Five tips for publishing inclusive children’s books

Inclusion and equality consultant Beth Cox offers advice for children’s publishers

As an inclusion and equality consultant, it is my job to ensure that people not only understand the importance of inclusion but have the tools and support to promote, deliver and maintain truly inclusive representation in publishing and beyond. My goal is that everyone involved in the creation of children’s books is an active participant in inclusive representation, to the point where inclusion becomes totally natural and incidental—just as it should be.

A lot of the time we focus on the big things we need to do to make a difference, forgetting that little things are important too and can have more of an impact. The subtle messages that books give us have an impact on how we think—much more than when something is presented more directly. Here are my five top tips for getting started.

1. Watch your language

Words have power, and individual word choice can have a huge impact and perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions. For example, the use of ablest language—language that is discriminatory and prejudiced against disabled people—is still common in children’s books and society. This is seen in the association of sensory impairments with ignorance by referring to people as ‘blind to’ or ‘deaf to’ something. Whilst this might seem trivial, the use of these words impacts our perception of disabled people.

Most commonly, I see it with mental health terms. Words like mad, nutcase, crazy and deranged are often used liberally and, more often than not, with negative associations. We can have numerous initiatives to discuss and support children’s mental wellbeing, but if books give a message that challenges are bad, or that those dealing with mental health challenges are scary or dangerous, things are never going to change. Occasional use might not have a huge impact, but when it is reinforced in book after book, an unconscious belief is built which no amount of campaigning will fully overcome. And it's not just mental health language: I see these messages around weight, disability, gender, sexuality, race and more. Every word really does count.

2. Start by taking stuff out

You might think that inclusion is about including a more diverse range of people and experiences in books. But there’s not much point doing that if other parts of the book still perpetuate stereotypes—like villains having facial differences, or disabled people being the object of pity, or when someone is doing a job that challenges a stereotype but that has an unhelpful prefix of female or male (male nurse, female paramedic); this highlights it as being ‘unusual’. Before you think about who else you could include in everything from picture books to YA novels, think about what you might need to take out.

3. Consider what you might be presenting as ‘the norm’

There is no such thing as normal. What’s ‘normal’ for me won’t be what’s normal for you. Think how much ‘normal’ has changed over the course of 2020. When children’s books only show certain ways of being—whether in terms of family set-up, ethnicity, gender preferences or anything else—children start to think that what they see is normal. If their reality doesn’t fit with what they see, that can impact confidence and self-esteem, or lead to bullying. Always challenge your default. Look at the book from the perspective of someone else.

4. Depict an accessible and inclusive environment

You can make a book more inclusive without changing a single character. Is the environment accessible? Are there ramps, lifts, hearing loop signs, tactile paving and drop curbs included in buildings and street scenes? What buildings are shown? Could a more diverse range of shops or places of worship be depicted? Is the environment rural or urban? Are a range of socio-economic experiences depicted in things like characters’ homes and other buildings?

5. Focus on similarities rather than differences

This might seem contradictory. Surely inclusion is about celebrating difference, not hiding it? That's true. But more importantly it's about making 'difference' familiar. It’s about showing how people are similar rather than highlighting how they are different. Seeing similarities with others breeds empathy and understanding, and once we have that we can welcome and celebrate the differences. But, generally, it helps if we can identify with someone first.

Bonus tip for accessibility

Make sure all text is clear and on a flat background and is in a straight line. Designed, ornate and looping or curving text impacts accessibility.

Beth Cox helps publishers understand the foundations of inclusion and runs an eight-week programme combining training and consultancy and leading to practical action on live projects. You can find out more about Beth’s services here, and connect with her on LinkedIn.

The views and opinions expressed in blogs on the IPG website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the IPG.