From the Bath Children’s Literature Festival 2015: Lorna Bradbury, The Daily Telegraph’s book reviews editor, talks to acclaimed writers, Liz Kessler, Bali Rai and Shannon Cullen from Penguin Random House about the need for diversity in children’s books and what that really means. No topic is off limits.
To put it simply, the consensus reached was yes: we need more diversity. But the real question is where that diversity comes from. I’ll just pick up on a couple of the topics mentioned, otherwise I’ll end up waffling on this topic for ages…
The main talking point was about encouraging creative writing. People who read books to their kids realised that if they want diversity in literature, they were going to have to write it themselves. This is both a good and sad thing to hear – we need people from these backgrounds to want to write, but clearly that is not happening as much as it should. Thankfully, the panel referenced an in-development scheme which is supposedly being designed to get mentors into schools and help cultivate an interest in writing from an early age. Alongside some salient comments from the audience, it was clear that there is much more to think about on this subject. We need to remember that different cultures have different ways of telling stories, and those need to be embraced in the publishing world as well.
The most interesting point raised was Liz Kessler saying that she wrote her latest book (Read Me Like A Book) years ago at a time when publishing stories on same-sex relationships was far too taboo. Now she’s finding that publishers are actually interested in putting these sorts of narratives out there. As far as she’s concerned, it’s just a love story that happens not to be about a boy and a girl. An audience member asked about how the panel felt about the issue behind books and true life getting translated into films when the original source is changed (essentially to make it more marketable). Although Liz Kessler expressed some concern over potentially sitting on the fence over some of her points, I thought the questions she subsequently raised in response to this were valid: Do we want to preach to the converted or reach a wider audience? Should we feel cheated that a story has been twisted for a wider audience if it gets the message to people who wouldn’t have watched it had it been the original story?
My last topic is about publishers themselves. The publishing world hasn’t changed that much; the limited demographics of the decision-makers is handicapping the opportunity for more diverse books to release. Even though publishers are accepting that changes need to happen, there will still be some degree of personal bias. I mentioned above that different cultures have different ways of telling a story and that narrative might not appeal to a publisher when they read it. This isn’t due to prejudice, just inexperience. As Shannon Cullen highlighted, publishers are always looking for fantastic stories. Of course, they want to make money off an investment, so that’s what they’re going to pick. And that brings us back to the first point.
This eternal debate never gets any easier. Are we doing enough to get more diverse books? Probably not… but we are doing something.
Photo credit: Nina Douglas (@ninadouglas)