The Importance of Friendship

Guest Post by Caryl Hart

Hate crime is on the up.

You only have to scroll down a few comments on social media to witness the full force of xenophobia, intolerance and bullying that is sadly too prevalent in our society today.  The Office of National Statistics reports that crime motivated by hostility or prejudice towards a person based on personal characteristics, was up 17% in 2017/18.  Of the 94,000 incidents reported, the vast majority were racially motivated (76%).  While some of this increase can be attributed to improved reporting by police, the statistics are still stark and rather depressing.

A recent report by the Council for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) showed that less than 1% of children’s books have a non-white main character. One percent! And yet around 14% of citizens in England and Wales are of black, asian or other minority heritage. Female main characters are also in the minority and characters that use mobility aids or have other cognitive or physical differences are almost non-existent.

Representing diversity is not easy, especially as many picture books have less than four main characters and half of those are animals! So when I wrote Girls Can Do Anything, I had an opportunity to create a book with real diversity because it features so many human characters.  I was determined to make sure we represented a wide spectrum of children doing all sorts of activities – and fortunately the editors and designers at Scholastic agreed.  Appointing illustrator Ali Pye to bring my words to life was a brilliant move, and together we have created a book that is everything I could have hoped for, and more.

Girls Can Do Anything is going down a storm. It has been translated into ten languages to date and was shortlisted for this year’s Independent Bookshop Week Book Awards. 

So when Scholastic asked me to write a sequel about friendship, I jumped at the chance.

Together We Can is a rhyming book officially aimed at children aged 3-5 though I’ve found in reality that Girls Can Do Anything has been enjoyed by children up to 10.

It is a book that celebrates diversity, and promotes tolerance, empathy and compassion. It discusses what a friend is and the kind of things a good friend might do, and also shows children how they might be a good friend to others.  It talks about things friends have in common and ways they are different:

Some friends speak a language we don’t understand

They still laugh together and walk hand in hand.

And about how to recognise if someone is lonely and what to do about it:

Some people have one friend, and others have many

Perhaps you know someone who doesn’t have any?

If someone is lonely, there’s lots you can do

To make them feel better, just BE a friend too.

It also recognises that some children find it difficult to make friends and includes some simple suggestions of things they might do to break the ice:

If someone is sad, you could give them a cuddle

Or help them get out of a difficult muddle.

Try baking some cupcakes or make a nice card

See? Making a friend really isn’t too hard.

But this book would be nothing without Ali Pye’s incredible illustrations. She has created over 140 characters including children of all skin tones and hair colours and styles, children with glasses, eye patches, cochlear implants, mobility aids, headscarves, prosthetics, hair loss and down’s syndrome.  She has illustrated children doing a myriad of different activities in a bright and colourful world where your best friend can be someone who is similar to you, or very different. Heck, they might even be a stick insect!

Our aim throughout has been that every child should be able to find someone like them somewhere in this book.  And for some children, this may well be the very first time that they’ve been able to do so.

I recently read this book to a large group of year 2 children, and as soon as I opened the pages, they leapt up from their orderly rows on the hall floor and crowded round me to see the illustrations.  I asked them to point out characters that they thought were like them, and to my huge surprise and immense satisfaction, they ignored gender and appearance and picked children who were doing things that they themselves enjoyed.  It was all I could do to hold back the tears and I wanted to hug each and every one of them for being amazing human beings.

Now, I’m not saying that children are saints. Most have the ability to be extremely cruel if left unguided. But with a little encouragement and some clear guidelines, I truly believe that all children are extremely open minded and tolerant. I am certain that books like Together We Can can help parents, teachers and carers to build great attitudes and behaviour that will last into adulthood.

Of course, creating a more tolerant and compassionate society is a monumental task, and Together We Can is just one book. But if children are to grow up into adults who are not afraid of difference, who celebrate diversity and see the best in others, we have to start somewhere.  I believe it is vitally important that children see a diverse range of characters in the stories they read because it shows the majority that the minority exist and are just like them… and shows the minority that they matter.

Together We Can by Caryl Hart and illustrated by Ali Pye and published by Scholastic on 1st August £6.99.

This is a guest post and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

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