For some years I've been a member of IBBY.UK (The International Board on Books for Young People). Although an international organisation, it's probably true to say that not many people have either heard of it, or understand why it's there. IBBY'S aims are to promote diversity and inclusivity in children's publishing – and briefly, we work together with 70 IBBY countries to promote children's literature and literacy in the fundamental belief that ALL children should have access to books and the joy of reading.
Many young people face all kinds of barriers and cannot read or enjoy a regular book. Every two years IBBY invites all publishers to submit books that they feel represent special needs and, importantly, have excellent literary and artistic merit. The final nominated books are included on an International List. This collection of books travels around the world for two years, to libraries, galleries, schools, or wherever there is interest in the collection. It's a tremendous list, which gives an insight into global diverse and inclusive thinking.
This year we were overwhelmed with submissions from enthusiastic publishers - it was just brilliant! I was one of the lucky panel-readers, reading around 30 books, some of which I'd love to share with you here. The only disappointment was the huge number of outstanding Young Adult novels compared to the far fewer picture book submissions. There is definitely more work to be done here.
The books I've picked are a personal choice and aren't always titles that have been nominated for the IBBY 'Outstanding' List . Some didn't quite fit the criteria, but they stand out as 'real' books in other ways:
Written from Isaac's perspective, Isaac and His Amazing Asperger Superpowers
is a great early book for opening up discussion of spectrum disorders. For peers and family rather than for children with autism, it explains how Isaac's behaviour is sometimes different whilst showing positively how children with Asperger's have great strengths – curiosity – heightened awareness of sound – and a wonderful memory for facts. The author/illustrator, Melanie Walsh, has a son with Asperger's, and inside the back cover is a useful list of contacts connected to Autism and Asperger's Syndrome.
Heads Up,Tim-Tron (Ian Ray and Garry Parsons) could easily have been a dull attempt at portraying brain injury and its consequence to young children. But it's a real success! One of my sons had an unexpected brain injury last year, with the shockwaves rumbling on for a long time afterwards. The little robot , Tim-Tron, with his little brain circuits and 'low batteries' is a perfect and funny way of describing the condition and how to manage and understand it. The author, Ian Ray, is editorial manager at the Children's Trust, the UK's leading charity for children with brain injury, so he knows what he's talking about.
Off to the Beach (Cocoretto) is a lovely, seasonal, tactile early board book, developed in consultation with families and organisations working with blind and partially sighted children. Braille-style numbering, a gritty sandy trail to follow through the pages, and a soft fluffy towel are amongst the interactive and sensory experiences. Best of all, everyone enjoyed playing with this book - it's perfect for ALL children!
Hot off the press is Perfect
, by acclaimed author Nicola Davies. She writes about the arrival of a newborn baby who is 'different', although the word 'disability' isn't used. It tells the story of a boy struggling to accept his baby sister. It's fair to say that this was a divisive book – some loved it; others didn't. However, this isn't a review, and readers can decide for themselves. It's a brave book, and heartfelt, and I feel it's worth including.
Grey Island Red Boat is one of the 'Little Gems' series. This really is a jewel of a book. An enchanting modern fairytale for young children, with Ian Beck's lovely black-and-white silhouettes gradually becoming suffused with rainbow colour as the tale unfolds. It's a small book, with generous line spacing, an attractive, specially designed font, and high production values. But the real hidden treasure is that this book helps children who face barriers in reading, including dyslexia, visual stress and poor attention span. It's also great for dyslexic adults to share with a child.
Trying to represent true inclusivity and diversity in children's books is often challenging and frustrating, but also can be life-changing and rewarding. As an illustrator, it's a path full of discussion, education, feeling clumsy in asking awkward questions, enlightenment, and taking risks. Trying to see if there's a different way of doing things. It's about making the best books – if a child looks at a picture and thinks 'that's me!' – then it's a job done!
Find out more about IBBY at ibby.org.uk
For more books like these, check out our list of 11 Illuminating Inclusive Picture Books!
Main image from Isaac and his Amazing Asperger Superpowers