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Transgender teens, blended families and feminism - the new breed of children's books

We ask experts about the move towards diversity on the bookshelves.

OVER ONE YEAR ago, two women came up with an idea: why not put together a children’s book celebrating the achievements of women worldwide?

Elena Favilli and Francesco Cavallo, co-founders of Timbuktu Labs, thought that the time was right to focus on the work women have done throughout history. Clearly, people agreed: their Kickstarter campaign for their book, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, raised a whopping $675,614, vastly exceeding their initial goal of just $40,000.

Good Night for Rebel Girls high res Penguin Penguin

The resulting book – which became the most-funded book in the history of crowdfunding – tells the story of 100 fascinating women, with each one accompanied by an illustration.

The publication is part of a new wave of children’s books that aim to bring diversity to the shelves, and show young people through their reading that when they grow up, they don’t have to be limited by gender, race, or anything else that marks them apart.

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“We felt that there was a gap in the market, because of course, working in children’s media, we’ve witnessed how children’s books and children’s media in general are so packed with gender stereotypes,” said Favilli.

She and Cavallo had founded Timbuktu in 2012 in part because ”in general children’s media tend to be very conservative for some reason”.

In Good Night Stories, they wanted to feature as many countries as possible, and as many fields as possible. Said Cavallo, “we looked for women from countries that are not usually represented in children’s media, because children’s media don’t just lack diversity in terms of gender”.

“They also lack diversity in terms of race… or usually diversity, when in the real cases where this group is represented it is represented as otherness,” she explained. “Which we don’t feel for children that fall in the ‘other’ category is very cool.”

“We always say that the experience of writing this book about these incredible women was empowering in itself,” said Favilli. “Because spending time with them and then researching their stories and then finding their voice, it was an incredible experience and it was made in such a short amount of time that it really felt an inspiring and empowering.”

What we hope that this book will allow, especially for girls, is, we usually quote one of the women in the book which is the Chinese astronomer: Wang Zhenyi, who says in one of her poems – because she was also a poet – she says that “daughters can also be heroic”, which is something that we love very much.

They want their message to be clear:

You don’t have to be a boy to make extraordinary things or adventurous things. You can be adventurous enough on your own.

New and old waves

The new wave of diversity doesn’t mean that writers have only just begun exploring feminist, LGBT or diversity issues.

One of the most noted books is Annie On My Mind, a young adult (YA) lesbian title by Nancy Garden, which was published in the US in 1982. It caused some controversy in 1993, after parents objected to it being available to high school students in Kansas. Copies of the book were burned during the controversy – a case over the removal of the book from the library eventually went to trial.

Many Irish schoolchildren will be familiar with books like Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry or To Kill A Mockingbird, classics which also explore the topics of race.

But today, the difference tends to be in how books with diverse themes are marketed – instead of being singled out as ‘other’, publishers are realising they can appeal to a broad audience. And instead of having characters of colour or who are LGBT being pushed to the sidelines, they are becoming the main protagonists in novels.

As one bookseller from Dubray Books explained:

Diverse books have been published for decades, they were just narrowly marketed and shelved in bookstores (African-American fiction, LGBT sections etc.). In YA, queer fiction often had to have a more mainstream approach (usually the coming-out theme) to appeal to a broad audience to justify publishing it, but that’s been changing in the last seven years since Ash by Malinda Lo was published, a YA lesbian retelling of Cinderella.

A look at the recent Irish children’s bestsellers shows some familiar names, like Peppa the Pig, Horrid Henry, and Where’s Wally?, but Maria Dickenson of Dubray Books, (who is currently Irish Bookseller of the Year) said she has noticed a recent new push towards bringing more diversity to children’s bookshelves.

“It’s something that started in fairness from the publishing industry in the last few years, a call for properly representing diversity within publishing, and it’s been very well-received generally,” she said.

“We’ve found the feminist-leaning books have been very much welcomed by parents who want to encourage their children with positive role models.”

‘It’s a very positive movement’

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One of the most popular books in recent years has been Wonder by RJ Palacio, about a young boy with a facial deformity. “Teaching kids about empathy, teaching them about inclusiveness, is something parents are keen to be doing,” said Dickenson, with a nod to this book. “Most kids are open to it.

“It’s a very positive movement – it’s not just gender balance, it’s sexuality for older kids, race, and there’s one book about wealth and a little boy who’s walking through a poor impoverished area with his grandmother and pointing out what everyone doesn’t have – called Last Stop on Market St [by Matt de la Pena].”

She said that one of the important parts of the whole process is having booksellers who “know their stuff and can guide parents”. Children’s books make up 25% of Dubray’s sales, up from 20% in recent years.

Some parents visit Dubray looking for a title to suit a child who has just come out, while others “want their child to be open-minded”, or see books as a way of helping children explore issues that affect them.

Dickensen said that the one area where they have to be particularly careful that the books they recommend are age-appropriate is with books with sexual content. These are usually housed in the Young Adult section.

“A lot of people are very tired of the pinks and blues,” said Dickenson of parents’ desire for books that aren’t sold along gender lines. “You get quite a lot of kickback from parents and a negative response to that. There would definitely be an appetite for broader-thinking titles.”

Murder most unladylike

robin+stevens Robin Stevens Penguin Penguin

Robin Stevens is the author of the Murder Most Unladylike series, which centres on young mystery-solving girls who attend a 1930s English boarding school. One of the characters, Hazel Wong, is from Hong Kong, while other characters across the series have been of varying sexual orientations.

Having diverse characters is something that Stevens has always seen as very important.

