How to Build an Inclusive Library for your Children
Before T was even born, Sharon and I were talking about our favourite books and what kind of books T would likely have on his shelves. Classics like; Guess How Much I Love You, Spot, and Goodnight Moon were all up there, but, very quickly, we realised that families like us were rarely represented in children’s books.
At first it was pretty easy to navigate around, we would perhaps change the odd “mum” to a “dad” so that there were two dads in a story, or visa versa; replacing “dad” with a “mama”. But as time went on, or when T started wanting to look at the pictures in the books and subsequently challenging our choice in character, we realised we had to expand our library to make sure he was represented, not to mention show him a fair representation of society!
We already had a few diverse and inclusive books in our collection, but no where near enough LGBTQ books – we needed more.
Children are like sponges!
They (seldom) listen, but they absolutely learn. Just because they’re not reacting a certain way to things doesn’t mean it’s not in there bubbling at the surface or being absorbed into the filing cabinet called “normal”. Which is where our books and media need to come in.
For us, we already had books where two mums or two dads are featured, as well as others that had families from different cultures, but it’s taken us a long time before we could safely say that we had a handsome 60/40 divide between “mainstream” books and more “diverse” books.
One day, it’d be nice when books that feature diverse families aren’t classed as somewhat “specialist”.
A book is a book to T. At the moment, he isn’t bothered whether the main character is black, a wheelchair user, male, an elephant or a train. He just wants a story that captures and excites him. But the more diversity we introduce to him, the added bonus will be that he’ll also be more open-minded at the same time. As a same sex family, we would be doing our child a disservice if we didn’t at least try to make sure we show him what society looks like.
It was just the other day, just as I was wondering whether all of this – all our efforts – was making a difference, he quoted a number of conversations we’d had over the past few nights during our bedtime story, and it reinforced the importance of being as inclusive as possible when it came to our books.
Tips on How To Build an Inclusive Library…
In comparison to even a couple of years ago, children’s books are slowly becoming more and more diverse. Books now contain characters who are not only BIPOC, Disabled or from a different background, but they’re the MAIN characters! That being said, a recent study in 2019 detailed that children’s books are still “eight times as likely to feature animal main characters as BIPOC people” and that’s not okay.
As a society we need to make sure all children and communities are represented, therefore here are some of my tips in making sure your child(ren)’s library are as diverse as possible as well as how to make improvements.
Once you’re finished, why not check out are follow-up post detailing 30+ children’s books that celebrate inclusion and diversity.
1) Look at your current books…
It’s no good buying a ton of books featuring a black protagonist if you already have those. By all means, keep adding to your collection, but do you also have an equal amount of books that feature a disabled character or a child with two mums?
If you’re going to take this seriously, start by going through your collection and categorise the books by protected characteristics, if you will, and then go from there. Fill those gaps!
2) Inclusion includes the author as well as the story!
It was the tail end of 2020 that I found out that the ‘Julian is a Mermaid‘ series of books was written by a cis-gender white woman, despite that fact that the story is about a black child who is potentially curious about their identity. And whilst the story and message is valid, you absolutely need to place a critical eye over the stories and who’s profiting from them.
“Are these stories written from first-hand experiences?” is a regular question I ask myself before making a purchase. Research is incredibly important.
3) Are marginalised characters telling a story or just educating you?
Some of our favourite stories feature characters where they’re naturally part of the story as opposed to being used as a tool for education. Of course, there’s always a place for those types of books, but make sure that there are equal numbers of books where the story about a boy going to the zoo, for example, features two dads the same way it would feature any other family. This will then make the thought of two dads, two mums, etc. feel as natural as it should be.
4) Quality > Quantity
If you’re a book addict like me it’s super easy to press ‘Buy All’ when it comes to certain stories or family make-ups, but are they adding anything to the conversation? It’s very nice buying a ton of books that feature diverse cultures and backgrounds, but if all your LGBTQ characters are reduced to telling stories about their identity or Pride, then how are you including them with everyone else?
To offer variety, make sure the content of each book differs – even only slightly if your choice is limited. Make sure your protagonists are seen in different scenarios and situations, as well as allowing them to tell a different story.
5) Don’t be afraid to ditch books.
Whilst the thought of getting rid of a book is horrific, if a book is more likely to cause harm than include then it needs to go.
Things to look out for might include; out of date language, phrases or slang, harmful stereotypes, sexism, racism or ableism. On the same note, keep abreast of any problematic authors *cough* JKR *cough*
We wouldn’t have the collection we have today if it wasn’t for book publishers pushing the boundaries when it comes to diverse children’s literature. Therefore, it’s vital that we support local and/or independent booksellers and publishers. That being said, we also understand that the cost of books isn’t always accessible. Likewise, some books can only be obtained overseas.
With this in mind, places like Amazon, Waterstones, and eBay are great places to get you started, but please always make efforts to buy local / independent where you can. Why not try charity shops or local boot sales – we’ve picked up some bargains in the past!
Here are a couple of our favourites places for diverse and inclusive literature:
Owlet Press – Changing the future of Children’s books, Owlet Press offer readers inspiring and inclusive stories whilst also celebrating the most creative and imaginative story-tellers and illustrators. Owlet Press are a favourite in this house and we’re delighted to support them.
Queer Lit – Based in Manchester, Queer Lit is an independent book shop that stocks over 1500 LGBTQ+ titles at any given time. Supporting LGBT Foundation, they sell a number of LGBTQ books, from Autobiographies to Children’s books!
A Box of Books – Just down the road in Lewes, this incredible haven for book lovers is the perfect solution for a rainy day if you’re in the area. There’s not a single gender label in sight and all books are categorised by theme (eg. Feelings, animals, or age). They have a huge collection of diverse books. There’s an online shop too!
Gay’s The Word – This is the UK’s oldest and most iconic LGBT bookshop. A “touchstone for the broader LGBT community”. Set up in January 1979 by a group of gay socialists as a community space, where all profits were funnelled back into the business. This ethos continues today with shelves bursting with books and the space used for book and community events.
Letterbox Library – A not-for-profit children’s book seller specialising in diversity and inclusion, featuring an array of topics from gender to bereavement. They also offer themed ‘Book Packs’ if you’re looking for several books on certain certain subjects. Well worth a visit!
Books for Queers – A new find for us recently, but already one we no doubt will shop with time and time again as they have a modest children’s section which will hopefully grow over time.
Little Box of Books – Although primarily a subscription service as opposed to a book “shop”, these guys still work tirelessly to make sure children from all backgrounds see themselves in the literature they read. Worth a follow and would make the perfect gift for young readers. With every purchase, they also donate books to the Doorstep Library.