Without Exception: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Books

The thing I love about OICPS is the variety of speakers that we have the pleasure of listening to, I may have said this before (probably on Twitter) but it holds true and today was no exception. Today’s session was on diversity and difficult topics in children’s publishing. Beth Cox, of Without Exception and Inclusive Minds, talked us through how publishers can be more inclusive, what is being done and how she, and we, can help.

The session started with a word association exercise, which really got us into the inclusive brainspace. We were given four words: traveller, girl, gay and disabled. I have to admit that the exercise did make me feel like a bad person, every word that popped up in my head affirmed a stereotype – I class myself as a pretty open person, I don’t like to rely on stereotypes and prefer to get to know a person before I make a judgement but this exercise didn’t show that. I think everyone felt the same. This led into Beth’s talk really well. Her first point: Authors and Illustrators have unconscious bias just like everyone else and this may be reflected in their work.

Children are open, children do not carry the biases that we gather as (young) adults via the media. As such, these stereotypes and unconscious biases should not feature in children’s literature and it is (or should be) the job of the publisher to ensure their books are bias-free. Having bias does not make you a bad person (we are not bad people because we engender stereotypes in a word association game, but if we try to spread that bias, well, that’s an entirely different board game). It is important to ensure that the work produced by authors and illustrators (illustrators especially in regards to younger children) does not promote stereotype. Visuals are incredibly important to young children, it is essential for a child to be able to see a character that they can relate to.

Beth commented that a lot of the publishers she talks to tell her that they do not publish issue books but diversity in publishing is not about issue books, it is about inclusion. It does not have to be a main feature it just has to be there. We were shown some brilliant examples from picture books, in one image there were at least two same-sex couples (one of which had a child), various different races, a wheelchair user and more. None of these characters were mentioned in the text but just by being there for a child to find, the book is showing children that they are normal.

The problem with inclusion comes when the ‘not average’ character is made too special, in Wonder, which is a book I love, Auggie is given an award not because he is exceptional but because he has a disability. There is a risk of going too far. Every main character is made special in some way (it is the nature of being a main character) but even in fantasy settings authors must be realistic. It is in writing that sentence that I have realised a sad fact: it might be realistic. A child in a ‘normal’ school when they, themselves, are not the average student may well be given such an award in real life. Not because they did anything worthy of recognition but because they are different, often all these children want is to be seen as normal (to themselves they are  normal). There are exceptions of course but the point is: characters, people, children should be the treated the same way regardless of whether they are disabled, ill or of a different race.

Another problem that arises is the tendency to ally disability with evil wherein all good characters are perfectly healthy; bad characters with deformities, unlike-able characters described as ‘crazy’, ‘mental’, ‘lunatics’.

She then went on to talk about young adult literature, wherein some issues are resolved too quickly and publishers/authors are sometimes unaware of restrictive judgements about gender. An example of a series which does not restrict gender is The Hunger Games with strong, female Katniss and sensitive, cake-decorating Peeta; it is not assumed that, because Peeta is interested in cake decoration, Peeta is gay. Quite the opposite, he is in love with Katniss. 

I hope that I can enter the industry and bring with me some of the messages we were given in today’s talk, I hope to be part of a future in which there are children’s books which deal with difficult subjects effectively and without bias (there are some that do this fantastically but, arguably, not enough), which present non-average characters as normal human beings, not something that should be tip-toed around and coated with bubblewrap.

It is with that thought that I leave you and offer you this link to a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, which we watched during the talk, it’s brilliant and I highly recommend watching it. Later, I will be blogging more on difficult subjects and how they are explored, watch this space.

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The Phoenix Comic: Marketing in Children’s Publishing

The Phoenix is a new weekly comic for children, it was launched in January 2012 and finds its home in Oxford. Its origins lie with The DFC, a comic from David Fickling which is no longer being published, but the creative team still exist (at the heart of The Phoenix).

We were joined by Ross Fraser, a fairly recent OICPS alumni, who is now Head Marketing Manager at The Phoenix Comic – a fact which, in itself, is comforting; he was in our figurative shoes about two years ago. Ross talked us through The Phoenix, what it is, the magazine and how they market the comic itself. Each issue contains serialised stories (like the popular The Pirates of Pangaea storyline); recurring stories, which do not necessarily follow a set storyline (like Bunny vs. Monkey); Phoenix features, stand-alone story specials (Ghost Ant, The Princess and the Peanut Butter Sandwich); puzzles; and non-fiction (like Corpse Talk, which Ross described as ‘in a nutshell Horrible Histories crossed with Parkinson’ much to the amusement of the class).

