by Fen Coles, Co-Director at Letterbox Library
Congratulations to the CLPE Reflecting Realities Team on their sixth report! That’s six years of carefully auditing our industry’s output in order to provide a picture of how the publishing world is responding to the need to represent all of their readers, the readers they have held close for decades and the ones they know they have nothing less than a moral (and, indeed, commercial) duty to draw in, the ones they know they need to serve better.
The Reflecting Realities research has never just been about the numbers of books starring characters of colour although quantity does, of course, matter. It has always been heavily weighted towards the quality of those characterisations. The leaps in the proportion of books with POC representation between the first and sixth report are so elevated as to be heady. And, there is no doubt in our minds that of the many factors which have contributed to that growth, the CLPE research has played an absolutely pivotal role. That role has also been a supportive one, steering publishers, editors, creators towards more and better representation.
In common with the Reflecting Realities project, Letterbox Library has also never been in the business of simply doing the numbers. Since our inception in 1983, we’ve sought to provide children not just with books which portray them, their families, their communities on the page but ones which do that work skilfully and meaningfully. The guidelines our reviewers use in selecting the books we sell are clear about the call out for books showing under represented groups and books which challenge stereotypes but they also place heavy emphasis on the quality of the artwork and the storylines, the success of the text in engaging its young readers. For many years now, our review team has approved an average of just 35% of the books publishers send us. We have never been invested in tokenism.
Today, Letterbox Library finds itself in an interesting situation. Just as the Reflecting Realities Report bears out, more and more books are being published with characters of colour, including ones in leading roles, which in turn means that our postbox heaves these days with potential books for our consideration. And yet, the proportion of books we say ‘No’ to remains
constant at 65-70%. This means that the advice the Reflecting Realities reports share so generously remain current, urgent and necessary. Each report brings with it practical, thoughtful steps for publishers, editors, creators and book selectors/buyers on how to devote to forms of representation which will bring delight to and resonate with their readers- and which will stay the course. The ‘Degrees of Erasure’ section of the 2018 report and the ‘Guidance’ section in the 2022 provide all of the nuanced considerations needed to build commercial hits and long term classics. With the many other organisations and individuals, acknowledged in these reports, who have worked for so long and so passionately in this field, we really do have all of the resources and momentum we need to welcome and sustain a representative literary landscape for generations of future readers.
Letterbox Library turns 40 this year. That’s forty years of sourcing and selling the best in inclusive children’s books. And, just to reiterate, today, we are still approving/rejecting the same proportion of books. But look at what we have to play with now! These days, we have so many more books to choose from, so many more UK voices of colour to hear from and so many more people committed to making representation work for its young readers. Over forty years, we have witnessed surges and dives in diverse representations but it feels like this height right now just might, just might, be drilling its roots deep enough to weather any storm. Because there are always storms! We can still remember the days we were accused of the crime of “indoctrinating children” with our ruthless distribution of inclusive books. But perhaps now, if a culture, a climate, an ideology, a government comes along with a new virulent brand of anti-PC or anti-wokeness (or whatever new term is applied to having a social conscience), it does feel like the push back could be truly formidable this time.
And here’s the thing. If not just the numbers continue to go up but also if that quality reaches maximum pitch, and if creators of colour start to get the publicity investment they deserve, in the way that big brand authors stocked in every store such as Julia Donaldson and David Walliams currently do, then we will happily close up shop. Forty years on, schools and early years still value and want our specialism; we continue to be referred to as a “specialist” bookshop. But perhaps when Letterbox Library reaches the grand old age of 50, all of our collective ambitions will have come to fruition. Perhaps then, the word “specialist” as applied to us will be nonsensical. Perhaps Letterbox Library will be considered old school. And, perhaps we will be, finally, unnecessary. From those steadfast women who set up our cooperative forty years ago right up until the present day, Letterbox Library has never been in this business for the profit. Our not-for-profit status means exactly that. And so, putting ourselves out of business would honestly, bring us the greatest joy.