If books are mirrors, where are our reflections?

By Candy Gourlay

I posted this on my Facebook Page on 2 March 2017

What happens if you’ve never seen yourself in a mirror and only ever gaze out a window?

We all say that books should be, not just windows to other worlds but mirrors reflecting the reader’s own experience. Yesterday, I was one of the featured authors in a teacher conference focused on the idea of books as mirrors – Reflecting Realities: British Values in Children’s Literature organised by the very excellent CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education).

I was astonished to see the word ‘Diversity’ carefully being avoided.

‘We chose “Reflecting Realities” instead,’ said Farrah Seroukh, CLPE’s learning programme leader, ‘because the word ‘Diversity’ presumes the notion of diversifying from a normative standard.’

A frame from one of the slide presentations quoting from the fantastic Carnegie winner ONE, which tells the story of conjoined twin sisters.

I had never thought of it that way, even though I have been widely designated a ‘Diverse Author’, by virtue of being someone who was not born in the UK, and regularly invited to speak on Diversity panels. I had not thought that being diverse might mean, ‘not normal’.

Here I am in my shiny school visit top with the brilliant CLPE team (left to right): Charlotte Hacking, Ann Lazim and Farrah Seroukh

Keynotes included Miranda McKearney who has written that ‘writers are the authors of empathy’; Baroness Floella Benjamin whose memoir Coming to England, written 20 years ago, is now being rediscovered by the public (‘It has taken Coming to England 20 years to become Book of the Week’); and Elizabeth Laird, author of many children’s books set in other cultures such as The Garbage King.

Here I am, right, fan-girling with Floella Benjamin
(Photo: Keith Taylor).
Floella’s performance – it definitely was a performance –was heart-rending and inspiring. She addressed the teachers in the audience as the ‘Chosen Ones’ and commanded them to consider it their duty to make sure no child ever felt unworthy.

She ended by singing a few lines from the song ‘Smile’ in a soaring, husky voice ... what a hard act to follow!

Elizabeth Laird (signing books below) travelled extensively in Syria to research her new book Welcome to Nowhere. Her publisher Macmillan is donating 50 pence for every hardback sold to the Mandala Trust, a charity supporting Syrian children in Jordan.

Relaxing and eating fruit with Catherine Johnson (Sawbones, The Curious Tale of the Lady Carabou) and Atinuke, author of the wonderful Anna Hibiscus books. Photo: Fen Coles

We are of course just two weeks shy of the day the UK’s librarians woke up to their own #CarnegieSoWhite moment a la #OscarsSoWhite. While the Carnegie longlist had a good diversity of settings and characters, the authors themselves were all white. When I read the Guardian headline ‘All White Carnegie Medal Longlist Provokes Anger From Children’s Authors’, I was horrified.

To be honest, I felt protective towards the librarians because so much of my career has been built on being championed by librarians up and down the country. In an ideal world, judging books based on the colour of the author’s skin would be totally bonkers, wouldn’t it? But this is not an ideal world. A completely white list – especially in a year when BAME (Black and Minority Ethic) books have been making a big splash in other prize lists – begs many questions ... and the controversy was mentioned many times during the course of the day. Read this clear-eyed response from one librarian.

In my session, I told the story of how I never saw myself in the books I loved when I was growing up. But after hearing Floella’s own account of not just being absent from the literature she read, but being bullied and violently rejected by the society she lived in, I realised my privilege of having grown up in a society where I was the norm, having arrived in England as a confident adult. Though most of us speakers at the conference were not pink of skin, none of us shared the same story – while Floella experienced the worst of British racism when she arrived from Trinidad, Atinuke, author of the wonderful Anna Hibiscus books, had a happy Nigerian upbringing, Catherine Johnson grew up in North London attending Welsh Chapel, while I grew up under the regime of a tinpot dictator in the Philippines. Which was the conference’s point, really. (If you haven’t yet, do watch the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie’s groundbreaking speech The Danger of a Single Story)

I had an interesting question from a teacher during my event. A child often has not really realised that he is ‘diverse’, how does one handle introducing books with diverse characters?
Here’s where it’s important that the person handing the book to the child sees the ‘diverse characters’ in the book in all their complexity rather than just their race. Authors creating story may dress their characters up in hijabs and what have you, but it’s the soul of the character that matters. In a well-written book, you can hear the character’s heart beating.

My sketchpad notes of the panel featuring Verna Wilkins, Fen Coles and Kerry Mason

My sketchbook notes from Floella Benjamin's presentation

Near the end of the conference, there was a panel featuring iconic publisher Verna Wilkins and Letterbox Library booksellers Fen Coles and Kerry Mason. The trio recalled that they’d appeared in a panel discussing the same thing many years ago. ‘Why are we still talking about this?’ mused Verna, who famously began publishing BAME books when her young son drew himself as a white child. ‘We had the same conversation twenty years ago! On my journey from the 1990s to today, there have been many cultural initiatives, workshops, charters for change, all put forward and implemented. We have worked so hard and for so long. Why are we still here?’

Why indeed? Fen offered the thought that we have made some strides but ‘it’s that thing about taking steps forward and then some steps backward.’

Although we ended the conference on a high note, I couldn’t help a pang of sadness at the thought that the right questions have been asked all those years ago, and yet the answers continue to elude.

Must. Try. Harder.

Read a great Storify of the conference. Like what you see? Click here to subscribe to email updates

Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and Shine. She posts book resources for readers and literacy educators, as well as children's book business and craft for authors in her new Facebook Page, do give us a like if this is your thing (please choose 'Follow First' to make sure FB doesn't hide my posts from you)! If you happen to be in Dubai this week, Candy will be appearing in the Emirates Airline Litfest. Do check out her events from 9 to 11 March 2017