The 21st annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 8 November 2014 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Belonging is… an exploration of the right to be included and the barriers that must be overcome’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panelists and parallel sessions.
Everybody Welcome – Panel with Mary Hoffman, Ros Asquith & Sarah Garland
By Kay Waddilove
In the penultimate event of the conference, this panel of notable children’s author-illustrators discussed the creation and production process for their work with chair Carol Thompson, author and illustrator for Child’s Play.
Mary Hoffman, writer of historical fantasy novels as well as picture books, has collaborated with illustrator Ros Asquith on the Great Big Book series. Their Great Big Book of Families was originally planned as a book on fostering and adoption, but emerged, they explained, as a wide-ranging look at all sorts of families, much enlivened by Asquith’s amusing illustrations. The success of this title has spawned a series; it was followed by the equally successful Great Big Book of Feelings and the Great Big Green Book is soon to be published.
The incomparable Sarah Garland (awarded the 2014 IBBY Honour List for Illustration earlier in the day) talked about her book Azzi in Between, which was inspired by her meeting a refugee family (two parents and a child) on a visit to a charity shop in New Zealand. Her musings on where the family had come from, why they were there, and what might happen to the child, led her to enquire at a local library (top marks there, Sarah!) for a book that could help the child understand her situation. The librarian could not recommend a suitable title, so Garland decided to write a book for that child. Her discussions with refugee families and in a local school – which educated 250 refugee children, mostly from Burma – were reinforced by in-depth background research, and culminated in Azzi in Between, a fascinating, and very readable picture book, which balances the, sometimes terrible, reality of life for refugee families with accessibility for the young reader. The book depicts the lives of a family of middle-eastern refugees – Garland confessed she found Burmese children difficult to draw! Mary’s The Colour of Home, beautifully illustrated by Karin Littlewood, which tells the story of a young Somalian refugee to the United States, was also meticulously researched and is similarly accessible to the young reader.
Garland went on to discuss the journey to publication of Billy and Belle, which depicts a black father and a white mother. Having survived early objections to the endpapers from her publisher’s publicity department – because they showed the two parents in bed together – the book became extremely successful. And Garland recounted with joy being accosted by a stranger in the street thanking her – as a black father – for writing the book.
Hoffman and Asquith reinforced the value of reader response in discussion of their Welcome to the Family, which explores the many different ways for children to become part of families. Both talked to children in complex families; Hoffman described meeting one where the children had three sets of parents, including the sperm donor father (BioDad), while another contained different race children who were nevertheless biological sisters. Despite negative responses from American evangelical groups, the book has been very popular with child readers, whether in ‘complex’ families or not.
All three panellists were full of appreciation for their diverse-aware publisher, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, Garland pointing out that it is “so wonderful” to have a publisher who understands your work. And working as a team with the editor and designer was cited as a key aspect of the successful outcome of the writing/illustrating journey. Asquith also paid tribute the Letterbox Library, for their excellent work in distributing books that tell stories of diverse lives.
Overall, a fascinating discussion from three major exponents of the successful representation of diversity in children’s picture books – a most relevant exploration of the conference theme – ‘the right to be included and the barriers that must be overcome’.
Kay Waddilove is a PhD student at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, based at Roehampton University. She is currently researching the representations of motherhood in children’s books of the 1950s.
Photos provided by Fen Coles, co-director of Letterbox Library. Letterbox Library has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2015 by IBBY UK for their work as a specialist children’s bookseller celebrating equality and diversity.