'We need to convince publishers and booksellers that there is a wide market for inclusive books.’
Mark Jennett is a British trainer, consultant and writer specializing in equality and diversity. He has worked with the Sex Education Forum on the subject of training, funded by the Department for Education, to support primary and secondary schools in addressing homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic bullying, provided equality and diversity training to non-profits and libraries across England and is the author of the National Union of Teachers’ Getting EVERYONE Reading for Pleasure resource, which helps schools use literature to combat social exclusion and to raise educational standards.
What does a reading promoter do?
I work with schools, and think with them about how to use books as a means of talking about feelings, encouraging empathy and affirming all identities. I also encourage everyone to read for pleasure. I share books that include a range of identities, that challenge stereotypes and promote inclusion. I talk about how stereotypes concerning gender and race influence attitudes and how we can counter this.
Why do you think promoting inclusive books specifically is important?
Children need to see themselves and their families in the stories they read. Books help us to learn about identities that are different from ours and to see how much we all have in common. It’s very important that all children see different sexualities, ethnicities, abilities and identities in books, and characters should be presented in ways that challenge stereotypes and encourage empathy.
How do you promote inclusive books to an audience?
In any possible way I can! I give presentations, I work with groups of teachers and I’ve written many resources on books for younger children. Even when I’m talking about broader equality issues, I always try to include references to stories because they are such an effective means of promoting inclusion.
How do you select inclusive books to work with?
My first question is whether or not it’s a good story that will engage children or young people. The question of whether it has inclusive content or not comes after that.
I try to avoid tokenistic representation. It’s not unusual to find a picture book with disabled characters or same sex parents hovering in the background of a couple of illustrations, while all the ‘main’ characters are white, not apparently disabled and explicitly or presumed to be straight! That’s why I like to use a combination of books that put minorities front and centre. I call these ‘explicitly’ inclusive. It’s all part of making diverse identities seem the norm, rather than unusual or surprising.
I also look for books that challenge stereotypes. They might include characters that challenge conventional gender norms, or feature intersectional representations, or they might be about something other than the protagonist’s identity.
Finally, there are still many books that tend to view their protagonists’ ‘minority’ identities through the eyes of others. If you’re going to write a book about refugees, for example, then write it from their point of view, not that of an observer. We need to see the world through their eyes, rather than our own.
And where do you find these books?
Barefoot Books and Child’s Play are two publishers that have a really proactive approach to inclusion in children’s books. In the UK, Letterbox Library is a great source.
Have you come across bad examples?
I’m afraid so. In particular there are still many books that are sold as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’. This affirms gender stereotypes and prevents children from exploring different identities or activities – not to mention affirming a binary view of gender. However, I don’t believe in burning books! I do sometimes wish we could bury them all, if it weren’t for all the environmental problems that would cause. A more constructive approach is to critique them and encourage children to do the same. We can ask, ‘Is it really only boys who like science? Or only girls who like dancing?’ No, it isn’t – so let’s find a better book.
How do you think regular librarians and teachers could promote inclusive books more effectively?
Some already do a great job. But we still have a long way to go in helping people to recognize the stereotypes or lack of inclusiveness in a lot of children’s books. It’s important to find a balance between drawing attention to diverse titles and implying that they are primarily for a particular audience. Highlighting a book as being mainly of interest because of its gay or Black characters can be as unhelpful as labelling books as being ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’. It reinforces the idea that some books might be of interest only to readers who share those identities. While we all need more stories that affirm us, we can all read about everything.
What would it take for inclusive books to reach a broader audience?
It would help if all publishers and booksellers marketed inclusive books to a broad audience. At the same time, I think we need to encourage more debate about how much better the world could be if we could accept other people’s differences – and how stories are crucial in this.
We often try to ‘protect’ children from things like discrimination and prejudice by ignoring it or glossing it over – I actually think we need to do the opposite and point out how destructive it is for all of us, not just for the minorities it targets.
What resources can be used to create a set of good diverse books?
There are many resources out there, including mine! Start looking at publishers and booksellers who understand inclusivity. For example, you can search for specialist booksellers (London’s Gay’s The Word or Housmans Bookshop, for example), which focus on minority or radical titles. They will often have a good selection and can make recommendations.
What do you think needs to be done to stimulate inclusivity in the literary sector? What is missing?
There are still many titles that feel as if they have been produced to fill a gap in the market rather than to engage readers with great stories. We need to convince publishers and booksellers that there is indeed a wide market for these books among children. We need to educate schools and parents about the value of books that don’t affirm the status quo. Everyone needs to explore a range of books and we need to model diverse reading tastes while talking about different kinds of books.
What are some inclusive books you can recommend?
It’s hard to pick favourites but I will try.
- Jessica Love’s books, Julian Is A Mermaid and Julian At The Wedding, are joyous depictions of a child who is not bound by so-called gender norms.
- Harriet Gets Carried Away by Jessie Sima, Spacegirl Pukes by Katy Wilson and Vanda Carter and Sleeping Beauty by David Roberts and Lynn Roberts-Maloney are three great books in which LGBTQIA+ characters feature prominently but their identity is not the primary focus of the story.
- Planet Omar Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian. A very funny story about a boy who joyfully embraces his Muslim identity.
- Running On Empty by S. E. Durrant is a glimpse into the world of a child who cares for his disabled parents.
You can read more from Mark Jennett on https://www.promotingequality.com/writing-resources