“I do truly believe that we, as a human race, have not yet created a better way than books to transmit hope to people we cannot reach physically” – Katherine Rundell, The Bookseller Children’s Conference 2020.
In these challenging times, one recent joyful experience I had, was to participate, as a Publishing student, in the Children’s Book Conference organised by The Bookseller. It was the first time for me to be joining a conference, which, despite being online, was carried out in a magnificent entertaining way. You could feel the passion that each panellist put in their work. Particularly, the last session of the conference, with different authors’ manifestos, stuck to me.
When the last twelve minutes of the session went off and children’s books author Katherine Rundell started speaking, her words breached through the numb state I have fallen into since the start of lockdown. She asked everyone in the audience – parents, publishers, authors, illustrators, students, guests – to, instead of being passive spectators, actively take part in telling children the truth while, at the same time, sharing hope. I first stumbled across Katherine Rundell when one of my friends gifted me her essay Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. I felt its words echoed again in her talk and they ricocheted through my perception of the reality of the world. She urged everyone to realise that children’s fiction books need to tell the truth because without fear, hope would not exist, without sadness, happiness would not make sense, and without hardship, love would not matter. We cannot have one if we have not experienced the other. These feelings can only shine bright when brought against the darkness.
However, we cannot tell children these truths, if the publishing industry does not embrace change faster and more consciously. A study from CLPE shows that in 2018 only 4% of children’s books had a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) main character, while the percentage of school pupils coming from those backgrounds was 33.1%. Thus, there is still a long way to go, to reach that moment when all children’s books will reflect diversity and inclusiveness. Katherine Rundell has the power to be encouraging, bold and yet soft, declaring the truths of the world while still giving us all a lesson.
Talking about the reality of the world and the inclusiveness children’s books need to show, Jelani Memory is someone that sparks in my mind. During the conference, he spoke about how he started his publishing house, A Kids Book About. He realised that to make his story heard, he needed to be the one igniting the change. A Kids Book About publishes children’s books that discuss those difficult topics – such as bereavement, racism, mental health issues, divorce, body image – that usually one would not consider finding in children’s books. The authors of these books are people who have underrepresented stories to tell, people who might have been overlooked by other publishers because they do not possess the right writing credentials. These books have now become the way through which parents and caregivers can have difficult conversations with their children. Jelani Memory wants to show his children, and all the children around the world, that they are represented and respected; that happiness must not be separated from the real world but rather co-exist with the sentiments of pain and sadness.
Here comes hope. The hope that children’s books are more than just fiction. While reading, children will know fantasy, creativity, love and kindness, but they will also learn why these things are so special, and why this knowledge is fundamental for them to be ready to face the outside world. Children’s books can teach valuable lessons while giving, to everyone, the sense of belonging.