Don’t lose the magic mirror! Why inclusive books are vital for children’s mental wellbeing
Earlier this week, I attended a fantastic conference organised by the social enterprise Inclusive Minds to promote diversity and inclusion in books for children and young adults. The event, entitled ‘A Place at the Table’, brought together publishers, authors and other stakeholders with young ambassadors from communities that are under-represented in the publishing industry. A wide spectrum of ambassadors, including black and minority ethnic (BME) people; lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans (LGBT+) people; and people with disabilities, shared the realities of their daily lives. There was a real buzz as we celebrated the progress that’s already been made, talked about what we can all do to bring more inclusive books to the market, and listened to keynote speakers and Jay Hulme’s deeply moving performance poetry about life as a trans man.
If I’d known at the time that it was Children’s Mental Health Week (#ChildrensMHW) I might have been a bit more vocal about the connection between books and mental health. But I’ll probably make a better job of it in writing, anyway, than I would have when I was trying to swallow my fear and speak to a packed room as an out-and-proud non-binary trans person for the very first time. So here’s my take on why, even in this digital age, inclusive books still matter.
Stories and storytellers have probably been around for as long as language itself, but the ways of sharing them are always changing. Thousands of generations of oral tradition evolved into manuscripts written on papyrus or vellum, then into printed books, then audio books, TV and movies, and most recently vlogs and apps. In my view, though, there’s an important distinction to be made between media that hand everything to the viewer on a plate, and those that still leave something to the imagination. We need to treasure this latter category, and do everything in our power to make sure they don’t disappear.
When you watch a movie, vlog or TV series, you might well identify with a character to some extent, but they’re not you. You can see that they’re someone else. Yet with a well-crafted book, blog or audio book, you can put yourself into a character’s shoes in a much more direct way: you see what they see, envision what they envision, and feel what they feel. A book can become a ‘magic mirror’ that reflects you as you were, as you are, or – in a best-case scenario – as you long to be. Fictional hero(in)es (maybe ‘heroix’ is a more appropriate gender-neutral term?) give us permission to dream, to aspire, and then to go out and take on the world.
Except when they don’t. Because sometimes, they won’t.
(I’m misquoting from Dr Seuss’s fabulous ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’ – I’ve changed ‘you’ to ‘they’. I make no apology for playing with pronouns…)
Sometimes, fictional heroix just depress you and steal your hope. Why? Because they’re not like you. It’s one thing if most of them aren’t like you, but quite another if you go through your entire childhood and adolescence without encountering even ONE fictional character who sees the world in the way that you do. It leaves you with the conviction that there’s something deeply and fundamentally wrong with you.
That low self-worth doesn’t go away when you grow up and go out to face a homophobic, biphobic, transphobic, enbyphobic, sexist, racist and classist society: it just gets worse, until someone finally shows up for you as a role model that you can relate to. And for too many people, especially young trans and non-binary people, low self-worth can be lethal. Research suggests that 46% of trans people under 26 have attempted suicide, and more than 80% of trans kids are bullied at school. EIGHTY per cent. Four out of every five. As for non-binary kids, nobody’s even asked them, because most people still haven’t acknowledged that they exist.
I sometimes worry that I’m turning into a Section 28 bore. I’ll rant on to anyone who will listen about the profound and lasting impact of Section 28 of the UK’s Local Government Act (finally repealed in 2003), which forbade schools from ‘promoting homosexuality as a pretended family lifestyle’. What it meant, in practice, was that our magic mirror was stolen from us. There were NO children’s books with relatable lesbian, gay, bi, trans, non-binary, demisexual, asexual or pansexual characters available to us as children growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.
The erasure of LGBT+ lives from literature had such a profound effect that at the age of 18, realising my attraction to women for the first time, I was so freaked out by it that I wrote ‘I think I might be bisexual’ in code in my private journal. I wanted it to be recorded somehow, but I was absolutely terrified of someone reading it. I wasn’t bisexual, as it turned out; but I’d never heard of transgender, and I don’t think the words ‘demisexual’, ‘non-binary’ and ‘transmasculine’ even existed in 1996.
Last year, at Southampton Pride, I picked up a children’s picture book called Princess Charming. It’s the sweetest lesbian fairy tale ever, about a princess who falls into an enchanted sleep and can only be awoken by true love’s kiss. Prince after prince fails to wake her up, but in the end it’s her devoted lady-in-waiting, Violet, who works the magic. I’m not ashamed to admit that it made me cry. Even at the age of 39, it’s not too late to find hope and healing in a beautiful book.
That’s why I’m so passionate about inclusive books for children and young adults. I want every child, not just the kid with two dads or the assigned-female-at-birth child who knows they’re a boy, to be able to see themselves reflected in the pages of a great story. I’m rooting for kids from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, kids with disabilities, neurodiverse kids and obese kids to be included too – sometimes as the protagonists, sometimes as secondary characters whose ‘difference’ isn’t the core of the plot, it’s just there in the background.
As an author, I’m dusting off stories that I started writing several years ago, and abandoned because I wasn’t quite brave enough to come out publicly as non-binary. I’m also collaborating with an illustrator friend on an exciting new series of picture books that directly challenge transphobia, enbyphobia and all forms of bullying in schools – offering practical, workable solutions that kids can lead on. As an NGO director, I’m getting ready to launch a campaign called #LifeSavingAllies all across the publishing industry, to help authors, publishers and other stakeholders to understand how to be better allies to trans and non-binary people who might be feeling suicidal.
We launch on 31 March, Trans Day of Visibility. Are you in?