Celebrating difference: diversity in picture books.

By Brenda Gurr

Well, our first picture book has been released and we’re beyond excited! It’s thrilling to introduce you to Hugo: The boy with the curious mark—a gentle story about a child who deals with feeling different.

Hugo is an important first publication for us because we strongly believe in diversity in picture books. Stories like Hugo’s are a powerful way to teach children that the world is full of all types of people and that being yourself is okay. In such a book, it is possible that a young child might see themselves or their family situation represented for the first time. As well as promoting feelings of confidence and self-worth, this can also encourage an enthusiasm for reading.

To further explore these ideas, I had a chat to disability and LGBTIQ rights activist Jax Jacki Brown. She kindly answered my questions about diversity in picture books and her responses will clearly make you understand why diversity should be your favourite new word. Curl up with a cuppa and have a read …

Thanks for talking to us, Jax! Let’s start with a basic question. What does diversity actually mean?

That's a great question! In regard to Hugo and diversity in literature, it means telling stories about identities that aren't the mainstream (i.e. white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual men) and showcasing the range of identities and experiences that exist in the world.

Why is it important to publish children’s books that are more representative of our diverse society?

It shows children that difference isn't something to be scared of or ashamed about—it’s something to be celebrated and proud of!

As a queer wheelchair user I often have kids following me around in public spaces, asking their parents or caregivers (sometimes loudly, as kids do) why I’m in a wheelchair. The parents get all embarrassed and don't know how to respond, often telling their children to be quiet and pulling them away from me. While I understand the parents’ reactions to their child’s curiosity, they are shutting down a moment where their child could learn about difference.

Diverse children's books that show an array of identities and body types are a key way for children to learn about difference. Children can also explore what difference means with those close to them without embarrassment, shame or fear. Books can be a tool to explore one’s own identities and see ourselves and our loved ones reflected in their pages. Seeing an aspect of oneself represented positively can have a profound impact on the pride and resilience of minority populations. They don't often see themselves represented positively in literature or other media.

What sorts of characters and storylines would you like to see more of in children’s picture books?

I would like to see more LGBTIQ storylines where the exploration of gender or sexuality of a character is depicted as an interesting and valuable aspect of their identity. I think it is particularly important for trans or gender diverse children and young people to see their identities affirmed in books. I would also like to see more storylines that showcase characters with disabilities—all kinds of disabilities—and show them not as inspirational, heroic, tragic or sad or that they are ‘overcoming’ their disabilities. These are unhelpful stereotypes of disability. Instead, disability should be shown as an aspect of who they are and a valued part of their identity and experience.

I would also love to see more cultural diversity in children’s books, particularly stories that depict Muslim identity and culture in a positive way. This would support parents to have discussions with their children about racism.

Are you seeing more children’s books around now that feature more diverse characters? Has this improved from 10 years ago?

Yes, I am, and I think it is improving. Publishers are realising there is a market of #ownvoices stories, that talented writers are producing fabulous works and that readers are hungry for diverse lit. People are also crowdfunding books and getting support from their communities to get their stories out there. A friend of mine, Jessica Walton (a queer disabled author) successfully crowdfunded for her book Introducing Teddy, a story about a transgender teddy bear. It was subsequently picked up by a mainstream publisher and has been published in seven languages! This is just one example of the demand for diverse lit.

How could parents, guardians or teachers be encouraged to choose children’s books that cover diversity?

Local libraries and childcare centres play a key role in showcasing diverse books and promoting diversity to children and their families. Book lists are a great idea. In Australia, I know that Rainbow Families Victoria send out a book list to libraries and childcare centres in the state to let them know what is out there and why having these books on the shelves is important to the kids accessing their services. Often I don't think people know where to go to find diverse books or how to know which ones are actually good. Outside of googling, connecting with organisations and people with lived experience is an important way of finding recommendations.

It’s always important to talk to children about the ideas in picture books after sharing them. Do you have any tips for how parents, guardians or teachers might approach a discussion with young audiences about Hugo’s story?

Hugo is a beautiful story about letting your diversity SHINE! It allows parents, guardians and teachers to facilitate a conversation with children about the things that might be different about them and how that can make them feel when not everyone sees the value of that difference. It also highlights the importance of finding and connecting with people who share your elements of diversity to build resilience and self-acceptance.

Jax Jacki Brown is a disability and LGBTIQ rights activist, published writer and public speaker. You can find out more about Jax HERE


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