Educational Writers Award, and diversity in Children’s publishing

On Tuesday I was at the All Party Writers Group winter drinks reception. There was wine and cupcakes but, arguably more importantly, the announcement of the winner of the Educational Writers’ Award took place.

The short list was an impressive selection of illustrated non-fiction:

The titles range from primary – the wonderful Who eats who? – to middle grade with the significant and timeless Dear Jelly.

The winner, as you may know by now, was Atlas of Adventures, which was described as “beautifully designed, durable and hugely informative book, packed full of vibrant colour, and fascinating information and activities from countries around the world.”

Ed Vaizey MP, Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, opened the  event by reminding the audience of the importance of diversity in children’s books and children’s publishing. It is definitely a topic which is rising in interest at the moment, not only for the children’s industry, but for publishing in general .

As awareness in the importance of representation rises, the conversation is being had again and again about how children should be able to see themselves in the books they are reading. Organisations like Inclusive Minds – definitely one to look out for – are fighting for diversity in children’s books, and questions are being raised by the whiteness of those ‘behind the scenes’ in the publishing houses.

Which is probably why I was so disappointed that the winning book was so lacking in that regard. The work follows two travellers, a girl and a boy, as they traverse the globe. Not only are the two characters white as the page they are drawn on, they seem to encounter white characters in every country they go to. In fact, in a few countries with a predominantly POC demographic, they seem to nonetheless encounter only white people.

I’m not entirely sure what this achieves for the reader. Are white characters meant to be more sympathetic? In which case what does that say about the intended audience? Are white characters meant to be more likely tourists? But why emphasise the existence of tourists in a book that’s meant to teach children about “encourage children across the primary school age groups to find out more about the world we live in.”

Don’t get me wrong, the book is wonderfully illustrated, and the plethora of facts about so many countries – including many which are often neglected in Africa and Asia – is astounding. Yet finding myself in a room composed predominantly of white people, celebrating a book with predominantly white characters, whilst patting ourselves on the back for acknowledging the inequality in representation, the victory left a sour taste in my mouth.

I hope next year that the Educational Writers’ Award will be able to go to one of the hundreds of writers of colour writing for children. Not out of some quota, but out of a keenness for discovery. Thankfully, many in the industry are not remaining passive. Nosy Crow recently put out a call for submissions from BAME writers and publishers like Shade7 are creating popular trade children’s fiction which represents a different approach to the standard religious stories we’re saturated with at the moment – like the nativity or Noah’s ark. As long as diversity is not mentioned as a buzzword, but as a modus operandi, I think that hope is not in vain.

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