What better way to spend Pea’s Book of Birthdays‘ publication day last week than sitting in sunny Sheffield with clever thoughtful folk, talking about how much our telly and books really include everyone?
The Children’s Media Conference is my kind of conference, ie they give you a bag at the start with Phineas & Ferb stickers in it. (Sadly I missed King Frank Cottrell of Boyce’s opening keynote, but I did catch Jeff ‘Swampy’ Marsh sharing how he and Dan Povenmire managed to get Disney to make their stupidly awesome show. The sneak peek of the Avengers crossover we got? Genius.)
Thursday’s Come Out And Play session was masterminded by Julian Scott of Purple Pictures and Sue Nott from CBBC, both keen to ask: does children’s media really reflect the diversity in society – and if not, what do we do about that? The panel featured Mark Jennett (who consults and trains in schools and elsewhere on diversity, especially gender roles and LGBT), Rachel Murrell (scriptwriter, with experience of successfully bringing diverse characters to screen), Ann Brogan (TV producer at Kindle entertainment, with Leonardo and several fine Jacqueline Wilson adaptations to her name), and me, to offer my experience from the publishing side.
What do I know about it? I write contemporary fiction for 8-12s and teenagers which includes diverse characters. I don’t write ‘issue’ books which directly tackle the subject (eg ‘coming out’ YA fiction). My stories involve people, some of whom happen to be LGBT – like Sam One’s mums in the Pea’s Book series, or Dai and Henry in My Invisible Boyfriend.
And why do we need LGBT inclusion for children? Because all children need to see themselves and their families in the stories made for them. LGBT identification isn’t only an adult issue; sexuality is not the same as sexual content, so there’s no need to protect or exclude children from the subject. But it is also an adult issue – for teachers, parents, anyone who works with children and fears they lack the literal and emotional vocabulary to appropriately handle the subject. We might equally ask – why not? Mark offered a compelling statistic: 18% of UK viewers object to LGBT content onscreen. Over 4/5ths either don’t care or would like to see more.
Both the panel discussion and the conversations I had before and after were pretty sobering stuff. There were some positive recent examples from TV: lesbian adoptive parents in CBBC’s The Dumping Ground, Rachel’s work aimed at teens with BBC Education for Ask Lara, a fascinating-sounding French animation about a boy who transforms into a female superhero (not on air in the UK) – and of course Doctor Who’s Vastra and Jenny.
But I was struck by the sizeable gap between publishing and TV in terms of LGBT representation. YA fiction offers numerous outstanding ‘issue’ stories and an increasing number of books which approach inclusion the way I do, without fanfare, or which include LGBT characters in genres where traditionally they’ve been less visible – such as sci-fi and fantasy. From Bill’s New Frock to The Boy In The Dress we’ve had stories for 8-12s which open up discussions about identity. There are at least 50 picture books which explore LGBT content, either through metaphor or through characters explictly identified as LGBT. We can’t put our feet up and be smug, alas: it’s undeniable that the vast majority of these books come from the US. We don’t have a David Levithan or a Julie Anne Peters. There are no gay adoptive penguins at London Zoo. But we’re going in the right direction: with the likes of Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith’s Great Big Book of Families; with Cat Clarke, James Dawson, Hayley Long, Patrick Ness.
Back in TVland, there still seemed to be nervousness about LGBT inclusion on TV outside big teachable moments, and a concern that such ‘issues’ are 12+, and therefore beyond the remit of producers like CBBC – despite the range of picture books and middle grade fiction for children evidently viewing ‘difference’ (metaphorical and explicitly defined) as an available, age-appropriate topic; despite adults in heteronormative relationships being commonly visible; despite it being within that ‘children only’ remit to have light romance stories between young straight characters. It’s fine to have a young teen boy on children’s TV casually say they fancy a girl. To have a boy say they fancy a boy is ‘difficult’.
Why? Above all, the fear of negative feedback seemed the ultimate stumbling block to a conscious, structured, proactive approach to inclusion. The question everyone wanted to ask me was – have you received pushback? Do you get angry letters? My answer is a resounding no. The only responses I’ve had which reference the LGBT content in my work have been positive. Readers and reviewers (and editors and educators too) are glad to see it, and wonder why there isn’t more. I know other authors who have been less fortunate; presumably I’ll offend someone sooner or later. But it was interesting to see how automatic that assumption was. Fear again. Fear of making your product niche not mainstream. It’s not prejudice at work: it’s just money.
This is, of course, just as true within the publishing industry. The commercial imperative is always there; authors, publishers, booksellers alike want a title to reach the biggest possible audience. It’s the same logic that makes book covers pink, or look a bit like 50 Shades of Grey.
But it’s also not good enough. That fear infects creators. There are editors out there hoping for brilliant inclusive fiction to land on their desks. There are teachers and librarians desperate to recommend those books to the kids who need them most. Meanwhile, authors second-guess, worrying they might damage their chances of reaching a big readership or even getting published in the first place. Meanwhile, 82% of the UK public either wouldn’t mind or actively want in.
One thing that strikes me as a potential positive in this cultural delay: some of those 90s picture books feel a little ‘on the nose’, as if getting a message across has perhaps been prioritised over language, artwork, an enjoyable reading experience. They feel like a necessary and important step in a process of transition, rather than great books. If UK television can largely sidestep that awkward earnest stage, perhaps we can look forward to a a truly great and inclusive era of children’s TV.
So – a lot of work to do, maybe. But I was left with a sense of pride and hope: pride in my industry, which seems to be perhaps a bit further down the inclusion road; and hope, that we’ll keep having this conversation until it sounds as daft as it ought to.
Don’t be afraid, authors, scriptwriters, producers. Come out and play.