Multicultural is not about difference but inclusion - why the children's book world has to be a coat of many colours

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, my son came home from kindergarten proudly waving a drawing of our family. He'd drawn himself, his dad and his siblings with bright yellow skin. And mummy? He drew me with BLUE skin.

Clearly, he'd noticed that mummy was a different hue from the rest of the family. And there was nothing wrong with that.

I am pleased to report, as my husband and I approach our 25th wedding anniversary next week,
that the growing up years of our multi-coloured, multi-cultured family have been full of happiness.


So I was rather taken aback when a few years ago, politicians began to mention multiculturalism with their noses tied into knots, as if there was a bad smell in the room.

"We do think that the previous policy... of multiculturalism, which on the whole emphasised the differences between people, was a mistaken route," said one minister on a news programme.

If we are no longer to acknowledge difference, does that mean we need to all be the same? And who's to say what 'the same' should be?
No Once Upon a Time for people who looked like me
When I visit schools I tell children the story of how I grew up reading books about blonde children who lived in houses with white picket fences and lawns like green handkerchiefs - nothing like my noisy, bustling home in hot, sweaty Manila on the edge of a slum in the Philippines.

This was a time when most books in the Philippines were imported from America.

And the more I read - about places and people in a land I'd never been to -  the more I began to believe that my own story was not worthy of appearing on the pages of a book.

When I fell in love with reading, I fell in love with writing. I wanted to write books. But it was clear to me that this was not meant to be.

How could I presume to think that I could ever be published when it was clear that books were the preserve of pink-skinned people? There were no authors who looked like me, and there were no characters who even vaguely resembled me.

I think the point of multiculturalism is not about emphasising difference, as feared by terrorism-spooked politicians - it's about making sure everyone's INCLUDED.


Recently I read a fascinating discussion on the blog of Lee and Low, the US publisher devoted to producing multicultural children's books with the slogan 'About Everyone. For Everyone.'

Lee and Low quoted from census data that showed despite 37 per cent of the US population being people of colour, the number of multicultural books published for children had not kept pace.

'The needle has not moved,' the blog said. Here's the infographic created by Lee and Low to illustrate the point:

Click on the image to see in full

When Lee and Low asked academics, authors, librarians and educators and reviewers why this could be so, the reasons perceived were multifarious. Here is a selection of their opinions - you can read the whole article here:

  • "There may be a perception among some teachers and others whose job it is to connect children and books that “multicultural books” are only for or mainly for so-called minorities, rather than for all children." Dr Rudine Sims Bishop, Ohio State University

  • "With the shift from backlist to frontlist, and from school and library markets to blockbuster-craving bookstore markets, fewer authors of colour have been able to secure contracts." Nikki Grimes, poet and author

  • "I worry that publishers look for established white authors whose books they know will sell, rather than take a chance on a new author whose engagement with a particular culture may be more nuanced, more real. But how will editors know that if they don’t know much about the culture? What if something doesn’t seem “real” to them, but it really is real to the culture?" Dr. Sarah Dahien, St. Catherine University

  • "...there’s the creation standpoint. How many authors or illustrators are people of color? How many editors? How many folks in marketing and sales?" Betsy Bird, School Library Journal


Betsy Bird's question struck a chord with me. WHO are writing books?

It took me a long time to give myself permission to write stories because I didn't believe someone like me and stories like mine had a place in the book world. But when I finally did begin writing, I discovered that the main barrier to publication was craft - I had to learn how to write.  But nobody ever said I wasn't allowed.

I am not saying that these barriers don't exist.

Publishing houses do need to make more of an effort to recruit diverse staff, editors do need to take chances on multicultural heroes and authors do need to cast beyond the comfort of their experiences.

But I think the bottleneck also comes from within. I think there are writers of colour out there who are not putting their stories forward.

I should know, I didn't give myself permission to write until I was in my forties.

When I visit schools and meet children who are passionate about writing, there is no colour divide. Children of all colours and backgrounds exhibit the same enthusiasm and joy in authoring stories.

At what point do these future authors stop believing that they can have a place in the book world?

At what point do these future authors stop believing that they can have a place in the book world?


Last week Malorie Blackman, speaking at the SCBWI conference, described how teachers discouraged her from writing because black girls don't become authors.

It was her own determination and sheer bloodymindedness that has led to where she is now: the author of over 50 books - and the current Children's Laureate.

