In July I was so thrilled to be selected as one of 10 artists in residence for Suffolk Libraries at their Culture Lab residency.
This gorgeous little lady (top of this post) wasted no time in visiting her local library – at just one week old she was taking it all in, or rather, snoozing through it, which was perfect for me as she stayed pretty still while I sketched her. But I had to be quick, as I knew it wouldn’t last. This sketch was done in about 10 minutes. It was a privilege to draw her.
The residency was an opportunity for selected artists to produce new work or take time to develop current projects further. This opportunity has come about due to Suffolk Libraries being given NPO status by the Arts Council.
My proposal was to produce drawings I could use to develop diverse picture book characters, using my sketches of library users and overheard conversations to produce imaginary characters that draw upon the diverse communities found in Suffolk Libraries.
My interest in diversity in children’s books was raised further after I illustrated The Wind in the Willows last year as part of my MA course. I hadn’t read it since childhood, and on re-reading it, I was shocked to discover that all the main characters are male. The only female characters are bit parts – the washer woman and the gaoler’s daughter.
My first thought was that The Wind in the Willows is a book of its time, and that things are different now. How wrong I was.
I did some research about diversity in children’s books. Recently, The Observer newspaper commissioned an analysis of the 100 most popular (best-selling) children’s picture books of 2017. Disappointingly, the research shows that male characters are twice as likely to take the lead roles and are 50% more likely to have speaking parts than females. Male villains are eight times more likely to appear than female villains and in a fifth of the books, female characters are missing completely.
Following on from this the CLPE survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature 2017, shows that only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME characters and only 1% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017 had a BAME main character.
In 2016, book publisher Penguin Random House launched its Write Now scheme which aims to, “find, mentor and publish new writers from under-represented communities”, stating the importance “for young children to see themselves, their families, cultures and communities reflected in the books they read”.
The WriteNow scheme also strives to address the issue that the publishing industry, including those in roles that make decisions about which stories get published, is predominantly white, socially and economically advantaged, and male.
My hope for the Suffolk Libraries residency was to come away inspired by all the real-life characters of the library community, the stories about their lives and why the library is important to them. This will help me to develop picture books that celebrate diversity, are inclusive and feature those missing protagonists whose stories are yet to be told.
As part of my residency I went on a ‘Library Safari’ day visit to Felixstowe. I’ve never been to Felixstowe before, I have to say that it is AMAZING!
An Edwardian seaside town, it has an incredibly diverse landscape and population, which was just perfect for my residency project.
It has a beautiful beach and seafront gardens and those incredible gantry cranes lined up at the port just dominate the skyline (in a good way!), like monsters visiting from Mars.
I can’t wait to develop my initial sketches further and I look forward to working on diverse and inclusive children’s books – let’s see if we can do something about those statistics.