“I think partly it’s important to me because it’s something that is part of my own life,” she explained. “I went to school with people from all over the world.”

But she didn’t seen those friends represented in books “and it made me feel cross and that it was unfair, and I wanted to show what I thought was a more broad, realistic portrayal.”

But what do her readers think? “It’s a really nice mix – a lot of people, [for example] white kids say ‘I feel like Hazel’ and then they are responding to her characteristics – ‘I am like Hazel, I am bookish’.” She also gets readers who identify with Hazel because of her background or race.

For Stevens, the latest move towards more diversity in children’s book publishing is “incredible and exciting”, and she feels “there is endless room for it in books”. But she says that there’s also a need for publishers to publish authors who are themselves from varying backgrounds.

Books like Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry had an impact on the young Stevens. “I would have been interested in diversity without really knowing what it was,” she said. “I also wanted to read books about girls saving the day – I think there were less of those when I was a kid.”

Growing up reading the Famous Five, the idea of girls solving mysteries was natural to Stevens, but she wanted to show that you can “like fashion and also international spying and complex murder mysteries as well”.

“I try to write characters who have have strengths, weaknesses, flaws, issues,” she explained, adding that she writes about boys as well as girls, and “just really want[s] to show girls being strong.”

But she doesn’t just aim her books at one gender. Her hope is “that boys read books about girls and they know those people are proper human beings as well, and [are] able to think about them as being heroes.”

Stevens said she believes that the idea of books for ‘boys or girls’ has become more prevalent since she was a child. “We have gone backwards in a way in trying to say ‘that is specially for you’, and I think it’s reductive,” she said, acknowledging that while this can “done with the best of intentions”, it might not always be helpful.

When it comes to books and diversity, Stevens said “we need to notice the language we are using and try to check ourselves”.

And lest parents find the the process of book-buying even more stressful, Maria Dickenson of Dubray said that parents need not overly worry about the specific book their child is reading.

“As long as a child is reading I am happy,” she said. “Reading figures for kids are really positive, so on a broader scale I wouldn’t try and drag a child who isn’t interested in reading these books [into reading them]. If you force kids to read something they don’t want to read, that’s the quickest way to lose them.”

Recommendations from booksellers

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We asked booksellers at Dubray books what books they’d recommend for people interested in a diverse bookshelf for children. Here’s what a selection of their children’s booksellers recommended.

Demon Road by Derek Landy: Main character is a female, strong, independent and very admirable for girls, suitable for readers 12 and up (female character is also gay).

State of Grace by Rachel Lucas (coming out in April.):Grace has Asperger’s Syndrome, finds everyday life extra difficult and wishes for nothing more than a rule book to help her cope, perfect for readers 12+.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill: It’s for older teens but worth mentioning as this subject hasn’t been raised by any other author in any other book.

George by Alex Gino: About transgender where the female character feels more male than female. A really beautiful and emotional story for 12+

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (coming out in April): This is about a girl who is growing up in a family that has two sets of gay parents with both biological and adopted siblings. Illustrates how different families are today and there is no norm for a family. Perfect for 8+

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (due out in April): A young adult book written by an author of colour and deals with the Black Lives Matter movement.

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson (picture book): References two male penguins raising a baby penguin together, based on real-life male penguins in New York Central Park zoo.

The Pavee and the Buffer Girl by Siobhan Dowd: Brand new illustrated teen fiction about traveller children trying to integrate in school.

Pantomime by Laura Lam: Teen fantasy about a transgender teen living and working in the circus.

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury (board book): Shows all the little babies all over the world, and they each have ten fingers and ten toes, and shows that we are all the same.

Colin and Lee: Carrot and Pea by Morag Hood: Focuses on the unlikely friendship[ between a carrot, and a pea. It shows that even though sometimes your friends might be a bit different, you can still have fun in ways you never knew.

The Princess Who Had No Kingdom by Ursula Jones and Sarah Gibb (picture book): Perfect for parents who are really sick of princess books, and need a little empowerment.

I’m a Girl! by Yasmeen Ismail: Focuses on how girls can do things just as well as boys can, like running and winning races and generally being awesome.

Thank Goodness for Bob by Matthew Morgan and Gabriel Alborozo: A smashing picture book about anxiety and worry, and shows that worries are best shared with a friend who can make problems lighter.

Mango and Bambang by Polly Faber: This title deals with a very smart girl and a tapir she finds lost in NYC. It shows that friendship can kindle from the need for help, and also shows patience and tolerance when Bambang is not learning fast enough.

Wonder by RJ Palacio: This is about 11-year-old August who has a severe facial disfigurement, which has affected his health so much, he’s only now attending school for the first time. It deals with bullying, and making friends and the fear of the unknown. August’s voice of honesty makes this one book you should read whether you are 9 or 90.

Perijee and Me by Ross Montgomery: This title focuses on Caitlin who has no belief in herself and her abilities. Severely dyslexic and often left to her own devices, she finds a mysterious blob on the beach and stops to investigate, but when it turns into a little person and starts talking, Caitlin learns that she has so much to teach it, and so much to learn.

We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan: This teen title shows one of the main characters (Nicu) face racism and bullying because of his ethnicity and gives insight into his family hardships, while also the other main character Jess struggles with her feelings for someone who is meant to be an outsider.

It’s okay to be different by Todd Parr: A picture book for younger children about how it is okay to be different, whether that’s because you need a guide dog, have different coloured skin or have two mums or dads.

What do you think of this topic? And do you have any children’s books you’d recommend? Tell us in the comments.

Read: A spy novel set in Dublin during the 1940s Emergency chosen as this year’s One City One Book>

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