Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Boy (and Girl), Do We Need Diverse Books!

I'm prompted to write a post on diversity, not because of anything that's been recently said or written about diversity in the world of children's books...

I'm prompted because of a "controversy" that's taken place in the world of stand-up comedy this week. My son, as some of you may know, is a stand-up, so I pay attention to what's going on in his field (OK, most if it is cyberstalking so that I can sneak into his gigs without him knowing, but never mind...).

The uproar was caused by a reasonably well-known comic berating the BBC in a facebook post for the fact that comics who appear on panel shows like "Mock the Week" generally ridicule UKIP--something that he feels is unfair and fails to address the concerns over immigration that some British people have.

OK, I guess he's entitled to those thoughts, and I don't watch these programmes regularly enough to have an opinion as to their political "diversity". However, knowing the comedians that I do (and not just via cyberstalking...I've actually met some of them in person!) I am certain that the BBC would struggle to find a pro-Ukipper amongst them. In fact, in order to provide an alternate view, they'd have to dig up the graves of long-dead comics, and prop their embalmed corpses next to Dara O'Brien--something I doubt the license-fee payer would go for, even in the name of "balance."

What was distressing about this comedian's tirade was not just the predictability of its language. Of course, there was the usual "swamped" rhetoric and overuse of the word "dysfunctional" to describe everything from schools to hospitals. And this dysfuctionality was, naturally, caused by immigration.

So far, so sadly familiar.

What was most disturbing to me was how quickly he jumped from rather well-worn "truisms" to sneering jibes targeted specifically at women and people of colour. The upshot of his "argument" was not only that white comedians were pretending to be "militant liberals" whatever the hell that is, just in order to get TV gigs, but that women comedians were substandard pretenders and "ethnic comedians" as he called them, were given TV roles merely to buttress this militancy.

After the twitter storm that followed, the comedian tweeted something along the lines of "we're all entitled to our opinons, so if you don't like mine, don't follow me..."

And that, supposedly, made everything OK...

So, what does this unpleasant episode have to do with diversity in children's books?

Well, it reminded me (as if I needed reminding) of what dangerous times we live in, and how close to the surface real hatred lies. Right wing politicans can make their policies seem steeped in "common sense" and "fairness."  But what's really evident in so many of these policies--whether it's the bedroom tax, the restrictions of benefits to people with disabilities, the cutting of special needs provision in schools, the the closure of specialist shelters for female victims of domestic violence, the long slow burn of distorted facts on immigration--is a total contempt for diversity. The language may have changed, and the laws regarding incitement to hatred beefed up, but scratch the surface and things can still et pretty ugly.

Further evidence, of course, was the treatment of  our own laureate Malorie Blackman, after Sky News misreported her comments on diversity (which, even in their misreported form, didn't seem particularly contentious!) during the Edinburgh Festival. Of course, those below the byline commentators and trolls are there to hate and malign, but still, it was hard to read, and harder still to fathom the venom and hatred behind the words.

So, back to diversity, and back to children's books...

I find it hard to imagine what kind of world the "haters" out there envision, but I know it doesn't look like the world that exists. Has existed for decades, if not centuries. Will continue to exist, and hopefully thrive. Obviously, the haters can't actually turn back time (though I'm sure some of them would like to!) What they can do, though, is make diversity seem like an add-on, not something that merely expresses and reflects the way we all live now. They can make diversity seem like an aberration, not the norm.

And children's literature is one way that this distorted view of reality--of who we are--can be dimmed and replaced by a brighter, truer vision. To me, what's important about diversity is not just that all young readers are able to see their lives and experiences reflected in literature, but that everybody else does, too. That one experience is not seen to be more important, more representative, more worthy of exploration in fiction than another.

The UK is a gloriously diverse country. This is part of its cultural and political richness. There's not a big lump of us--however we define that--versus an ever-growing chunk of them.

Whatever our religion, our gender or sexuality, whatever our country of origin, wherever we live, whatever our economic means, whatever our abilities...
There really is just us, and all our stories deserve to be heard.

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