He split the current children’s magazine market into negatives, which included

  • cultural belief that comics are inherently worthless and carry with them stigma of geekery
  • lots of competition
  • effects of global recession still being felt
  • phenomenon of children getting older younger
  • high churn rates

and positives

  • the current trend for comic book related movies internationally
  • increase in the perception of literary value in comics
  • increase in sales via subscription models
  • 8-12 year-olds are on the whole too young to move to other forms of entertainment
  • increased recognition for ‘visual literacy’ in both schools and libraries nationally

Going on to talk about the challenge faced by The Phoenix to create a culture of comics in the UK, while countries like the US and France already have considerable weight placed on comic books the same cannot be said about the UK. To enable them to do this, he explained, they had to look at their existing platforms and how they could improve them – what else could they do. Brand loyalty is important for such an endeavour, especially when it comes to comics. We were led through the various things The Phoenix does to encourage brand loyalty in both its readers and their parents (including the successful Phoenix competitions which always receive many entries).

The comic is distributed through various channels; he mentioned an event at the Oxford branch of Waterstone’s back in November, I remember seeing the vibrant window displays and wishing I had time to go and have a look – I was either going to or coming from my internship at Berghahn. I was interested to learn that the digital version of the comic is created in Tokyo by a company that has not before dealt with fiction.  A lot of emphasis was placed on the nurturing of independent bookshops, their integration with the community is paramount to the success of The Phoenix.

Finally, before taking questions, he explained why The Phoenix do what they do: passion and a love of stories; he said something very poetic about story culture and how stories are inherent in everything, which I wish I had written down.

We have a lot of speakers at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies and they are all incredibly interesting, I was much impressed by the design of the slides in today’s talk, most speakers come with standard slides from their company (which is brilliant for the purpose) but the slides from The Phoenix were all uniquely designed and laid out much like their website (with little hints to what awaits in the comics). A thoroughly enjoyed and engaging talk.

Tomorrow in #DLL13 we are being joined by Mark Rogerson from Electronic Enlightenment. Keep an eye on the blog for a write-up.

Transmedia: Harry Potter and Wonderbook

Children’s, how I love thee.

Oxford Brookes University was involved in the creation of the Wonderbook technology, specifically the skin recognition software or coding, I’m not quite sure, used in J.K. Rowling’s Book of Spells.

Today, we of Children’s Publishing hopped on a shiny, blue U1 bus and land-rocketed off through the winding countryside to Wheatley campus to view a demonstration and have a go on the game ourselves. (I say ourselves, I didn’t play but instead sat in the audience quietly squirming and working up the courage to inform the room that it was, in fact, the move button that has to be held down when casting a spell.) Hilarity ensued as the game was experienced for the first time and ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ was yelled enthusiastically at the screen.

This may not sound like much of an academic experience. Can it be that you can have fun while learning? Surely not, I hear you mutter. Welcome to the world of Children’s, where the lessons are fun and sometimes involve all-new technology! Once we were done with the demonstration we discussed Harry Potter and its vast storyscape. Before we began the discussion, I’m not sure any of us realised quite how big the franchise was and how much it relied on transmedia.

For those who may not be quite so publishing-savvy transmedia storytelling is a way of telling a story across multiple medias or platforms. A book may be coupled with video content, or expanded with a video game. Each different media is not retelling any part of the story but instead adding more depth and continuing the story. Book of Spells, for example, does not follow Harry and his companions but instead places the player in that world and expands on the overall mythology of the series.

I found this idea fascinating, the whole concept of transmedia demands to be explored and is something I would much like to look into (or even work with) further. I would like to know the limitations of this approach to storytelling, in theory there aren’t any but without researching this I can’t say for certain. That said, I am not sure how much I engage with transmedia on the user end of the spectrum. When I read, I do just that: read. If I am taken with the story, once I am finished, I will bound over to tumblr and search the tags for interesting tidbits like fan-made graphics but this isn’t transmedia. This is ‘fanmedia’ – a term which I may have made up.

When I read The Hunger Games and then watched the film, I flocked over to the website to find out which district I would belong to (I got my Panem ID) and I read all of the fictitious news bulletins – I did this because I knew they were there. I had seen it, again, on tumblr and decided to give it a go but I wouldn’t’ve gone looking for it otherwise.

I’m going to make an effort to seek out transmedia more, I might write more about my findings here. A project, perhaps.

Open Book, when OICPS Children’s does Radio

Between giving my Dad a topical, appropriate and somewhat hilarious (if I do say so myself) birthday card and a very short story, and formulating an argument for my Children’s research article (which is harder than it might seem), I thought I would come here and update my blog, since I haven’t for a little while. This, however, will not be a long entry due to the aforementioned argument formulation.

Today was the day we ‘performed’ our first Children’s assignment; a radio show. While I am emphatically not a fan of public speaking and the thought of doing the assignment terrified me more than I would like to admit (but admit it, I shall), I did greatly enjoy listening to the radio shows of the other groups in the class. Topics included: the taboo of poo in children’s literature, homosexuality in children’s literature, the censorship of racism in re-releases of classic children’s books, the affect of library cutbacks on children’s publishing, the importance of reading at home, and the attempt to break away from stereotypes in children’s publishing.

The scripts were engaging and often brought out a giggle or two throughout the rest of the class, especially when amusing accents were involved. It was an interesting alternative to the usual presentation style of assignment (though no less nerve-racking).

