The Bookseller Children’s Conference took a virtual approach when it came to presenting its speakers, keynotes, and conferences this year. During her keynote on the final day of the Conference, Katherine Rundell spoke sentimentally on her beliefs in pursuing a dynamic and inclusive future within the industry of children’s literature. The vital message of her talk was that the industry should actively represent the lives of all children through the text they choose to publish. Rundell believes that the codex is the most effective way to transmit hope. The idea of the book as a vessel for transmitting hope to those we cannot reach holds greater significance through lockdown.
“Children urgently need to see themselves somewhere,” said Rundell, a sentiment echoed by fellow speakers Rachel Williams and Jenny Broom, “The stories you are told when you are young shape who you grow up to be.” Cementing her worry, Rundell stated that “we have not been telling children the truth about the world that they live in.” A diverse world; culturally, racially and socially.
Initially, I struggled to see myself in the media that was made available to me whilst growing up. I struggled to manifest my gender expression and sexuality freely. I turned to media. Whether through watching sit-coms with gay characters with my parents or blushing behind the pillow watching queer storylines in soap operas, the majority of the time, what I saw in front of me was not what I saw in myself. So, in turn, I sought escape in the vast world of literature.
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky was the first book I read that I could see myself in. I was fourteen and I borrowed it from my school library. I saw myself in Charlie’s introversion. For the first time I saw a queer character, Patrick, represented in a way that slightly deviated from what I deemed were the common queer characterisations in film, literature, and television. I felt that we were either framed through our “coming-out” trauma, as victims of our persecution, or through our tokenistic agency; whereby we were granted assimilation into heteronormative society through what we could offer it. There has been a recent move in queer young adult fiction to dismantle these common tropes. Although Patrick represented these agencies to an extent, he was not defined by them. He existed as a kaleidoscopic, multi-faceted human, flaws and all. This book changed my life. Representation matters.
I understand that there was other literature existing offering similar depictions. For many, knowledge of this material hinges on accessibility. Perhaps, if there had been more fiction of this sort available to me, it could have minimised the years of the confusion and frustration. This idea of accessibility was reverberated by many of the speakers at The Bookseller Children’s Conference. The industry is improving and it makes me so happy. Fiction geared towards children and young adults has a history of being a didactic, morphing force; preparing the intended for the tribulations of the world ahead. Teachers speak of these literatures acting as windows and mirrors for children to see themselves and others. We must continue to build them.