Multicultural” shelf, rather one used as just part of the regular mix. Referring to one of the pledges above, I want ‘inclusive books’ to be part of our regular diet of books, not treated as a “special” case, needing labelling.

    But perhaps labelling helps?

    Last year, Kirkus (one of the other great US publications for anyone interested in reviews of books for children and young people) started systematically including information on the identity and/or race of characters in every single book review (you can find out more here). The aim of this is to help people who want to find books featuring characters with a particular identity/culture/race, and also to challenge the notion of white as the default.

    If I want to find a book that’s suitable for a 14 year old, I find it really helpful that in library or a bookshop, books are broadly labelled by age. But what if I want to find books that feature a broader range of characters than white, able-bodied girls, because I want to encourage my own children to read outside their own experience? Or what if a blog reader gets in touch saying can I recommend any books which show a mixed-culture family similar to their own? How do I go about finding great books which just happen to feature different characters (or books which explicitly explore issues of cultural / racial identity)?

    You’re here on my blog because (I imagine) you like reading book reviews, so I ask you – would you like it if I always mentioned the identity of the characters, even if it wasn’t germane to the plot?

    Viviane Schwarz’s How to Find Gold, and David Barrow’s Have You Seen Elephant? are superb picture books, indeed two of my very favourite from all of last year. They both happen to have as their lead character a child with non-white skin. In both of my reviews I did mention this (although it was obvious from the illustrations) because I wanted publishers to hear that it matters to me, as a white parent, that such books are published.

    But at the same time I didn’t want to mention race at all; I want to live in a world where the fact that a picture book character isn’t white isn’t remarkable.

    Today I am Josephine (and I am a living thing) by Jan Thornhill and Jacquie Lee came through my letterbox. In a way it is all about identity.

    It’s a pretty, playful and clear introduction to biological classification, following a young girl, Josephine, as she proudly describes who she is; a human being, a mammal, an animal, and a living thing. I might add “it just so happens” that Josephine has brown skin.

    But is it really the case that this is a chance depiction? Maybe it was it a deliberate choice? If, like some have argued in relation to the Kirkus position on naming identity in reviews, I only mention identity where it is germane to the story (whether fictional or otherwise), what would be the best decision to make in the case of this book? Perhaps, as a reviewer, I should contact the illustrator or editor of the book and find out more?

    I want to be a better reviewer. I want to learn more. I want to help children and families find themselves in books and to learn about others who, in various different ways, are not quite like themselves. I want to create a space here on Playing by the Book which helps, albeit in a tiny, tiny way, to promote empathy and intercultural understanding. So I’m IN. I’ll no doubt make mistakes and sometimes my fear of discomfort will win out over taking a risk, but today’s my first public attempt to fight my desire to sometimes withdraw and play it safe. The world only becomes a better place when we reach out, talk to each other and listen.

    I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts.

    5 Responses

    1. Oh, I recognise all those dilemmas, Zoe! I’ve also signed that pledge and do try to stick to it. But I also agonise, longing for everyone being treated in the same ways as everyone else to hurry up and arrive. I’ve just been asked to mentor BAME students who want to get into writing or publishing. I recognise the need for a better balance in our industry, and have said ‘yes’ … but, but ,but I SO dislike the fact that some students are denied the scheme because their race (the white British). If you heard of, or organised, a day’s conference discussion on all this, I’d love to attend, along with any BAME mentees (is that a word?) I’ve acquired in the meantime.

    2. No you don’t need to refer identity, it comes up in the story automatically ans creates colours, background everything.

      • Thanks Zohra, that’s definitely often the case. But what about for those people who haven’t yet read a book, and want to know before hand? I worry that labelling a book with the character’s identity may turn some people off a book (as they might imagine the story is no longer relevant to them), and yet I also know many people who seek out books specifically with characters with particular races and/or cultures. I’ve wondered about having two sets of tags for my reviews – a public set, which doesn’t make a point of noting diversity unless it is an integral part of the book (though see Josephine above, where you could argue either way about whether the fact the girl is black is integral to the book), and a private set with all characters’ identities noted, so that when someone asked for say, gay characters, I could easily find such books.
        Zoe recently posted..IN-clusively minded – what I want for Playing by the Book

    3. Hi Zoe, great post. I can see your dilemma. But I feel it probably is important to put these kind of ‘labels’ on your reviews, even if it doesn’t sit comfortably. It would be wonderful if we were all colour / gender / ethnicity etc blind but sadly we don’t live in a world where this is the reality. And I think as a white caucasian reviewer without a disability (I think – I don’t know that for sure!) it’s just important to be aware – as you very much are, I have no doubt – that we have not been on the receiving end of marginalisation / non-inclusivity in the way many have. But the very fact you are having this conversation only confirms what a sensitive reviewer you are!
      Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..You HAVE to read this book!

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