Last week I had the pleasure of being part of the audience for the Children’s Bookseller conference, taking place virtually this year for the first time. It was the first conference – online, or otherwise that I had taken part in and I was interested to find out more about the children’s publishing industry.
Initially, I was interested in the talks on diversity, particularly the talk on ‘Diversity in Young Adult Publishing’ by Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, senior lecturer at University College London. This talk appealed to me because Diversity is an increasingly relevant topic. When it came to YA books I traditionally read books with predominately white, heterosexual characters, as these books were the most readily available to me. Titular characters like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson were the favourites of my childhood, and they were the first names that came to mind when I thought of YA fiction.
Looking at the statistics featured in this talk in the conference, it was clear to see why this is. In 2019 people of colour made up 19.60% of published titles, and they wrote 20.30% of unique titles. Similarly, if we look in relation to this and the ‘boom’ in popularity with YA books following their transformation into TV series and films, the diversity in these films seem incredibly limited to white, male leads, and Black supporting characters.
This is incredibly evident in the films popular in the period around the early 2010’s, such as; Twilight, The Hunger Games, and those Percy Jackson films. Twilight had Laurent, the easily forgettable villain, and The Hunger Games had Rue, whose death is absorbed into Katniss’ tragic backstory. Similarly, in Percy Jackson, Grover, his best friend guides Percy into the mythological world, and yet canonically, he is not Black. So, even though these characters are examples of increased diversity in film, the question is whether their presence is enough, or whether these representations are actually doing more harm than good. Especially when we see, time and time again, that their stories and narratives always come second place to the white protagonists.
I also found the talk on ‘Keeping publishing diverse in the long term,’ by Deborah Ahenkorah Osei-Agyekum, the CEO & Publisher of African Bureau Stories, a children’s publishing house based in Ghana, very eye-opening. One of her main points was that she realised there was a gap in the market. African stories were missing, and thus, erased from the narrative. This was attributed to the idea that the world was not ready for diverse children’s books. However, this seemed like a narrow view to take, especially in an industry where a lot of the value of work seems to rest upon being different from the rest of the market. These talks all seemed to stress that the lack of diversity begins with children’s books. As suggested, we can only remedy this as an industry by working together to create books that reflect the world we live in. A world that is inclusive, and diverse.
I will take away many things from the conference but I think these statements will stay with me. That whilst all children deserve to see themselves in books, a lot of children are deprived of this, and that needs to change.
Image credit to https://diversebooks.org/