You know when you meet up with a group of like minded people and you instantly feel at home, at ease? Well on Friday I took my family to the Inclusive Minds ‘What About Me?’ event at the Imagine Festival. The whole day had that warm and special feel to it. The day was devoted to inclusion in children’s books and, although we walked in to a room of mostly strangers, before very long we felt like we belonged. We felt like that because it was entirely inclusive. Everything about the event was set up to include everyone and make everyone feel equal. And it worked beautifully.
When we arrived Ben Hawkes was working magic with a large group of children. Sprawled across the floor with felt pens and sheets of paper, Ben and The Curved House Kids team had children of all ages and abilities happily imagining and creating their own stories. Ben is a natural with kids and had them all so engaged. They were all clamouring to show him their work and chatting excitedly about what they were doing, and sharing felt pens with each other. It was a lovely welcoming atmosphere to walk in to. And it stayed that way all day.
Throughout the day there were workshop style events where children could reimagine a story and put themselves in a book. They could include themselves in popular stories like Handa’s Surprise, join in with sensory storytelling, alter character illustrations to reflect themselves, create their own comic strip with their own characters taking centre, or draw themselves and their families on a giant canvas covering the whole wall – all with the help of a team of enthusiastic and approachable illustrators. Rebecca Elliott, Jo Empson, Claudia Boldt, Trudi Esberger, Gem Ahmet, Louie Stowell, Pippa Goodhart, Eileen Browne, Jane Ray, Carol Thompson and more were all at hand to help the children to create, to see themselves in books, and to play. Because that was what it was all about. To allow children to have fun creating their own stories and putting themselves in the picture. Everyone joined in. Everyone was involved and smiling and chatting and drawing and creating. Nobody was left out of the story.
Beth Cox and Alex Strick from Inclusive Minds and all the illustrators and authors that were there to support them did an amazing job of showing the importance of inclusion through showing inclusion in practice. And it worked! During the day we met with Caryl Hart and brought her up to the event. We chatted about The Rainbow Library and the Patron of Reading scheme and the importance of books and the power of seeing yourself and the world around you in them. It was eye opening for both of us. I told her about struggling to find books with same sex parents or books that reflect the beautifully diverse classroom of children that our daughter is a part of. She told me about her efforts to get diverse characters ‘signed off’ by some publishing houses. To stand in the centre of an entirely inclusive event talking about the importance of inclusion was a very powerful thing. We could see it working around us. The proof that it is the right thing to do was everywhere.
We were all there because we care about children and how they see themselves and find themselves in their books. We were all there with the same hopes and passions. We were all included and equal. And that’s how it should be for every child. But it isn’t… yet. Children learn about the world around them by seeing it and reading about it in their books. Their acceptance of all the wonderful differences in life are developed and supported through the literature they are exposed to. But my daughter’s picture books do not reflect the world she lives in. No matter how hard I try to provide her with books that truly reflect society, the majority of books that are published have predominantly white male middle class children (or animal) characters. And then she goes to school or out into her world and sees a very different reality.
So how do we achieve inclusion in children’s books? How do we take the energy and hope and warmth from that room and put it into every child’s book? How do we convince the resistant publishing houses that it is a viable way forward? By buying smart, raising awareness in our reviews and by talking openly. By gently nudging the right people in the right direction.
As the people that buy the books (and I know you guys… you buy books!) we have the power to influence change. We should be supporting the people that are helping us find inclusive books, we should be buying these books, borrowing them from our libraries and supporting the authors, illustrators and publishers that are brave enough to create them. Go to Letterbox Library. Buy from ChildsPlay, Alanna Books, Tara Books, Frances Lincoln and Barefoot Books.
Reviewers can do a lot to raise awareness of the books that are inclusive, that do have female characters, that do show somebody other than a middle class white male.
But we should also be talking about this and raising awareness. We can help by seeing it in action, watching children’s faces as they spot a picture of a child just like them, or a family just like theirs, in a book. By realising the power and positivity that it gives them. By remembering that every child has the right to see themselves in their books, and to be seen and understood by their peers. By knowing this and talking about it with others we can remind authors and illustrators that the world around them is beautifully diverse and that perhaps they could (should?) include that in their work. Perhaps they shouldn’t be writing from an adult’s memory but instead, be writing for a child’s potential. They in turn can gently nudge their publishing houses. Because a lot of small nudges can move mountains.
It really was a wonderful day and a very important and inspiring event. I left it with a renewed sense of possibility and purpose. And I certainly wasn’t the only one!