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.
Finding yourself in a book: An overview of the 21st IBBY/NCRCL conference
By Sarah Pyke
In August this year, a wave of “hatred, threats and vitriol” was unleashed at Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, after she was misquoted by Sky News as saying that children’s books “have too many white faces” in them. (She didn’t actually say this, and Sky have since amended their headline.)
What she did say, however, was that “a very significant message…goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading”.
This year’s IBBY/NCRCL conference theme, “Belonging is… an exploration of the right to be included and the barriers that must be overcome”, was chosen well in advance of the Blackman/Sky News controversy.
But as IBBY’s Ann Lazim reminded us in her welcome, Blackman’s comments – and the torrent of abuse she received in response – only demonstrate yet again how vital it is that real attention is paid to issues of diversity and inclusion by academics, publishers, authors and readers.
“Diversity in publishing superhero” Anna McQuinn set the tone for much of the day with her impassioned and inspiring account of writing, editing and campaigning for diverse children’s books from the 1970s to the present.
The tone, in fact, was one-part weary frustration, to two-parts renewed fight, as less has changed than we might have hoped: “What are we still doing here in 2014?” was a running theme throughout the day.
Alex Strick of Inclusive Minds warned of the continuing dangers of tokenism and stereotype in depicting disabled characters.
Researcher Julia Hope spoke eloquently of the deep-rooted stigma which still adheres to the word ‘refugee’. Books such as Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth (from which we were treated to a virtuoso reading by Naidoo herself) can help children who may never have spoken of their own refugee backgrounds to their peers or teachers begin to articulate their experiences.
In the parallel session I attended, Marion Devons’s research into children’s books featuring Romany or gypsy children reveals that it wasn’t until 2008 that books with well-researched and realistic portrayals of modern gypsy children began to be published.
Books which make us feel real
We talk about ‘losing ourselves’ in a book. But every reader who is ‘different’ in some way to the culture they consume can remember the first time they found themselves, too.
For Anna McQuinn, it was Irish author Walter Macken’s Flight of the Doves. Romany storyteller Richard O’Neill found his truths in the stories he heard from his family.
Filipina children’s author Candy Gourlay (a hugely funny and energising speaker), who spent her childhood in Manila reading Peter and Jane Ladybirds, believed back then that Filipinos simply weren’t allowed to be in books.
In contrast, she assumed her young son, growing up with one brown-skinned parent and one white, in a “two-tone” London neighbourhood, would be correspondingly colour-blind. Until he came home from nursery with a drawing of their family in which Candy herself was the only one painted a fetching blue while he, his brother and father were Simpsons yellow.
Proof, if more were needed, that children are more attuned to difference than we might expect. And the consequences of reading non-diverse books are not only a corresponding decline of interest in reading as an activity, but measurable damage to self-esteem. We need books to match our realities. We need fiction to help us feel real.
McQuinn challenged us not only to think about and discuss these issues amongst ourselves, but to act: if we want more diversity in books for children, we need put our money where our mouth is. We need to demand those books. We need to buy them. And that’s why we need authors and illustrators like Sarah Garland, Roz Asquith, Mary Hoffman and Carol Thompson, who all spoke of their determined struggles to get diverse books into shops.
From the personal to the political
Each year, one of the strongest feelings of belonging I personally have is at the IBBY/NCRCL conference. I love being surrounded by people who take children’s books as seriously as I do.
What seems genuinely exciting and different this year is the current groundswell of grassroots activism around these issues, particularly visible on social media. (Check out the rather marvellous Storify of the day put together by NCRCL for starters.)
Cross-pollinating among the #IBBYBelong tweets were mentions of parallel campaigns #weneeddiversebooks and #everybodyin. There was fervent praise in almost every talk for the great work being done by Let Books Be Books, Inclusive Minds, Outside In World and Letterbox Library, among others.
As Beverley Naidoo commented in her powerful closing address, we’d gathered at Roehampton on 8 November because we believe in the power of stories to challenge inequality in society. This feels like a moment when we could turn the tide in favour of diverse and inclusive children’s books once and for all.
And in her rousing call to action, Anna McQuinn challenged us all to make sure we’re not having this conversation all over again in 2024. So, how we can make that happen? And are you in?
Sarah Pyke is a PhD student currently researching LGBTQ adults’ memories of childhood reading as part of the AHRC funded project, Memories of Fiction: An Oral History of Readers’ Life Stories. She is based within the NCRCL at the University of Roehampton. She blogs here and you can also find her on Twitter.
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.