Black & White: The Thorny Question of Diversity

A couple of weeks ago I attended an afternoon discussion forum run by Beth Cox and Alex Strick of Inclusive Minds (www.inclusiveminds.com). Publishers, book sellers, librarians and teachers gathered at 29b Montague Street (home of The Publishers Association) to discuss the thorny issue of diversity and inclusion in children’s books.

Look around you. Our society is hugely diverse and, in my opinion, books for children should reflect the world in which we all live. I’m not just talking about ethnicity – the term ‘diversity’ encompasses race and heritage, disability, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, religion, and culture.

The hero in our first title Geronimo, The Dog Who Thinks He’s a Cat was originally called Angus. He was white, middle class and probably lived an idyllic life, in a huge house, in the middle of the country somewhere. I doubt he’d ever seen a black person and unemployment was something that happened far, far away. This is what he looked like, along with the original Plunket family…

Angus

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I loved Jessie Wall’s story but even I had to accept that, in its original form, it wasn’t really a true reflection of the world in which the majority of children live today.

Beth Cox took a look at the manuscript with her Inclusive Minds’ hat on. She made various suggestions including changing Angus’s name, making his parents same sex and giving him some sort of disability. I’m afraid I balked at the last two suggestions as to me they reeked of tokenism. However in the published book Angus has become Dylan, he is from a mixed race family, wears glasses and lives a much more contemporary life than that of his original incarnation.

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Other changes that we made to make Geronimo more diverse included getting rid of a vicar and replacing him with a modern granny, and also updating the characters of Mr and Mrs Marmaduke. Originally village show judge, Mrs Marmaduke, was a rather stereotypical middle aged busy body who kidnaps the kittens in her shopping basket. In order to make her more contemporary we brought down her age, turned her husband into a motorbike riding Hells Angel and swapped Mrs Marmaduke’s basket for a biking helmet.

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Books for children have to be relevant and what has become clear over the past few years is that publishers are keen to find inclusive stories with a wide range of characters. That certainly applies to our own policy at Wacky Bee.

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