Usually I try not to read any comments on articles like this because they can be so soul destroying. But as this campaign is so close to my own heart, I wanted to add a supportive message. Trouble is, I had to scroll through the mound of abusive comments of people with a specific axe to grind who seemed to me determined to willfully miss-read her intentions, in fact her whole piece.
I've joked about it with friends, but realised this was just a coping mechanism for the genuine sadness I'm filled with when I see the anger and vitriol that a well-intentioned, thoughtfull piece can invite. Katy doesn't want to take away choice or burn books or emasculate little boys and make them all play with Barbie dolls in pink clothes – she wants children to be able to choose any book they want and not feel they can't because a marketing department has labelled the book 'for boys/girls'. She wants to make the world a little bit better and, while I'm sure she might love to end world hunger, stop the fighting in Syria and find a cure for cancer - she is starting with what she can do personally and in this instance, that means only reviewing books which are marketed to ALL children. Simples!
Except it's not.
Katy herself has addressed many of the comments in a follow-up piece, so I don't feel I need to go through them. But it seems to me that the expression 'gender neutral' works like a kind of incendiary device in some brains, leading them to willfully misread the author's intentions and accuse her of everything from censorship to "naziesque PC thought control"!
The words 'social engineering' cropped up quite a lot in the comments - one of the most outrageous accusing the author of being part of a "bizarre experiment in social engineering by radical lefties and paranoid 'femininazis' ". While it is reasonable to quibble with some points in the article (and I don't think Katy was well-served by the title), to leap from disagreeing with an editor who has decided not use her precious review space on books labelled "for boys" or "for girls' to criticising her for being PC, Stalinist, anti-family psycho hard left Marxist, left-wing, Nazi, bourgeois, censoring, book-burning, paranoid feminista (who is, at the same time, wasting everyone's time on a pointless, trivial and irrelevant campaign - considering the world's bigger problems) seems to me truly crazy.
What was most interesting to me about the comments was that the most vitriolic seemed to be from people who are not raising young children at the moment (and are unaware of how much MORE gendered marketing has become). So (when they were not talking about romance novels, car magazines and gay hairdressers) they happily spoke of when they were young or their children were young and they just choose to read what they wanted. This completely ignored how much more difficult it is for young children to do that now in the face of being bombarded with messages about acceptable gendered behaviour and taste and how frustrating that situation is for parents. Most parents of children who are young now, wrote in support of the Indy's decision.
The other people who came out strongly in support were authors - many of whom talked about their frustration when their publishers' marketing departments gave their books covers and titles which they felt did not reflect their stories in they way they wanted. However, many of the critics who took it upon themselves to defend writers' freedom and who accused Katy Guest and her 'ilk' of wanting to control what writers wrote and what got published were in fact, not writers themselves, didn't know any writers or publishers and ignored the comments from the writers!
This willful ignoring of comments from people far closer to the issue and the willingness to comment without properly reading the article OR knowing ANYTHING about the topic was infuriating! One critic went so far as to say,"I doubt that you will find any book out there that says this is for girls or for boys only (in fact any sensible publisher will look for the widest popularity across all sexes) ... This is reality and no amount of grand standing or sexual politics by a literary editor in a newspaper is going to change that..."
It's also sad that these people who are crying 'freedom' and 'stop censoring' are so taken in by marketing - while at the same time arguing that a small girl of 4 should be intelligent, savvy and media-aware enough to ignore the marketeers "For Boys" label and read a book anyway. One such claimed that " The only criterion that should be considered by publishers is whether the gender-specific titles make money. If so, it'll be because people are buying them, which is prima facie evidence of their rightful place in society.
This campaigning to intimidate free speech and stop legitimate commercial endeavor is, in fact, a bizarre experiment in social engineering by radical lefties and paranoid 'femininazis when society has clearly indicated through its free choices to buy such books that gender-specific books have value."
Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!
So it's all bizarre really. But it is SO hard to read when you are fighting for a more diverse, inclusive world in which boys and girls have more opportunities and more choice, and you are accused of wanting to turn the world into a grey nothingness; to turn boys and girls into samey androgynous beings and to force writers to write beige neutral boring PC stories which, the critics almost always say, have no bearing on real life.
