This weekend my son and I stayed with another solo mum family to celebrate Mother's Day*. The week leading up to the visit, our sons (7 and 9) sent voice notes and had video calls to plan all the fun they were going to have, and to discuss what they'd arranged for us.
On the day, they decided they would bring us cups of tea and breakfast in bed - it was adorable.
I haven't let my son use the kettle before now, but felt with his older friend they could attempt it (spoiler alert: we needed have worried about boiling water).
Not long after, tea was delivered to me in bed. Followed by breakfast.
And we had two very proud kids. And two somewhat emotional mummies.
Honestly, it was the sweetest thing. And in this context, their good intentions were all that mattered and all that we needed. We got an edible breakfast – and all I could have wanted when it came to Mother's Day.
It may sounds like I'm complaining about my breakfast – I'm not, I just couldn't miss this opportunity to use the analogy of how the end product doesn't always match up to our good intentions, because we don't know what we don't know.
The children knew that you had to boil a kettle to make a cup of tea. But they didn't know how long for, didn't ask, and thought 30 seconds was enough. (They did ask if we wanted milk and sugar.)
They knew that tea needed to go in a drinking vessel, but assumed a glass was as suitable as a mug.
They knew that scrambled egg went with toast. But they ran out of time so didn't toast the bread.
So, how does this analogy translate to the world of children's books?
Most people working in publishing are creative, passionate, dedicated and well-intentioned, and feel strongly that children should be able to see themselves in books. But those same people often lack the crucial foundational knowledge needed to ensure that this is done authentically and without succumbing to the common pitfalls. (This isn't a criticism either - I've been doing this 20 years and still don't have all the answers).
They know we need to see a more diverse range of characters in books, but not always the best way to approach incidental inclusion.
They consult people with lived experience to make a certain character authentic, but they don't always ask the right questions or consider asking the same questions of other characters.
They understand that research and time is crucial to ensure authenticity, but their schedule doesn't allow for this, so it gets missed out.
And as a result we more books being published that represent a more diverse range of experience. But do they match up to the good intentions?
Honestly, not always. Even those that are selling and being praised. (The people buying the books and giving the praise are most likely adults, or other gatekeepers.)
Again, this is not a criticism. We can only do the best we can with the knowledge we have at the time. But good intentions aren't enough.
What is the impact on children of the things that get missed?
Of stereotypes or misconceptions being perpetuated?
Of inauthentic representation?
Of only seeing marginalised people in specialist books? Books about diversity, or that show them overcoming challenges?
They are still seeing that non-dominant groups are ‘other’. Unique. Unusual.
They think that some people aren't valued enough to get it right.
Experiences continue to be misunderstood, or engender pity.
And the small things that are getting missed out, or misrepresented will continue to reinforce stereotypes and unconscious bias.
So whilst good intentions might lead to books that help build a society that is more tolerant. Is tolerance really the best we can aim for?
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.
What am I going to do to help my son help his actions match up to his good intentions? I'm going to show him, step by step, how to make a cup of tea (and my favourite mug to drink from), I'm going to make sure he starts to help me in the kitchen more, and I'm going let him practice and give him positive feedback, without judgement.
I can do this for your teams too. I can work with them to help them understand the basic principles of inclusion. I can demonstrate how it can be applied to the projects they work on. I can give them constructive feedback, and a space to discuss this without judgement. If you want to discuss how, get in touch, book a call, or book a meeting at London Book Fair.
*I understand that Mother's Day can be challenging for some for any number of different reasons, so if that is the case for you I hope that you were able to do something to support yourself.