Last week, the World Book Day selection committee in the UK announced their titles for 2017—and they have spent this week defending them.
The event, for those who don’t know, is held yearly in the UK, and originally started as a parallel event to UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day, held annually on Shakespeare’s birthday (23rd April). The UK event has since been moved to March, but it continues to promote reading through offering several choices of £1 books (for which most school children are given a book token anyway, making the books free for many). The choices are at various reading levels (so, this year there are pre-school choices and choices for KS1, KS2 and KS3 level readers) but otherwise are quite random; one of the joys of World Book Day is that one might get a £1 book from any author, and it may be the only time that particular story (the books are usually fairly short) is printed
So I was disappointed this year, along with many other people, to find that the World Book Day selections contained very little in the way of diversity. Peppa Pig, Where’s Wally?, and Horrid Henry, and the Famous Five provide familiar characters—all of them white (well, except for the pigs) and decidedly middle class, and none of them books that will in any way challenge the status quo. Of course there’s nothing wrong with books about middle-class white British people (or pigs), and I’m sure many children will enjoy the selections. But for a young BAME reader who is looking for something that reflects their own experience, they will not find it in this selection.
David Almond’s book is the only one on the list that clearly indicates the inclusion of a major character who is not white British, and I’m looking forward to reading it (especially because its setting, Lindisfarne Island, is one of my favorite places in the world). But Hassan is not the book’s protagonist; rather he is someone who “fascinates” the central character Louise because of the mystery and danger surrounding him, according to the World Book Day information pages (http://www.worldbookday.com/book/island/).
I am not arguing that David Almond, or any of the other authors for that matter, should have included more or more central BAME characters. I would certainly rather see well-written books about middle-class white children than books that try to be “inclusive” without any kind of thought or effort or understanding of what they are trying to include. This only leads to tokenism—the sidekick friend who brings chapattis for lunch, or the outsider immigrant who is “saved” from isolation by the kindness of the white protagonist or adult. I have my own personal concerns about some of the attitudes that these books embrace, but I do not particularly want to single out individual selections for criticism.
Because the point is not about the individual selections, but about the group selection. White faces on the covers, white main characters, white authors. Nikesh Shukla, the editor of the new and important The Good Immigrant, told Charlotte Eyre of The Bookseller that voracious readers are made “by design not accident” (http://www.thebookseller.com/news/wbd-defends-selection-after-lack-diversity-claims-393726). That design, for any child, includes books that are comfortable and books that are challenging; books that reflect their own existence and books that teach them about the existence of others. For me growing up in the US, that meant Corduroy and Bedtime for Frances, Little Women and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. We didn’t have World Book Day, but we had Scholastic Book Club, which offered (and still offers) cheap paperback editions of books for schoolchildren, and all of these books were part of their repertoire at one time or another. Groups that are trying to get books at low- or no-cost into children’s hands have a responsibility to think about the wide audience that they are trying to serve.
WBD director, Kirsten Grant, argued that the lack of diversity in the 2017 book selection was not the fault of the selection committee. “Each year, publishers are invited to nominate their authors to write a £1 World Book Day book,” she told the Bookseller. If publishers don’t offer it, they can’t include it. Perhaps that is true—but is it not then the WDB selection committee’s responsibility to encourage the publishers to offer a broader selection? There are clearly guidelines for the books they do consider in terms of length and (to some extent) content (“age appropriate” in some way). There are books at each level with boy and girl protagonists, so clearly that is a consideration. I don’t know how they approach the publishers, but I’m guessing that if they simply added in a line to their invitation to submit a book saying, we are looking for books that represent the broad range of experiences and cultures found in the UK (or something similar), the number of books with BAME characters (and maybe even authors) they had to choose from would increase. It would be nice, of course, if they didn’t have to do this—it would be nice if publishers sought out these authors and books more often on their own, not just for World Book Day but for their own lists. But merely saying, oh, publishers didn’t send us anything good is not enough. Because everyone involved in the children’s book industry is responsible for encouraging and embracing books for all children.
I happened to be in the UK for World Book Day in 2003, and was so excited that one of the selections was Malorie Blackman’s An Eye for an Eye. To me, the selection summed up the best of British literature: it was high-quality fantasy that both challenged and absorbed readers, accessible to its reading level without being dumbed down. It also happened to deal with issues of race and racism. Not every book that WBD offers will do all (or even most) of what Blackman can do. But more of them can—and should.