Children's Books: Reflecting Reality?
When I first started working in children’s books, over 15 years ago, it didn’t take me long to notice how very few books seemed to include disabled characters in their images and storylines.
Over the years, my interest in trying to ensure books better reflect the needs of disabled children, has grown and grown. In fact, I now spend most of my time working in this area.
I am constantly on the lookout for books featuring disabled characters and books that are accessible to children with different needs. I write a regular blog on the subject, review inclusive books and work with Booktrust to develop new activity in this field. I also support and encourage (or they might say ‘badger’!) publishers, writers and illustrators to help them include more disabled characters in their images and stories.
Such books are of course important for all children. Children who are disabled have the right to feel equally included and represented in books. However these books are also important for non-disabled readers – from an early age, all children need to recognise that disability is not something strange or frightening, but just a natural part of life. Plus, surely children’s books also have a simple duty to reflect society as it really is? In ‘real life’, as many as one in 10 children are disabled and in the typical classroom one in five has some form of special educational need. The number of disabled children who appear in children’s books does not even come close to reflecting these figures.
Thankfully, things are starting to change, albeit slowly. Lots more books are starting to include disabled characters.
The publisher Child’s Play are particularly adept at including a really diverse range of images. If you flick through the pages of any of their board or picture books, you will probably come across some inclusive imagery – for example, their Just Like Us series alone includes children with Down’s Syndrome, birthmarks, eye patches, helmets and hearing aids!
Children need to see books which reflect different types of disability and also different experiences of disability. For example a picture book like Just Because by Rebecca Elliott can show that some children have complex needs, while books like Susan Laughs (Jeanne Willis), Best Friends (Mark Chambers) and Seal Surfer (Michael Foreman) picture disabled children taking part in activities alongside their non-disabled peers, often without any reference.
We also need books which touch positively on the subject of disability without making it an overriding feature of the story. For example, in The Sports Day (Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen) a child in one of the races uses crutches – and (in a nice touch) refuses to be given a head start. We need more books like Julia Donaldson’s Freddie and the Fairy which include positive messages about communicating with people who are deaf. And we need plenty of books which help generally to promote positive attitudes towards difference and diversity, like Something Else (Chris Riddell), But Martin! (June Counsell and Neal Layton) and Pink (Lynne Rickards and Margaret Chamberlain) to give just a few examples.
There are some good inclusive books out there, but we need many, many more. We also need to make sure that these books reflect disabled people’s real lives and experiences. Booktrust and I are therefore about to launch an online resource called ‘What’s The Story?’ which is a collection of views, ideas and experiences from disabled children, their families and those who work with them. I hope in its own small way this will also help to promote positive attitudes to disability – be it in books, in the classroom or in society as a whole. You will be able to find it soon at www.bookmark.org.uk. I’d love to hear from people interested in sharing their ideas, experiences and books.
Together, I hope we can ensure that the children’s book world continues its shift towards better reflecting the diverse world in which we live.