The importance of diversity in children's books

From  Only You Can Be You  © 2019 by Tim Warnes

From Only You Can Be You © 2019 by Tim Warnes

…if we have only ever lived in a field of books that ignored the many cultures that make up this world, what an absolutely lonely and bare stretch of land that would be.
— Mahogany L. Browne

A hot topic in the world of children’s publishing today is diversity and inclusion - or lack thereof.

It’s an issue that has been at the forefront of my mind in recent months, as I am working on projects featuring human characters. I suppose it’s most apparent in picture books because of their visual nature; and yes, I agree that there is a problem.

Why's this so important? Well, aside from helping to give children a sense of identity (by seeing themselves reflected in the illustrations), they are like human sponges, absorbing information that will inform their subconscious and future social preferences. Research shows that the lack of exposure to racial diversity can negatively influence racial preference in children as young as babies. Conversely, by exposing and familiarising babies and young children to racial diversity through (amongst other things) books, we are providing an opportunity for positive, future societal change.

"The stories that children read at a young age tell them who matters and who doesn't matter, who's human and who isn't human," explains Philip Nel, professor of English at Kansas State University, adding, "A story doesn't have to tell us that explicitly. It can tell us that by failing to represent certain groups of people -- omission tells us that these groups of people are not important”. (Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books by Philip Nell.)

I am not well known for illustrating human characters (in that I’ve hardly ever had to), so from a professional point of view, it’s been a bit of a non-issue - until I was commissioned to illustrate I’m Going to give you a Bear Hug by Caroline B. Cooney (Zonderkidz 2016).

From  I’m Going to give you a Bear Hug!  © 2016 by Tim Warnes

From I’m Going to give you a Bear Hug! © 2016 by Tim Warnes

I felt trepidation - not only at my own limitations but also because of the debate around diversity in children’s books. What colour should the main character - a little boy - be? I toyed with illustrating a Black kid but was concerned that it might appear an act of tokenism (simply because I am not Black). But since I could only imagine him as our youngest son, Levi, I went with what was familiar. I mined my sketchbooks for drawings and illustrated him as a White pre-schooler, complete with Levi’s mop of tousled blonde hair.

It's said that writers should write what they know. Isn’t that the default for so many choices in life - to draw on our experiences, at the risk of sticking with the status quo? But as an illustrator, I have a responsibility to make sure that children of all colours get the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the books they read. It’s not enough for a White, middle-class male, brought up and still living in an ‘ethnically challenged’ environment (currently rural Dorset, England) to simply stick with what he knows best. It’s a cop-out.

Roll forward to today, when I am completing my art for Only You Can Be You, a celebration of us all being unique individuals. Happily it features kids of all kinds - different skin colours, different hair, different interests and personalities (artistic, athletic, sensitive and rambunctious kids). It has stretched me in many ways, and I have to say I am really, really pleased with it. I hope it will become regarded as a good example of an inclusive picture book.

But once it’s out there, it’s over to you - parents and carers, teachers and librarians - to consider the books that you share, and the values that we present to a future generation.

Only You Can Be You by Sally and Nathan Clarkson, illustrated by Tim Warnes will be published in the US by Tommy Nelson (Fall 2019).

From  The Snowy Day  © 1962 by Ezra Jack Keats - a childhood favourite of mine.

From The Snowy Day © 1962 by Ezra Jack Keats - a childhood favourite of mine.

Good to read

The New Small Person by Lauren Child (Puffin 2014)

So Much by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books 1994)

Leon and Bob by Simon James (Walker Books 2008)

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (Viking 1962)

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker Books 2018)

Yumi by Annelore Parot (Chronicle Books 2012)

Goodnight, Manger by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Jane Chapman (Zonderkidz 2015)

#mylifeinbooks #diversity #inclusion #equality #parenting #mahoganylbrowne #goodtoread #onlyyoucanbeyou #bearhug

Tim WarnesComment