Guest Post by Samuel Langley-Swain – Author and Founder of Owlet Press.
Diversity : We’re only just scratching the surface.
Having been an adoptive parent in a two-dad family, it’s been great to see some key titles like ‘Daddy, Papa and Me’ and ‘Tango Makes Three’ representing our family make up and recognising the positive impact this has on children like ours, being able to see themselves more closely reflected in their books. The same I think can be said for children from BAME backgrounds. Publishers like Knights Of are really shaking things up and making larger publishers follow suit in what has been a ‘white-washed’ industry up ‘til now, but that said, we still have a way to go.
As we see more diverse characters jump off the page, there is a risk of diversity and inclusivity being somewhat tick-box in its nature as the industry slowly catches up in reflecting this diversity across authors, illustrators, agents and editors. I find it disappointing personally if the portrayal and visualisation of characters does not come from an authentic place in the author or illustrator story. There are many books in the market that feature a young black boy for example, written by a twenty-something white female author. This is made more obvious I guess, when these characteristics form the central plot/ main character/ unique selling point of the book. That said, with organisations such as Inclusive Minds which champion inclusion ambassadors, on hand to provide insight to authors, there are now ways of centring around diverse characters in an authentic way.
Adoption is an interesting example; my children have lost count of the times they’ve had to endure reading about ‘little orphans’ in books from authors (some very well known) who have no experience or insight into the world of the adopted child and completely missing the mark in trying to reflect a segment of society, if that was ever their intention. Also, when looking for a book for myself that showed a more accurate depiction of adoption, most useful titles were geared around settling in to a new family, or about all families being different and there wasn’t a good quality book that covered (or alluded to) the entire adoption journey.
In starting Owlet Press, diversity was just something that was part of the course. We cherry pick authors and illustrators that have powerful stories to tell, as there are usually some lovely insights that come from them that make magical moments in the story.
So, I wrote The Blanket Bears using our own family experiences alongside input from professionals, to strike the right balance of sensitivity, accuracy and storytelling to help younger children unravel what is normally a traumatic process. The whole concept of the warmth, safety and tactility of the blankets and the ‘itchy feelings’ the bears experience in The Blanket Bears for example, came directly from my own children’s behaviours and helps to weave the story together really nicely. I’m hopeful that more adopted children and those in care will see a more accurate reflection of their journeys and find comfort in seeing a character that they can actually relate to.
We publish ‘problem-solving’ books for children, namely problems around wellbeing (mental health) society or the planet. Sometimes this means we may write about subjects that need to address diversity and inclusion, but we strive to ensure our message overrides any feeling of box-ticking, that’s not what we’re about. An interesting argument too, is when to use metaphorical storytelling vs reflecting realities in our titles – for example What Wesley Wore is a book about acceptance, that features a flamboyant weasel who is rejected by his community for dressing up; whereas in The Christmas Next Door, one of the family members Lily, is autistic and has a meltdown trying to perform in her Christmas nativity. We always have to consider the core message and how best to deliver it in a way that feels authentic and relatable.
We don’t want our picture books to be known as inclusive books or diverse books; it shouldn’t be a niche; all books should be inclusive and diverse. To me, incidental diversity should be the goal, where a main character may just happen to have two dads or their best friend may be in a wheelchair; it should (in my view) just be a part of the story and not the theme in which the entire story bases itself upon.
We need to move beyond diverse and inclusive books – as publishers we have a duty to reflect all areas of society and culture for the sole purpose of engaging as many readers as possible, in order for them to listen to the important messages and enjoy the magic within our stories.
The Blanket Bears, by Samuel Langley-Swain, illustrated by Ashlee Spink, is published by Owlet Press on 15th October, £6.99 paperback.
The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.