Rabbits and mice and bears (oh my!)
Recently, as I was driving through the country lanes, a weasel ran in front of me.
It gave the impression of someone swiftly pulling a frankfurter across the road on an invisible string to their hiding place in the hedge. You don't often get the chance to see a weasel in real life. (I've only ever seen them a handful of times.) And for all the talk about diversity in kid lit, neither do you get to see them in picture books very often.
Why is that, I wonder? We all agree we need more diversity in other ways - so why not in all the characters represented? It came up in conversation with a friend of mine - the creative director of a children's publishing house. He mentioned that, as a company, they were trying to publish more diverse books. It turned out he meant concerning the animal characters featured in their picture books (because they're already pretty good at representing different groups of people).
As with most companies, commissions are determined from the outset by the sales team, who are focussed solely on - you guessed it - sales. Their job is to determine what the customer wants and deliver it. There's a bit of wiggle room (I know they are open to persuasion), but basically what they say goes. Thus we find ourselves with a proliferation of animals that they know Joe Public will respond to - bears (of course), rabbits, moles and (perhaps surprisingly) mice.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. My book, DANGEROUS!, came about partly as a reaction to this status quo. So, too, the rhino family that I created for NO! by Tracey Corderoy. Rhinos were not invited to the official casting couch - but I was determined to illustrate something other than yet another bear or rabbit family. I argued that there were enough books featuring bears and that rhinos would stand out from the crowd. My conviction and developmental art eventually persuaded the editorial team to get behind me. Between us, we managed to convince sales to take a gamble. The resulting picture book, NO!, was successful enough to become the first in the Archie series. It's true, they’re great stories that Tracey wrote, covering themes that parents know only too well. But I can't help feeling that the fact they are rhinos helps them get noticed.
The same goes for Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's Gruffalo.
Jill Murphy’s elephants, the Large family.
the art director and I weren't minimising the more significant debate surrounding diversity in kid lit. Of course, children should be able to see themselves - and other groups of people - represented in positive ways in their books.
It's just a shame we all took so long to take any action.
As Jill Coleman of BookTrust explains:
“The world that children's books represents has a huge impact on how young readers see themselves and the world around them and on their aspirations for the future.”
So, yes - the issue of more variety in the animal characters represented may appear trifling in comparison - but it is important (if only for the sanity of those of us working in the industry!).
Back to the dearth of weasels in picture books. I'm pleased to say that this autumn sees the release of A Little Bit Worried by Ciara Gavin, illustrated by myself (Little Tiger Press). True, it also features a mole. But the main character is a weasel (as the author intended). I was excited and grateful to get the chance to illustrate one - but again, sales took some convincing.
I guess weasels do have quite a bad rep where they are depicted in children's books. Sinister, duplicitous little creatures. My weasel character is poised to buck the trend.
But I'll save that for another day.