General

Not A Kids’ Game

Most who write fiction were at some point in their lives probably struck by lightning. There was no overarching plan: they merely found they were hit with some (what they consider a great) idea, and eventually they just ran with it. As I’ve previously discussed here (somewhat humorously), I was one of those:

Okay, you really wanna know? One morning, I was listening to that “1973” song of Blunt’s on my iPhone for about the 247th time and I thought, ‘He’s too young to remember that year. Hell, even I don’t!’ Ah, but how about circa “1993?” Bingo! My brain shifted forward into a fictionalized historical memoir type thing….

I was also one of those who had toiled in academia. For over a decade, I tore apart others’ works. They were mostly research books, history/non-fiction, but, still, they were others’ works.

However, some were also fiction.

Since I starting writing novels in 2012-2013, I have discovered it is decidedly another experience to be the one who is actually doing the creating. The one aspect of my writing about which I am now uncompromising is this one: NOBODY lectures me as to what characters to write and how they should be presented. I am the writer. I DECIDE.

[Photos by me, 2018.]

On the other hand, I do believe that children’s books – what are given to impressionable pre-teens – are somewhat different. They do require standards and critiques beyond what an adult book might reasonably warrant. That youthful, still innocent, audience is not capable yet of understanding wider life contexts.

As you may recall, a few weeks ago I had a forthright exchange in my comments on here with another writer (of adult books) over bigoted language in a famous 1930s-40s children’s books series. I was absolutely unflinching that wording she considered mild and innocuous was in fact racist and inappropriate to shove at pre-teens – which could include black children. Ultimately, she unfollowed me.

That was that. This is rather something else and it bothers me because it speaks to the basics of content. I’m pleased I’m not a children’s author:

[Screen capture of the BBC web site.]

I clicked through to that “charity’s” – The Centre for Literacy and Primary Education – site for this summary of the survey’s main three findings:

  • There were 9115 childrens books published in the UK in 2017. Of these only 391 featured BAME characters
  • Only 4% of the childrens books published in 2017 featured BAME characters
  • Only 1% of the childrens books published in the UK in 2017 had a BAME main character

In British current social terminology, “BAME” is the generally accepted acronym for the rather awkward expression “Black And Minority Ethnic” – which covers, well, pretty much everyone here in Britain not white or otherwise European.

[Screen capture of the CLPE web site.]

One of survey’s “steering committee” shares this reaction to the findings:

Seeing observations like those, especially the “chiding” there of writers, and – even worse – this that follows…

…led me again to wonder about this issue. Presumably that survey is of children’s books featuring human characters.

How many kids’ books published feature primarily non-human characters?

Such “guidelines” now becoming increasingly commonplace, how many children’s authors have just opted out and simply avoid writing main characters who are humans? After all, given that extensive “to do” list you as a writer are supposed to take on board if you write human kids/characters, if you instead don’t even bother to portray them, well, there’s no need then to worry about facing government-funded critiques of, and “requests” as to what should be, the “representativeness” of their races, their religions, and so on. It must be a lot easier to write books centering around space aliens and furry animals…

Noting all of that does not mean I am arguing that the issue presented in that survey is not of importance. In a classroom situation, it is entirely understandable. However, based on the sense I get that most writers try to write about “what they know best” in order to make the most positive literary impact possible, the simplest way for there to be more BAME books for kids is obviously if more BAME writers write them and more publishers publish them.

But to “recommend” to authors – any authors – what to write is (in my humble opinion) over the line.

Books are now global much like television/film and popular music. However, much like TV/film and music, reading is also sharply divided by genre and taste. No writer can write for everyone.

Nevertheless I try to write as accessibly as possible for anyone, anywhere, who can read English and is interested in the subject matter. I suppose as a result I have been rewarded to learn I have had readers from not only in the US, Britain, and France, and elsewhere in Europe, but also in South America, India, and the Middle East – Lebanon, especially – and other places. I gather regardless of “who is on the pages,” it still rings true to them:

[Excerpt from Distances. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Such globalism applies of course also to children’s books. As we all also know by now, the most widely read children’s book around the world of the last half-century, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was rejected by a bunch of British publishers before one was finally willing to publish it. Insofar as I am aware – because I’ve never read it – that story contains no major BAME characters.

Yet every children’s author, regardless of ethnic background or country, of course secretly desires to write another gazillion-selling Harry Potter, and every children’s book publisher sure as heck dreams of publishing it.

Interestingly, a “3 second” Instagram search turns up “Muslim Children’s Books UK.” There seem to be LOTS of kids’ books on there. I have no idea about their quality, etc., but I’m sure the likes of that site could be only the tip of the iceberg.

Naturally writers may choose to “write to order” if they so wish, but writers on the whole don’t exist to propagandize world-views to suit academics’ and publishers’ “requests.” (“We need some ethnic kids, gimme some ethnic kids…”) We aren’t about following fads, conventions (no pun intended), or being “politely” lectured on how we “should” observe our ever-changing world.

Quite the opposite. Based probably to varying degrees on what we ourselves have personally experienced, we are the ones where this all starts: we blaze the trails and describe the new. There are more books out here now than ever before and their numbers continue to grow. To any claim there’s some “alarming” shortage in this or that genre, or of books written by “this type” of person, or for “that audience,” I can only wonder where that claimaint has not been looking.

Have a good Monday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

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