Why all representation in books is so crucial
Published on: 04 January 2024
At BookTrust, we know how key it is for children to see themselves, and a wide range of other children with different backgrounds and experiences, reflected in books.
For example, our research reveals that there are more books by and about people of colour than five years ago, but there is still work to do across all areas of inclusion. We asked The Swifts author Beth Lincoln to explain why it's so vital...
In a cramped corner of a library in the North of England, a 10-year-old child is reading. She's folded almost in half, her feet braced against the Early Readers shelf, her back against an aged radiator that leaves flakes of white enamel paint on her jumper like dandruff. Her bum is asleep and she's getting hungry, but her mind is far, far away from these physical worries. A girl in the book she's reading just slew a dragon - which was cool - but then she kissed another girl. That was allowed, apparently. She feels something like terror, and something like relief.
In a classroom in the East Midlands, a 9-year-old child has a book smuggled beneath the desk. He knows he should be concentrating on his teacher, but the kid narrating this book is describing some thoughts and feelings he thought only he had. How the world sometimes feels like it is happening all at once, and other times like it has stopped entirely, and how both states are equally difficult to bear. The reader is thinking of showing the book to his parents. It might help him explain the way he feels.
In a living room in London, an 8-year-old is trying very hard to read despite the outraged bellows of her little sister, mid-tantrum in the next room. To be fair, it's not the toddler's fault. She doesn't know her big sister has found their new favourite fantasy series, one with a South Asian girl like them as the protagonist, and that in a few short years they will be reading chapters together before bed. Her big sister will always do the voices.
Why representation isn't just a trend
'Representation is important' has become a sort of slogan in the past few years. For someone only familiar with the movement towards inclusivity in children's literature via hashtags and marketing, maybe it all seems performative, or 'politically correct' – I'm saying 'maybe' here, but in truth people have told me to my face that they don't understand why all this effort is being put into diversifying children's literature. And if they haven't told me that they think it's silly to my face, they've written articles about it.
But representation IS important. I'm a storyteller by trade, and I offer the examples above to try and communicate what exactly it is representation does for children.
The books we read as children shape us. They help us understand the world, which is a big place, and not exactly user-friendly. Sometimes these books offer us affirmation, reflecting our families, our cultures, our environment; other times, they introduce truths about ourselves that we weren't yet aware of, unexpected thrills of recognition.
Both are vital to kids as they begin to understand who they are, who they could be. The curse of growing up is forgetting. Adults don't always remember how fragile our identities were as children, when we were new here and full of questions and doubts and prejudices and lack of information. Fiction at this age nourishes us. It gives us the things we need to grow big and strong.
How representation can help to build empathy
It's not just about self-realisation, either. Let's say the kid in the North of England with the numb bum has a pile of books next to her, ready to check out. They are about, amongst other things: a Black schoolgirl with superpowered hair, an autistic girl working through her changing family dynamics, a Chinese-American girl providing shelter to undocumented immigrants at her family's motel, and a non-binary child fighting against the gendered school system.
Each of these books offers a perspective totally different from her own, perhaps touching on themes she has absolutely no real-world experience of. That, too, is nourishing.
The greater the diversity of children's books available, the more opportunity there is for everyone to learn more about each other, to understand their joys and struggles, to empathise.
Art is the great empathy-maker. A book isn't just a mirror, but a window (as Dr Rudine Sims Bishop put it).
Change is happening
The girl in the library, by the way, isn't me. I was an adult when those books came out. But amongst my many traits I am queer, and that moment of discovery I described at the beginning, of finding people like me in a book? That was real. I know I could have done with more moments like that.
My book The Swifts came about through Penguin RandomHouse's 2017 WriteNow programme, which aims to find underrepresented writers and offer them a chance at mentorship and publication. The Swifts isn't about being queer, though there are many queer characters in it, but it is about identity.
Shenanigan Swift, our protagonist, is born into a family where everyone is named after a word in the Family Dictionary. It is assumed they will grow up to match their definition in some way; therefore, Shenanigan is destined to cause chaos and trouble forever.
When she isn't searching for the lost treasure of her murderous Grand-Uncle Vile, or trying to catch whoever shoved her Aunt Schadenfreude down the stairs, Shenanigan is worrying about how much control she has over the course of her life, and if she gets a say in who she grows up to be. Like most children, she is struggling to assert her identity before she has totally figured out what it is.
The experience of being part of WriteNow has changed my life. The scheme has introduced some extremely talented children's authors: Rashmi Sirdeshpande, an absolute powerhouse of a children's writer, came up through the programme, and graduate Nazneen Ahmed Pathak has her incredible debut City of Stolen Magic out now.
Publishing in general is slow to change, and the market fears risk. But that change is happening. Over time, more books will reflect the kids who read them, and every child will get to feel those moments of joy, of recognition, of understanding and of empathy that nourish them as they grow.
The Swifts by Beth Lincoln, illustrated by Claire Powell, is out now.