Children’s literature: Fairyland and the Enticement of Travelling to Another World

The capitalisation is for emphasis, I feel I should point that out before I begin.

Fairyland

I have recently finished reading Catherynne M. Valente’s current Fairyland books, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making  and its sequel The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and led the Revels there; I was sucked into them to the extent that, even though I had other books to read, between finishing the first one and the release of the second I could not read another book. I was so involved in Fairyland that I had to read the next one before I read anything else. And so I pre-ordered the sequel and squealed in excitement when it arrived.

I really enjoy these books.

Not many series that I have read recently have concrete endings to each of their titles so I was pleasantly surprised after reading the first and learning that it did, in fact, end. The same is true of the second. But that is not the point of this entry, neither is fawning over these books. Well, maybe it is a little bit.

It is in reading these books, and beginning the book I am reading currently, that I realised something about myself (and perhaps about children/young adults and publishing along with it). After my frolic through Fairyland, I picked up China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and I am completely in love with that too. It was in my love of that and my ideas for my Major Project (which were also floating around at the time) when a thought struck: my favourite books, and even films, are mostly about unsuspecting men/women/children (but mostly children) being swept away and taken somewhere else, somewhere fantastical.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThrough the Looking Glass, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, StardustCoraline, C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan, L.Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart Trilogy, John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things. 

LabyrinthPan’s LabyrinthMirrorMaskSpirited AwayHowl’s Moving Castle, Ink, The 10th KingdomAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland (in all of its screen incarnations, though I’ve not yet seen them all, but particularly the National Ballet version, at the moment), the list could go on.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

My reading (and film-watching) life is immersed in tales of ordinary (or seemingly ordinary) people being taken to wondrous places. It’s an archetype which never fails to impress and inspire me. Why? It’s nice to imagine that things like that can happen to normal people, though, saying that all of the characters are in some way ‘chosen’, except perhaps Deeba in Un Lun Dun who ends up where she is out of loyalty to her friend (or possibly being too scared of going back home in the dark…). So maybe it’s nice to imagine that you could be chosen if being chosen and taken to some magical place was a thing which existed.

It seems to work for publishers too, there is so much that can be done with these stories that it’s hard to find fault in the release of a new one. The fact that it took me so long to realise my very obvious reading trend is credit to the ability of authors to make them unique (I am 2 months shy of 22 and have been reading for most of my life). With the sheer number of such stories, it’s clear that children like them too. What’s better than to imagine you’ve been pulled into an adventure by a wind in a dashing green jacket or that you’ve wished your brother be taken away by the Goblin King (even if you later realise that it wasn’t the best idea to do so)?

The Book of Lost Things

These are stories which don’t become boring and, while it’s a trend, they’re nothing like the paranormal boom of the last few years. These are slow things, steady things, pushing themselves forward until they’re in exactly the right place on the bookshelf for little (and not-so-little) hands to reach.

In the spirit of sharing (in which this spirit is selfish and one-sided, he has no left half, it’s very strange), if anyone has any favourite books, films or tv shows with similar themes, leave a comment! And with that, I flee to have my own adventure, which involves making my throat feel better by drinking orange squash. It’s not going to work but I’m going to enjoy it anyway.

Barefoot Books, Oxford: I found myself in Wonderland

I found myself in Wonderland by Elou Carroll

I found myself in Wonderland by Elou Carroll

Last weekend, I popped into Barefoot Books to pick up a copy of The Snow Queen and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, when asked if I wanted them to be gift wrapped, I proudly announced that the books for me; I read them that very same day and they read as beautifully as they look. Barefoot is a beautiful place, and a publisher I would very much like to secure an internship at (fingers crossed for my application!) and perhaps one day work. The studio is not just a bookshop. It’s like a day out; if I had children, I wouldn’t take them there just for a look, I would take them there for an experience. We would stay there for hours (and then buy everything).

In the words of Leah Lesser from the Barefoot blog:

When was the last time you walked inside a store and felt as if you had entered a different world, or stepped inside your favorite story?

When I stepped into Barefoot, I found Wonderland, Narnia, Neverland… I was in another place, plucked right from somewhere magic. As soon as I stepped through the gate, I bubbled with excitement and as soon as I opened the door my face was taken over by the most gigantic grin. Everything was so bright and colourful and the first thing you hear is children giggling in the back. One child was so excited about the books that he couldn’t stop running around and almost told his dad which book he would choose for him for Christmas. I don’t think I have ever seen a child so excited, let alone so excited in a book shop.

It was beautiful to see and that little boy is one of the reasons why I would love to work in children’s publishing. To make a child that happy, that awed about books, would be a wonderful thing.

Below is a video of the studio in question. While you can’t feel the magic properly until you’ve been there, this can give you an idea.

I have never seen a book shop I have loved so much. I am collecting a street in my mind, a street filled with beautiful book shops. Some are old, some are new, some I’ve not yet visited  but Barefoot sits at the top, on a hill, a bright light with the wind rushing whirring around it like rustling pages.

Barefoot books: The Snow QueenBarefoot books: The Twelve Dancing Princesses