I wish someone could take a snapshot of children's book demographics today so that we can measure the Malorie effect. Think of how many young writers are going to be inspired by her example!

As an author I have visited schools where the children raise their hands to tell me they have Filipino friends and neighbours. I have also visited schools where the children tell me they have servants who are Filipinos, nannies and housekeepers.

I like to think that meeting an author who isn't pink-skinned will result in the same thing: children giving themselves permission to become whoever they want to be ... and children giving other children who are not like them permission to step out of the usual boxes.

When I am asked for an author biography, I make sure it says:  'Candy Gourlay is a Filipino author living in London ...' And though I hate, hate, hate having my photograph taken, I think it's important that my face appears next to mentions of my book. I want the readers to see ... if someone who looks like me can write a book, then it must be okay.

Because I know what it's like to open a book and never see yourself.

This is a screenshot of a chapter I wrote for Beyond Folktales, Legends and Myths: a Rediscovery of Children's Literature in Asia


Having said all that ... I have recently read many terrific books for children and teenagers populated by characters of all hues. Here are just a few to add to your Christmas shopping lists (some of these texts are cut and pasted from my reviews on Amazon):

Sawbones by Catherine Johnson. Our hero is a freed Jamaican slave who become's a surgeon's apprentice - but hold your rolling eyeballs, anybody who thinks this means a lecture on race and justice. Because our hero Ezra MacAdam's origins are by-the-by in this pacy crime thriller that begins and ends with all manner of corpses, and not just that, 18th century anaesthetic-free amputations with bone saws and body bits everywhere ... an adventure, a history, a comment on society. 9 plus.

Blackberry Blue and other Fairy Tales by Jamila Gavin. A beautiful hardback with gorgeous, gorgeous illustrations by Richard Collingridge. These are European fairy tales repurposed with diverse characters in Jamila Gavin's elegant style. 7 plus and for reading aloud to younger children.

Don't take my word for it - have a look at this beautiful page:

The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean. A girl named Comity - named so by parents who believe in the 'comity of nations' though they live in a telegraph outpost far away from civilization in the Australian outback, alongside racist farmhands. When her mother dies and her father retreats in grief, Comity is left to fend for herself with only Fred, the aborigine boy as an ally. But how can Fred help when he becomes the target of increasingly brutal behaviour by the other characters on the station? Things get worse and worse for Comity and it's hard to guess how she could possibly disentangle her sorry story. Achingly good writing. 10  plus.

My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish by Mo O'Hara. The madcap adventures of a best friends Mark and Pradeep and a revenge-mad zombie goldfish make for an unputdownable, guffaw-out-loud, snort-up-your-milk, flashlight-under-the-covers adventure. Parents, be warned. This book will make readers out of your young children. Highly recommended! 7 plus.

More Than This by Patrick Ness. It begins with a boy named Seth, drowning. Seth awakens in the suburban town where he grew up, deserted, with suggestions that something apocalyptic has happened. Then he discovers there are others hiding in the houses - a mouthy, black girl who knows more than she lets on and a small Polish teenager who doesn't remember how he got to England. 15 plus.

Half Lives by Sara Grant. I finished reading this in the middle of the night and was so gripped by the thrill of it that I immediately fired up the laptop and wrote a review on Amazon. The meticulous plotting of its jigsaw, with each piece falling into place in immensely satisfying twists and turns is just BREATHTAKING. Sara Grant's construction of her future world is audacious and at times laugh out loud funny ... but I do not want to risk spoiling anyone's enjoyment by saying too much. 12 plus.

Numbers by Rachel Ward. This has been out for a few years now but somehow it didn't make it to the top of my to read pile until recently. the story moves beyond the spine-chillingly brilliant premise - which, I for one, thought was masterful - to a thoughtful examination of two lives on the periphery. Matter of fact Jem and bouncy, lanky Spider, aromatic with BO, are appealing characters and though their stories are bleak, there were moments of sweetness and there was something uplifting about their innocence against the overwhelming odds that they were born into. It's a journey story, and though the ending is inevitable there is a delicious twist at the very end. It's Romeo and Juliet without the long speeches and the sappy love stuff. And it leaves you thinking - about fate, about love, about whether life is ever fair. I loved it. Bravo, Rachel Ward. 14 plus.

You might also want to read my blog post in October 2011 Finding the Unmistakeable I Am - how Snow Geese author William Fiennes helps young writers find their voice through the literacy charity First Story