Tuesday 17 February 2015

Imagine Festival: Everybody Into Books - and we mean EVERYBODY!

February half-term? Time for Imagine Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. If you’ve never been, it’s a joyously chaotic affair, with multiple events for all ages - live Philip Ardagh Q&A! the Charlie and Lola show! croquet with Alice in Wonderland! - all happening at once, and a bustly cheerful wander-in-and-see-what’s-happening atmosphere. (If you like quiet, probably go somewhere else. Far away. Across the river. No, even further than that. There you go.)

Yesterday, for the second year running, Inclusive Minds programmed a full day of free activities, workshops and more to celebrate inclusion and diversity in our kidlit - and I was lucky enough to be invited along. There was plenty of hands-on stuff for visitors small and less so (yeah, I saw you, Dad wielding that crayon with glee: you go for it, mate): Draw Yourself Into It book covers with me, Susie Day, comic-making with Louie Stowell, Sue Hendra's Norman the slug and his Feelings Wall.

Louie Stowell, taking the Feelings Wall to a dark dark place

But the highlight for me was a panel on, essentially, where we’re at right now. Are all children and young people reflected in books? What are we doing about that? What still needs to be done?

Honest truth moment: panels aren’t always the best thing in a festival. I would, personally, enjoy making a comic about sharks quite a lot more than listening to some Adults Who Know Stuff TM droning on about Important Things (even when one of them is the amazing Lauren Child, who I am still a bit giddy about meeting). But this was a panel with a difference: one which wanted to hear what Young People Who Know Even More Stuff TM want in their books. So it asked them to be on the panel, too.

Me with the awesome @ReubensStories

8-year-old Reuben found himself feeling a bit glum about World Book Day and it took his mum Carmel a little while to work out why: when he was asked to dress up like his favourite book character, he couldn’t find any that looked like him.

Reuben doesn’t think anyone would need to do research to write a book that would fix that; he’s an 8-year-old boy, like his friends. He went as Bugsy Malone to WBD, in the end. But he’d still like some choices.

Alex and Beth from @InclusiveMinds, Carmel and Reuben, Luca and his case worker Finn from Gendered Intelligence, Lauren Child, me, Shannon Cullen from Penguin Random House

13-year-old Luca is a trangender teen, and he’d love to have books - more books, any books - that would help other kids like him. He thinks there’s a lot of ignorance and confusion about trans issues, and books could do a lot to change that. His advice for anyone who wants to write about transgender young people would be to look online for information and different experiences, and to ask people - in person, and online - who really know what they’re talking about.

I’m so thrilled they were there. I’m in awe of how poised, confident and articulate Luca was, because when I was 13 I would’ve hidden under the chair rather than speak in public. I know Reuben found being onstage in front of a big crowd and being handed a microphone pretty hard going - me too, eek - but he handled it so brilliantly, and I’m so glad we got to hear his point of view.

Between them, I think they captured exactly why Middle Grade feels so vital.

Reuben’s favourite book is Spy Dog.

Luca’s is The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

These are the readers we write for - and all the readers in between. That range of experience and discovery, of changing self-perception, of slow yet gigantic change: it’s extraordinary. It’s a privilege to play around in that space. Children’s books are the building blocks of the soul. That doesn’t stop when we grow out of building blocks. Books for 8-13s, whether they tell tales about those slow but epic changes directly and emotionally, or via fantastic adventures and daft escapades, or perhaps pinpointing one moment on that individual washing line of pivotal ones - they participate in that growing-up process. Holding out a hand, or cheering you on. Laughing alongside you, or opening a door you didn’t know was there.

I took two huge things away from yesterday’s event:

1) Authors! Illustrators! Reuben and Luca and a lot of other young people are READY and WAITING and HOPING you can stop anyone feeling as fed up as they do. I spoke to the wonderful folks at Letterbox Library (who specialise in supplying diverse books and do the most amazing job) and while they have a good range of inclusive books for 8-13s, there are fewer for that age group than others. Let’s change that.

2) If we want to know what 8-13s really want to read... maybe we should ask them?

Imagine Festival runs until Sunday 22nd Feb - more details here.


  1. Sounds like a great day, and anything that makes writers feel braver about attempting a range of voices is a good thing. Genuinely think writers are willing, they just need to feel confident that they're allowed and won't offend anyone by trying. My feeling is, one might offend, but it won't be the end of the world. As long as you research, then you can hand-on-heart say you did your best. And the child who saw ones cack-handed attempt to include them might well grab a pen and say 'I can do it better'. New writer born!

    1. Yep, I think there's a lot of anxiety and second-guessing holding creators back, unecessarily. And I love the idea of a kid feeling inspired to correct inauthentic portrayals - even getting it wrong has the potential to make something better happen!

  2. I recently visited an amazing school in Bethnal Green with a very diverse intake. Although the students were really enthusiastic about the story in my book, several children pointed out to me that there is a lack of diversity in the characters in my writing. Wake up call! I completely take on that challenge, it's so easy to write in your own little bubble without considering the world beyond. Thanks to them and all kids who are brave enough to speak up. Let's get out there and support them.

    1. Lauren raised a similar point in the panel, as far as I remember - that if you're an author who regularly visits schools, it's impossible to hang onto any notion that our audience is not diverse, in multiple ways.

  3. Brilliant post, Susie, and the festival sounds amazing! There are some great books coming out this year with diverse characters in them and we need to continue to take up that challenge.

    1. It was a great day, yep - and the festival has such a lovely buzzy feeling. We are going in the right direction as an industry and 2015 is shaping up to be completely amazing. But 'diversity' encompasses so many different experiences, distinct and overlapping. We'll always need more!

  4. Hi Susie, I'm Luca's sister and just wanted to say thank you very much for the lovely things you said about him. It's a really nice blog post and put a big smile on my face. x

    1. Thank you Annie - my pleasure! It was great to meet him and your mum, and I wish we'd had more time to chat. He was funny and smart and absolutely clear about what we all need to see more of; I really hope he gets more opportunities to speak up. (And I have to add - it's brilliant to see that he's got such a supportive family around him. x)

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