Yesterday I listened to a Radio 4 interview with children’s writers Francesca Simon and Michael Rosen. They were asked about the comparative imbalance of gender representation in children’s picture books. Many fewer are represented in children’s literature, despite females making up 51% of the population.
I felt bemused. In our early days, establishing Bookwagon, I was impressed by a promotional video distributed by the writers of the bestselling ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls‘. It showed the search for books written by women that included female protagonists. The video arrived at a miserable conclusion. This book, and its successor, are runaway hits. As Bookwagon has continued to trade in the past eight months, I’ve realised the sea change in children’s books. We are more likely to read books by female writers with female protagonists. That video does not show the truth of 2017-18.
Bookwagon has been on the lookout for books that are more representative of the world we know since we launched. We seek books that show people of different races, traditions and cultures, and stories from a variety of countries. I was staggered to learn that only 1% of translated children’s fiction is available to British readers.
Culture and setting need representation in children’s books too. Psychologist Shaw (1998):- ‘Children are not passive observers. As they develop, children look for structure in their lives and are driven by an internal need to fit into this structure. They observe the world and try to develop sets of rules that they can apply to a wide variety of situations.’
It can seem a tall order to source books that show a true and representational world. While there are many more female influenced children’s titles, the diverse market is rather slower to catch up. Publishing companies such as Lantana search out stories from other cultures. Bookwagon stocks a number of their books. However we assert that the quality of the story must not be compromised by the role of a representative message.
We have written about the importance of children accessing books with complex emotional themes that provide opportunity for empathy. Last week, a Bookwagon favourite author hit international headlines. Newbery Award winner Matt de la Pena wrote an open letter to the incomparable Kate DiCamillo. This is his full enquiry of Kate DiCamillo – (I dare you not to well up):- Matt De La Pena asks Kate Di Camillo whether we should shield our children from darkness This is her reply:- Kate DiCamillo about truth in children’s books. What a moving, necessary, wise statement.
‘I think our role is to see and to be seen.’ The power of words to help us find ourselves so that the innate truth of who we are and who we might be cannot be diminished. I have stepped in so many characters’ footsteps, from Anne Shirley to Jane Rosenal (‘The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing’). Ernest Hemingway said, ‘All you have to do is write one sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’
Children’s literature is working toward replicating the richness of the world through works greater diversity of race, culture, theme and setting. A sensibility that voices, faces, settings, lives and feelings and must be shared, in this new year, that includes a centenary celebration of women’s suffrage.
Titles that offer a sense of self, and some difference, include:-
The Paper-flower Tree, from Thailand, where renowned designer Jacqueline Ayer lived, travelled, heard and retold wonderful stories.
From Nigeria comes the beautiful story of sisters dreaming and growing together, Sleep Well Siba & Saba
The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party is the sequel to the inspiring The Princess in Black . It offers daring, adventure, subterfuge and an alternative to the pink princess unicorn media frenzy. So, too, does the classic title The Paper Bag Princess, with the feistiest, most inspiring heroine to grace a page or outwit a dragon!
Words of hope, offerings of magic, and bonds of siblings are considered so thoughtfully in Star in The Jar, which is justifiably gaining many plaudits from the reviewers. For even younger readers, we are delighted to present Sophy Henn’s Playtime with Ted. Just what can’t Ted do with his cardboard box?
There’s a never-ending order for Dad to make when he offers to prepare breakfast. This is a fascinating title, one sure to be read and reread. It’s also the first title I’ve read that offers mixed race families and characters with the same name (neighbours) amongst the sort of people with whom I’m familiar – The Longest Breakfast.
Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin have won five star reviews for their beautiful title King of the Sky which explores themes of being new and different, lonely and lost. It is exceptionally tender, skilled sophisticated picture book.
Being different is a theme of increasing popularity amongst writers, but it is being handled with growing sensitivity and understanding as in the wonderfully chatty, direct, Jacqueline Wilson-like Do You Speak Chocolate?
Currently, the aforementioned Radio 4 is undertaking a search for the most influential women of the past century, as part of the celebrations for women’s suffrage. Yesterday’s offerings from the world of art and design, included one of my nominations, the trailblazing, glass ceiling breaking (and forming), Zaha Hadid. Jeanette Winter’s story about this outstanding designer and innovator is a necessity The World is Not a Rectangle
Graphic novels offer a growing accessibility to representation, real issues. I was apprehensive that El Deafo might be exploitative of a serious issue, of which I’ve some experience. However CeCe Bell’s memoir is fresh, vital and empowering, and a favourite read.
Issues of poverty, such as too many children face, are included in titles like The 1,000 year old Boy and Joe All Alone. Lisa Thompson is one of the first children’s writers to put a carefully considered toe into the water of domestic violence. The ‘light’ of her most recent title is bright and beaming and brilliant. We love The Light Jar . Childhood is not an Victorian idyll, even without the sort of horrors that Nate is experiencing. Sita Brahmachari empathises in her tender Barrington Stoke title, Worry Angels. when Amy-May needs support to cope with changes in her life.
Bookwagon houses growing bookshelves of titles that better reflects our readers’ rich variety. Please get in touch, should you have feedback or enquiries,. We love hearing from our readers.