International Women’s Day: Children’s book resources

Today, on International Women’s Day, I wanted to post a more practical article about women and children’s books. From the first picture books by Kate Greenaway through to Beatrix Potter, whose most famous creation Peter Rabbit now has his face embossed on a coin, and Enid Blyton, women have been creating beautiful writing for children. And those are just a tiny selection, from a very small island, whose works are old enough to be classics.

Only this year Judith Kerr produced the first picture book that was not published for World Book Day to top the fiction charts in the UK. Julia Donaldson came first in the Top 50 highest earning authors of 2015. J.K. Rowling came third – and that’s years after the last Harry Potter book.

So many amazing women have contributed to children’s literature for both girls and boys. Below, I have compiled a few resources to get you thinking about the way books influence children and can set them on the right track for equality.

#1000BlackGirlBooks

23 Feminist Books Every Child Should Read

A Mighty Girl (“The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls.”)

Barnes Children’s Festival

HeForShe action kits

Sexism rife in textbooks, says Unesco

Let Toys be Toys (“Let Toys Be Toys campaign is asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.”)

Please do let me know of any other organisations or interesting links to include, in the comments!

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#CoverKidsBooks: what it means when we don’t review children’s literature

When news of S F Said’s campaign to get newspapers to review more children’s books came out at the beginning of last week, I felt pride, rage (at the statistics), and a sense of being part of something bigger. Throughout the ‘Ebook crisis’, the financial crisis and all the other factors which meant we saw vast fluctuations throughout the book publishing industry, children’s fiction and non-fiction were the most steady, often exhibiting some growth. Therefore, even those philistines who believe that children’s fiction is somehow ‘lesser’ will have to agree that it is silly at best not to showcase what has proven to be publishers’ greatest asset.

Not only do myriad high-quality, beautiful books get buried due to lack of visibility, the decision not to give space to children’s book reviews is obviously informed by – and perpetuates – the notion that the child reader is not discerning enough to need ‘good books.’ Obviously, especially with younger readers, the book-buyer tends be an adult. Therefore, the review-reader, naturally, seems to be an adult. This is not necessarily true – how will you know if a 10-year-old won’t read reviews if you don’t give them the chance? – but, significantly, a space dedicated entirely to well-written children’s book reviews would force adults out of their comfort zones. It might even change something which even the most well-intentioned of parents often fall into the trap of: stop giving them an excuse to think of their child as an extension of themselves.

Children (shock, horror!) have their own personalities and their own tastes, meaning that by placing gravity on the books they read – brilliant, innovative, formative books – you are acknowledging their individuality and their right to a critical spirit. Contrariwise, if all – bar 3% – of the space dedicated to reviews in newspapers focuses on ‘adult’ books, not to mention entire publications whose sole mission statement is to review books yet which include no children’s books at all, what is it other than dehumanising? ‘Just’ a children’s book. For ‘just’ a child. As if either of those things is unforgivably, irrecoverably wanting. These things add up and affect the way our children relate to themselves and to their peers.

And if you’re tempted to ask why we need more reviews in newspapers when there are many online – the reviews page is just the bit you skip to get to the crossword, right? – then Charlotte Eyre puts it better than I can, reminding us of the ‘stumble upon’ factor. People seeking out reviews for new children’s books can find thousands online, but the beauty of discovering a book by accident – a process which has been at the heart of the campaign against online booksellers – cannot and should not be replaced.

It has frequently been called the ‘golden age’ of children’s literature, especially after Hardinge’s fantastic win, and online, this is being reflected in full force. There are independent bloggers out there doing what I’m doing but better, and there are official websites – like the Guardian’s brilliant children’s book section – which are committed to making sure children’s books are seen and valued. However, in this online world we live in, print reviews for adults have not lapsed; there is no reason we be content with only online coverage for children, no matter how great.

Newspapers are universal symbols of ‘all that is worth knowing’, if children’s books aren’t represented in them, what does that say about our society’s attitude towards the desires and interests of children?

For more information about the campaign, check out S F Said’s original blog post and follow the #CoverKidsBooks hashtag on Twitter.

When art met consumerism, or how Mog is coping with the fame

Judith Kerr is one of the great children’s book writers of our time. A master of the art of the picture book, but also an adept artisan of the chapter book, Kerr has been a household name for years. Why, then, 47 years after the masterwork that is The Tiger who came to Tea and, perhaps more importantly, 13 years after the final Mog title has Kerr revived her feline heroine for the 2015 audience?

As we must all be painfully aware by now, Mog’s Christmas Calamity is a collaboration between Kerr, HarperCollins and Sainsbury’s which uses the Mog character – last seen in Goodbye Mog (2002) where she died – to spread the word that #Christmasisforsharing. The book, which ties in with the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert and can only be found in Sainsbury’s stores, is also raising money for the literacy campaign Read on. Get on. of which HarperCollins is a founding member*. So far, so confusing.

Ann-Janine Murtagh, executive publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, was recently interviewed by Charlotte Eyre in The Bookseller describing Mog’s journey back from the underworld. Apparently Kerr wrote the most recent adventure in “about three months” and probably wouldn’t have written a new Mog book “if it hadn’t been for the literacy campaign.” This is where I find myself wondering about how to feel about this book.

First off, this is a Kerr. Much like a Dickens or a Picasso, it has an inherent value, simply by virtue of the fact that its creator is a brilliant artist. However, it is simultaneously seeped in a consumerist and artificial atmosphere which is almost asphyxiating, only to then be redeemed by its charitable nature. How does one reconcile the fact that Mog’s Christmas Calamity is obviously a stunt for Sainsbury’s to sell more products, with the fact that it is a genuinely good book?

Recently, the reality television programme The Apprentice gave its participants a task to create and sell a picture book in about 2 days. Understandably, people who write picture books for a living were uncomfortable with their art being considered a ‘product’ and an easy one to make at that. So when Murtagh reveals that Kerr wrote her book in three months rather than the usual “couple of years” with the direct aim to boost Sainsbury’s sales (amongst others), part of me is itching to ask what the difference is.

The Bookseller has been keen to remind us of Mog’s Christmas Calamity’s great success. It has even had a couple of its own ebulletins about how it has remained top of the charts for so long. And yet, despite discussing the picture book, the accompanying image has consistently been the animated Mog from the tie-in Sainsbury’s advert. The two are conflated in a way that makes the book synonymous with the advert, but also makes the advert lose its consumerist nature and become merely a ‘made for TV’ adaptation of the book.

It is likely, therefore, that the discomfort I, and certain others, feel about the ulterior motives behind Mog’s Christmas Calamity stems from the contrived separation of the two. For someone who is so passionate about the interplay between image and text in picture books, I’ve found it oddly difficult to accept that the book and the film feed off each other. They are one creative piece, promoting both the supermarket, prosaically, and the love of reading which lies at the heart of the entire campaign.

An article was published this morning about how the Christmas advert has become a social phenomenon, bigger and louder than ever. We can’t ignore the fact that at the heart of this book is Sainsbury’s desire to make their Christmas advert memorable, a desire to “publish a book at the heart of its campaign.” Perhaps, however, this merely makes Mog a social phenomenon too, and it is undeniable that it takes a good book by a great artist to make that happen.

 

 

 

 

*To confirm, I have no issues with people raising money for charities they are stakeholders in, as long as it is a good cause.

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.