At the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education we’ve just held a conference. Curated by Farrah Serroukh and coming from the perspectives she has set out in her article about the importance of seeing oneself in literature, we decided we would use this conference to discuss how ‘British Values’ can be explored through children’s literature and how we can ensure that we are truly reflecting the realities of all the children in our classrooms.
We had a range of people in the audience: teachers and leaders from schools across England, academics, librarians, publishers, charities, authors and poets. Speakers and workshop leaders were drawn from a range of disciplines and age groups and included thinkers such as Miranda McKearney from Empathy Lab and Verna Wilkins from Firetree Books. The day covered a range of topics from neuroscience and psychology to personal stories and research. We looked at the importance of story and literature to identity and reading and talked about book stock in schools and how transformational texts can change the way in which children think and feel about themselves.
Four authors (Candy Gourlay, Catherine Johnson, Atinuke and Anthony Anaxagorou) led workshops around their writing process and Elizabeth Laird spoke about the research behind her newest book Welcome to Nowhere. There was so much to be positive about, not least a rousing performance from the much-loved Floella Benjamin whose own story is told in her important book Coming to England and who eloquently describes the importance of story, self-belief and confidence to her success. And yet we do have an anxiety about the day. More than ten years ago CLPE and the Arts Council hosted a conference with almost identical themes. Fenn Coles and Kerry Mason from Letterbox Library posed this very question in their session with Verna – Why are we still here? Why are we still having conversations about a worrying lack of representation of a range of cultural backgrounds, voices and perspectives in children’s literature and why are we still having debates about whether or not that matters?
The reasons are manifold and complex. Whilst we are asking the same questions we are probably asking them for a different purpose. Whereas our starting point used to be making sure we were showing ‘diversity’ and tolerance, now we need to make sure we are offering representation – of the full range of backgrounds in our schools and libraries – and fostering mutual respect. We need our children to have access to stories that do engender sympathy for others, but more than that, help them to have an empathetic response which, when possible, translates into action. As the work of Miranda McKearney and Empathy Lab shows, the importance of empathy as a skill relevant to achievement and mental health is now well researched, understood and documented. Elizabeth Laird said “When children read my books, I want them to say “I want, I need, I can, I must.”
Children need to see themselves in stories – representation makes children believe they are included, it says this world of reading and books is for you and you are part of it. And this is also why we need to make sure we have authors, poets, illustrators from a range of backgrounds and perspectives – it is both about seeing yourself in a book but also seeing yourself as a creator – both worlds are open to everyone. The poet Anthony Anaxagorou spoke at our conference about his message to the young people he works with: “These words exist and you have a right to them”.
We are further forward than ten years ago but the challenge now is to make sure that we are ensuring the literature that our children encounter is truly reflective, not tokenistic. We talked a lot on the day about the publishing industry, about how it is necessarily an industry driven by market forces and by the economics of big retailers and celebrity authors. So, in schools we need to realise we have the collective capacity to create the demand. If all 20,000 plus primary schools are asking for things other than the Tesco or Amazon Best Sellers then we would surely create a market.
In all our work at CLPE we believe that the books that our children have access to need to reflect the reality of our world, and that world is complex. So the books need to reflect the complexity rather than diluting it. Candy Gourlay wrote about the day: “Authors creating story may dress their characters up in hijabs and what have you, but it’s the soul of the character that matters. In a well-written book, you can hear the character’s heart beating.” And this surely, is the point. If you hear a beating heart – be that in a historical context, a sci-fi novel or a picture book – you will identify with it as a real character, a being with whom you have something in common. You go so much further than merely ‘tolerating’ difference.
All photos Michael Thorn.