Optimistically I am titling this, the role of the publisher in the post-lockdown world with the view that long lockdowns are behind us. After attending The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference this week, it is apparent that children’s publishers have a key role to play in returning to normal. Fozia Irfan from Children in Need addressed this in her keynote, providing the stats and called for publishers to bring joy to the children’s market. Irfan cited the toll of the pandemic on children and young people but also the rise in reading enjoyment amongst them, and notes the importance of publishers to create ‘joy, hope and wonder’ in children’s books. Following on from this, I would argue, all children need to feel represented in fiction. With 1 in 3 books sold in 2020 being a children’s book, there is an opportunity here for publishers to seize.
David Baddiel directly addresses the joy of children’s fiction and the unique ‘pureness’ it possesses. Universally, children have a much more direct, unfiltered approach to the books they read and their response to these. The lack of ‘gatekeepers’ grants children an untainted reading experience, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the storytelling and illustrations.
Aside from joy, fiction should be providing children with greater representation to allow equal access to the ‘imaginative universe’ described by Baddiel. Greater representation not only allows children to see themselves in fiction (either as authors or as characters) but it also prepares children for a global society, this is key in avoiding a scenario where we inadvertently shoehorn readers into believing texts are/are not for them. A key point which was bought up in both the panel on ‘Lit in Colour’ and ‘Disability Representation’ was the need to move away from traumatic narratives, which ties in with the previous point, as it is important all children see a version of themselves in fiction that they can relate to. The ‘Disability Representation’ panel highlighted the poor characterisation we are currently seeing, with overused and inappropriate tropes, for example, a parent grieving at the birth of a disabled child and a disability being characterised as ‘inspirational’ with very little else added to the plot.
To quote Irfan, fiction ‘helps children build identity and consider possibilities for themselves’. During her keynote she presented the stat that almost 40% of children and young people have said they felt they would never succeed in life. Publishers need to see past the bleak statistics and publish books that illicit joy and build a more hopeful future for children to change this pessimistic outlook.
A solution which was offered during the conference was the recommendation of inclusivity readers who work to spot cultural inaccuracies, stereotypes etc. By utilising this tool, publishers can ensure books are published with limited unconscious bias. To quote Mary Hamley, the industry needs to ‘change its complexion’ and illicit meaningful change rather than tokenistic tick-box exercises.