All I can say is, Katy Guest, stick with it and be brave. Anyone who has read my blogs on similar topics knows that I do like to remind people that all of these 'moral' debates take place in a commercial arena. So I'd say, if you want to support Katy, don't just Tweet your support, don't just read her reviews online... Go out and buy the Independent on Sunday this Sunday. Buy two, give them to your friends. Re-tweet that. Lets put our money where our mouths are and make sure that those who threaten to never buy the Indy again now that it has become a home for Nazi-Stalanist-Feminista-Censors like Katy are VASTLY outnumbered by those of us who support her simple commitment to only review books marketed to ALL children.
I've wanted to write on this topic for a while, and seeing the comments on Katy's article prompted me to finally do it. Because, for me, what's even harder than the crazy reactions of people who obviously feel threatened by those who campaign for equality and inclusion, are the comments from people who say they support inclusive/diversity... but attack your book in which you are really trying hard to be inclusive (despite being told by the kind of people who market sticker books exclusively to one gender that this means they can't publish/market/sell your book). Instead of writing and complaining to the publishers, editors and marketeers who publish and promote books with nary a Black face, or a girl hero or a differently abled child, they decide to write to you and complain that your story doesn't include everyone.
So, I wrote a little story about a little girl going to the library. She's called Lulu (Lola in the USA), she's gorgeous, she loves books, she's the hero and she's Black. What's not to like you 'inclusive-book loving' people?
It's important to me that books like this are 'real'. That however well-meaning, they are not contrived. Children are very clever. They spot contrivance and then the book loses its power. So Lulu has a few friends (she is only three years old after all and not at school yet). so far two Black and two White (if you're the kind of person who needs a head count). I thought that looked natural.
BUT, then this review...
"My one, minor, complaint about the book is that it tries and fails at emphasizing diversity. Lola and her mommy are of African descent. Lola meets a white little boy in a stroller and during story time Lola sits next to a black boy, white girl, and white boy. If the illustrator was going to make such a strong attempt to display diversity, she should have thought to include a Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Asian child as well."
I would have thought that a) we'd struggle to fit them in the picture and b) it would look totally contrived, and c) just because you're trying to include some children who don't see themselves enough in books, doesn't mean you should be pressured to do it all in one little picturebook!
I do have one book which is what I would call 'multi-cultural' rather than 'inclusive'. (This is one of my pet peeves - that because my story is about a little Black girl and her family it gets labelled 'multicultural'. For me a multi-cultural book is one which shows a lot of different people; a multi-cultural collection is one which has books with lost of different people in them, but a story about a little girl going to a library is just a story about a little girl going to a library...)
Back to my multi-cultural book. This came out of my work in libraries. I work with a diverse group and we love the song If You're Happy And You Know It. One day, we added "Encore" to the wordsand now, every time we sing it we sing the word for "again/encore" in a different language. My kind of thing - naturally inclusive! I happened to be telling the nice publisher at Barefoot Books about this and she suggested we do it as a book and here it is. I'm very proud!
Then I got an email 'astounded' at my audacity to call the book multicultural on the grounds that "every country but Israel was represented". Now, leaving aside the fact that this is a 32 page book with endpapers and title page and song words, so only nine working spreads, the idea that it could show all the countries of the world is a little unrealistic. To argue that unless it did show all the countries in the world it could not call itself 'multi-cultural' is quite an ask! (I would have pointed out that it did not contain England either, but life's too short!). My response? bang head against wall - again!
So, come on people! Any of us who put our heads above the parapet to campaign for children's books to be inclusive and made available to ALL children; any of us who write, illustrate, publish or sell such books know that as soon as we do, critics will take pot shots at us. (In fact, when you're on the receiving end, it feels like you put your head above the parapet and they climb over the top, run across no-man's land screaming 'nazi feminista' while leaping over the parapet and trying to hack you to death!!) Our hearts would be broken over and over except we can't feel them any more because our heads are too sore from banging them against brick walls 24-7! We NEED support - moral and financial - to keep fighting this fight and to make this a better world for ALL the little girls and boys growing up in it. And if you're an 'inclusive-book-loving person' please think before attacking someone who is trying - attack someone who is not trying at all - pretty please?
Katt Guests's article that got me all riled up - link
Rebecca Davies' blog in the Independent - link
Malorie Blackman in the Guardian - link
To read my last rant on Gendered Marketing on the publication of
What Are You Playing At? - a book which challenges the idea that children's play
should be limited by gender - link
P.S. I'm off to the Bologna Children's BookFair tomorrow, so no time to add links so you can see the original articles etc I refer to. Will add links on my return, but wanted to get this request to buy the Indy out before Sunday.