Seeing Yourself: Diversity in Picture Books - a guest post by Sharon Fried-Jones - Nosy Crow Skip to content
Posted by Nosy Crow, April 28, 2015

Seeing Yourself: Diversity in Picture Books – a guest post by Sharon Fried-Jones

Today’s guest blog post is by Sharon Fried-Jones, a children’s book blogger and aspiring author, on a recent Children’s Book Circle event on diversity in picture books.

Next time you’re in a children’s bookshop, head over to the picture book section. What do the most popular books have in common?

No, the answer isn’t they’re all written by Julia Donaldson, although that’s a pretty good guess. It’s not that they all feature animals either, although there’s certainly a lot of truth in that.

I’d bet good money that there aren’t many ethnic faces featuring in those titles. It’s an issue I’ve blogged about before and as an aspiring children’s writer and parent of three mixed-raced children it’s a real effort to seek out books with a range of diverse characters.

Then again, what springs to mind when you hear the word ‘diversity’? Perhaps you think of different ethnic types, or a range of characters including those who are disabled or gay.

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s one of the hot topics in publishing at the moment. From the We Need Diverse Books campaign on social media, to our current Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman raising awareness around the topic, it’s something you can’t avoid.

Are publishers bringing out enough books which reflect our culturally mixed consumers? Where are all the authors and illustrators from ethnic backgrounds? How can the industry move forward to be more inclusive? What are the barriers they face?

These were the questions asked at the Children’s Book Circle’s lively panel event last week; Seeing Yourself: Diversity in Picture Books.

Chaired by Nosy Crow’s Tom Bonnick, the panel included Alexandra Strick, the co-founder of Inclusive Minds, an organisation which focuses on ‘inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature’, Joe Marriott a picture book editor at Penguin Random House who also works closely with the multicultural imprint Tamarind, author Jonathon Emmett, whose Cool Not Cute blog seeks to readdress what he believes is the female bias in picture books, and publisher Janetta Otter-Barry, who has an award-winning list at Frances Lincoln Children’s Books and has recently set up her own publishing company.

Interestingly the panel was mainly white and middle class, a fact that Jonathon Emmett said was one of the problems with the publishing industry as a whole.

He admitted that ‘you write what you know,’ so if your ‘default set of values’ come from a particular race or class you subconsciously write with that context in mind. This was especially true for his book If We Had a Sailboat which he envisioned the characters as white, but illustrator Adrian Reynolds made one of the main characters black. Since then on he’s specified to publishers what gender and race he’d like his characters to be.

In a recent UKYADAY twitter chat Malorie Blackman answered my question on how she would change the publishing business and she said: “I would make it more diverse, from the boardroom down. And have more diversity in output.”

For Alex, ‘diversity’ covered so many things – family structure, gender diversity, disability, it wasn’t just about the skin colour but how characters are portrayed in general. For instance depicting a disabled character shouldn’t mean automatically using a wheelchair.

Jonathan wanted to see more dads going to the library or buying books with their children, he sees the female dominated publishing industry as the gate keepers of gender bias towards girls and suggested that interns should be paid as that would open up the industry to a wider range of people.

Shockingly Janetta revealed that she’s come up against resistance in other countries when trying to sell co-editions of her list. With 15 Things Not to do With a Baby which features a mixed race family, she was asked if the illustrator would make the baby’s skin paler for fear it wouldn’t sell in their territory. Um, check your calendar. It’s 2015 everybody and yes, this is still happening.

Another problem lies with the lack of people coming through the business. Janetta said it would be ‘great to find more illustrators of different cultural background.’

Joe added that ultimately, from the point of view of an editor it’s about ‘choosing really good stories which aren’t tokenistic.’ He wants to see books which are fun and where any notion of diversity is incidental and not shoe-horned in, like in My Mummy Is Magic which shares the special moments between a mum and her baby who just happen to be mixed-race.

With such a big subject to cover in a short space of time, what was clear was that there is no one answer to tackle this issue. Publishers, booksellers, librarians, authors and illustrators are definitely trying to make a change.

One thing’s for sure, it’s an area which definitely isn’t black or white.

Thank you very much, Sharon! You can find out about upcoming Children’s Book Circle events here.

See more: