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Representation Matters: why children need inclusive stories

Letterbox Library is a 36-year-old, not-for-profit, children’s booksellers specialising in children’s books which celebrate equality and diversity. Their main market is the early years and primary sectors. Letterbox Library also co-runs the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction.

Inclusive, diverse, representative books are not an add on to a book corner. They don’t belong on a special shelf nor do they belong to a special day. They don’t push gruffalos, wild things and hungry caterpillars off the shelves; they just fit happily alongside them. The best inclusive books are fabulous stories, rich in character and plot, which just so happen to also show children people like themselves and their families. But of course they are also so much more than that because as we all know, put very simply, representation matters.

If in their formative years, children do not see their realities reflected in the world around them or only see problematic representations mirrored back at them, the impact can be tremendously damaging. To redress imbalances in representation is not an act of charity but an act of necessity that benefits and enriches all of our realities.” Reflecting Realities’, Centre for Literature in Primary Education 2018.

Last year, a seminal piece of research -the first of its kind in the UK- was undertaken by the Centre of Literacy in Primary Education. This research surveyed the extent of ‘ethnic representation’ in UK children’s literature published in 2017 and concluded that:

  • 4% of books published featured BAME (black and minority ethnic)
  • 1% of books published had a BAME leading character/protagonist.

This, in contrast to the 32.1%  pupil population in England/Wales which identified as being of minority ethnic origins (DfE 2017).

The CLPE report (Letterbox Library was on the steering group for the research) ‘discovered’ what many of us in the world of inclusive bookselling and equalities education and beyond have known for time immemorial: that our children are woefully underserved by the literature which is published and also (because this isn’t always the same thing) by the literature which they have access to.

The research concentrated on BAME representations but the picture is similar when it comes to the entire breadth of inclusive representations- where are the disabled characters in leading roles? Where are the representations of LGBT characters? Of families headed by same-sex parents or by single parents?  Where are the positive representations of refugee families? Of people living with mental health issues? The list goes on… But what it amounts to is this: where is the body of literature which shows children a relatable world, the one in which they are growing and developing, the body of literature which says, ‘yes, we see you’, ‘yes, you belong’?

Amongst the many reasons that Letterbox Library believes passionately in the availability of inclusive children’s books is that we think these books are absolutely fundamental to creating a reading for pleasure culture, that they are therefore critical to improving literacy for children. As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop famously argued for in her 1990 article, ‘Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Doors’ children need books which serve both as windows- allowing them to look out on to imagined worlds/worlds different from their own- and as mirrors- allowing them to see their own experiences and feelings reflected back.

In terms of providing children with windows, inclusive books can offer a fantastic way to explore other worlds, to find out about people and lives that are different from their own. In doing so, such books also provide a safe way to explore this ‘difference’ and can therefore serve as tools in fostering empathy.

When it comes to providing children with mirrors, sadly our literature has very often failed them. Back in 2014, author Christopher Myers wrote, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

If there is one thing I’d ask you to take from this blog it is to never, never underestimate the power of ‘mirror books’ when it comes to the children in your care. Seeing your own world reflected in the pages of a book can be inspiring, comforting and enjoyable. But mirror books do something even more valuable and fundamental to our sense of self and identity. At their best, they build self-esteem, self-belief and confidence in a reader. This is especially true for those of us readers who are growing up in a wider culture which in some way minoritises us or intentionally excludes us or unconsciously ‘forgets’ to mention us or misrepresents us or just makes us feel like we don’t quite belong.  

And what happens in the absence of mirror books? At Letterbox Library, we hear time and time again from adults and children that they felt books were not for them because they never saw themselves or their lives represented in them. Or, where they did glimpse themselves, what they saw was negative, stereotypical portrayals. Both examples turned individuals off books and reading….the absolute antithesis to reading for pleasure. For these ‘lost’ readers, the world of books was one which they either felt was quite hostile to them or, more typically, they felt it simply had nothing to do with them.

At Letterbox Library we believe that, taken together, Windows and Mirrors are a truly winning combination in fostering reading for pleasure and in captivating a wide range of readers. By selecting both window and mirror books for settings, children have access to a wide and varied selection of books and more choice inevitably means a wider appeal. In the absence of mirror book, in particular, we risk creating more ‘lost readers’. In order for practitioners to make these selections, two things are needed. Firstly, UK publishing needs to wake up to the hunger and need out there, a demand which we know exists; 36 years on letterbox Library continues to flourish so we have no lack of confidence in the ‘market’. And, slowly they are waking up to this. Secondly, practitioners need to be able to actually access the books which already exist. Because they already exist. Not in sufficient quantitative to fill a supermarket perhaps but in easily enough quantities to complete or entirely fill your bookshelves. For lots of complicated reasons, the biggest marketing budgets and bookshop floorspace are given over to just a handful of children’s authors (you know their names) so you may need to peer behind the displays to find a more varied selection of book titles.

But suppliers and booksellers may also need to work just a little harder to source and stock the inclusive books which already exist. Letterbox Library has been sourcing representative and inclusive books from a wide range of publishers for years- we have to work hard at it, but we do succeed. So, visit our website to see the results of our findings.

Or, if you have your own supplier or preferred local bookshop, ask, ask and demand the books! In 99.9% of instances, booksellers want to serve their customers, they want to meet your needs. And, for that 0.01% who reply to your demands with “the books aren’t out there”, tell them, “Must. Try. Harder.” Because the secret is out. The books are there. As is a reluctant, disengaged child reader who might, just might, be brought back in to the book world by them because for once they were able to say “look, that person’s just like me!”   

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