by Anna McQuinn, children's author and editor
Anna McQuinn has published over twenty books such as the well-loved Lulu Series (including Lulu’s Gets a Cat & Lulu Loves the Library), and Zeki Gets a Check up (illustrated by Ruth Hearson). The CLPE’s latest Reflecting Realities survey, which examines ethnic representation in UK Children’s book published in 2018, features Zeki Gets a Check Up as an example of good practice when it comes to positive and sensitive BAME portrayals.
In this blog, Anna shares her background as a children’s author, and how she strives to make children’s books more inclusive in an intersectional way.
For me, literature has always been political. Growing up in rural Ireland I didn’t always feel like I ‘fitted’ in. I never felt like I was a ‘proper’ girl (although I was really lucky in having a bunch of other ‘not-girly-enough-girls’ as friends).
But books were always my escape - I lost and found myself in stories. So it was a natural choice to read English at university. Taking feminist criticism courses helped me understand that gender was a social construct and my discomfort at feeling not a proper girl was simply a refusal to accept the narrow patriarchal role assigned to women and girls. Post- graduation, I studied Education and Child Development, specializing in Children’s Literature, and after teaching for a few years, I returned to University College Cork to complete an MA: a feminist reading of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic Novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
When I moved to the UK, I tried desperately to get into feminist or academic publishing. It was my teaching experience that opened the door, however, and I got my first editorial job with an educational company. Then, a turning point came in 1990 when I attended a Letterbox Library conference. There I realized that little girls were as, if not more, than grown women in need of literature that honoured their whole selves and full potential. I decided then and there to move into children’s publishing – it would combine my two passions: feminism and social justice with child development and literacy.
At the Letterbox Library Conference, I also met a member of the Working Group Against Racism in Children’s Resources, and was persuaded to join. Working with the group – first as a member of the book group and then as a board member - shaped my thinking on the influence of children’s literature on how children view themselves and others, and, importantly, on the possibilities they are able to dream about.
These experiences, paired with my wider reading, has inspired me to write as inclusively as possible. For me, inclusion has never been a ‘nice to have’ extra or a luxury, but an essential way of ensuring that as many children as possible see someone they recognize in their stories. I feel this is an absolutely fundamental right for all children and necessary to their development, their engagement with books, their learning and reading. It is also essential to developing their self-confidence, and the ability to imagine futures for themselves not bound by narrow gender, class or ethnic roles: “we will only grow as big as we dream, that’s why we must dream big” – Gabrielle Williams
Any collection of children’s books which exclusively features a narrow set of representations sends a message that anyone who is not being represented that they are not good enough. It can instill a false sense of importance or superiority in some children, deprive them of the full human experience and therefore opportunities for developing empathy. Representing a wide range of children, therefore, benefits all children: it shows the world as it really is.
Influenced by Verna Wilkins, I made the decision early on to ‘do’ inclusion in a natural and joyful way. Political thinking is the touchstone for my writing and publishing but once I’m working on a story, I park it and focus on making the best story possible. So, while there is a need for books that draw attention to identities positively, why should children see themselves only in books that deal with issues? Can you imagine if someone who shares an aspect of your identity is only represented in a book when there is some issue to be resolved or adversity to overcome? Mustn’t that just be so excruciatingly boring? Children, as Rumaan Alam puts it, “must also learn the pleasure of reading a story in the relaxed, quiet moments before bed, reading not to learn but to feel safe, feel loved, laugh, wonder. That’s a fundamental privilege of childhood and should not be reserved for only one set of children.”
This is why, when I’m working on any book, I want to make a child who doesn’t usually get to be the hero be the star of the story – for no reason whatsoever. That is the point! No child should need a reason to be the star. To quote Rumaan Alam again, “…we need more books in which our kids are simply themselves, and in which that is enough.” This decision does have challenges not least of which is how to market and sell such a title – a title I’m really reluctant to label ‘diverse’. A book with a black child as the hero wouldn’t be considered as ‘diverse’ to many. The term ‘diverse’ is problematic because it makes assumptions about the make-up of the reading audience, and who is considered to be the normative reader. I’m happier with ‘inclusive’ – it speaks more to my passion to include everyone and, for me, it is a word that doesn’t centre whiteness in the same way. But then how to point to it? How to find it if you’re especially looking for a book with a black hero?
What I’m saying is that a book can’t be diverse but a list or a collection can. And what you call things does matter… So, I’m happy to describe AlannaMax as an inclusive publisher who publish a diverse range of books that include a diverse range of heroes. And we try to promote and market each book as just what it is: a story about a little girl going to the library; a story about a little boy learning to swim; a story about a little boy and his dog…
For me, publishing inclusively is not so much making a political statement as making a political choice. It’s a choice to make sure that stories for children reflect the realities of the lives they live; to make sure that children see someone like themselves in stories (and especially in illustrations – early years is my passion after all) and to make sure that the books are so fun, moving and engaging that every child will want to read them… because everyone loves a good story.