Part 2 of 4

The problem with working with specialists

If you or your staff don’t have the knowledge you need around a particular character, you might call in a specialist or connect with some with lived experience. Brilliant. You’re getting in-depth advice to ensure authentic representation of one or two aspects or one or two characters.

 

It’s vital to work with specialists and people with lived experience to ensure authenticity, I always advocate that.* But what about everything else? The trouble is, when you focus in on one area, other things get missed.

I recently read a rave review about what looks like a wonderful inclusive book. The publisher had worked with specialists to ensure the text was as inclusive as possible in relation to the subject matter of the book. But on the cover a stereotype about another facet of diversity was being perpetuated. I thought, as I often do, if only they’d understood the basic principles of inclusion. That small but significant negative representation could easily have been avoided.

 

It’s not their fault. You can’t know what you don’t know. But if you rely solely on the advice of specialists without understanding the basic principles around inclusion, and the common pitfalls, things will get missed.

Why do something differently when what you’re doing seems to be working? Your ‘diverse’ books are selling. You are receiving praise for the books where you’ve worked with specialists. So, what’s the problem?

Missing something vital or getting it wrong could open you up to judgement or criticism . Which I know is the biggest concern when creating inclusive books. Such a concern that it can stop you trying. But most important the reason to make a change is for your readers: The children.

 

The people buying the books and giving the praise are most likely adults, or other gatekeepers. But children’s books are for children. What is the impact on them of the things that get missed? Of only seeing marginalised groups in specialist books? Books about diversity, or that show them overcoming challenges?

 

They are still seeing that non-dominant groups are ‘other’. Unique. Unusual.

 

And the small things that are getting missed out, or misrepresented will continue to reinforce stereotypes and unconscious bias (like the books I read recently where all the wheelchair users were mysteriously absent on the page set at the play park). And whilst the books you are currently publishing might help build a society that is more tolerant. Is tolerance really the best we can aim for?

So, how do you find out what you don’t know? How do you lift that burden of responsibility (without relying on any ‘diverse’ staff you might be lucky enough to have on your team to answer your questions)?

 

You might already be a champion of minority rights. You might be attending every Diversity and Inclusion session, conference and seminar. You might have your own lived experience of diversity, marginalisation or misrepresentation. You might already have checking processes in place.

 

But unless you and your team understand the foundations of inclusion, and how to apply them to books (your books), you’re either going to end up with a lukewarm attempt at inclusion because you’re playing it safe, or you are going to inadvertently reinforce stereotypes and misconceptions. And that impacts our society. Our children. Our future.

 

Consider what type of publisher you want to be?

 

Consider how you want to support your staff?

 

Consider what difference you want to make?

 

Is tolerance enough for you? Or do you want something better?

* It’s equally important to ensure we bring more diverse and marginalised voices into the book world, from creation to sales, but that takes time.