Beth Cox is a freelance editor and inclusion consultant. Having worked at Child’s Play for over 7 years, where she was instrumental in ensuring that the books that they developed truly reflected our diverse society, she went freelance in 2011. Whilst at Child’s Play she developed guidelines for illustrators on all aspects of diversity and equality – gender, heritage and race, culture, disability, sexual orientation and age – which are sent out with all new commissions. In 2009 she was involved in a Booktrust Equal Measures seminar at the London Book Fair where she spoke about how publishers can successfully include images of disabled children in their books. She also wrote an article on the subject for Team Around the Child journal. As part of her freelance work, Beth advises publishers on avoiding stereotypes and positively reflecting our diverse society, as well as reviewing books for specialist bookseller Letterbox Library. She has recently developed training for teachers on the importance of inclusive books in schools and will be speaking to MA Publishing students on the importance of diversity and equality in books. Beth was on the steering group for the Scope ‘In The Picture‘ project where she met Alexandra Strick, they have collaborated on ideas and campaigns ever since.
Alexandra Strick is a freelance consultant/project manager, with a passion for making books accessible and inclusive for all children, particular those with additional needs. She worked within both the children’s book world and disability sector before bringing the two interests together. She became freelance in 2002, having worked at Booktrust, managing children’s book activity/Bookstart and at Whizz-Kidz, managing projects empowering and enabling young disabled people. As a freelance consultant, she continues to work as a regular advisor and project manager for Booktrust, as well as independently. She runs Booktrust’s website on disability issues (Bookmark), manages Booktouch and Bookshine, advises on programmes like Booktime and Bookbuzz. She has also managed projects consulting disabled children about books and was on the steering group for Scope’s ‘In The Picture‘ project. Alex writes articles and reviews, runs Booktrust’s Equal Measures seminars at the London Book Fair, creates book-related resources and activities for special schools, advises writers and illustrators, speaks at events and conferences, has run training on accessible/inclusive books (including international training for publishers) and is the co-author of an inclusive picture book to be published June 2013.
Alex and Beth have recently set up Inclusive Minds, a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature and are committed changing the face of children’s books.
As part of this project, they are running a seminar at the London Book Fair and editing a special edition of Write 4 Children Journal due out in May.
1. Have you noticed change in children’s books since the 2006 Booktrust/Quentin Blake Award report into inclusivity? And would you say new technologies have had a part in this change?
Beth: There has been a change but not enough of one. More publishers are including disabled children in their books, but many of them still see these as ‘issue’ books, rather than publishing books that just happen to include disabled children. The rise of the ebook and iBook has mean huge improvement in accessibility for disabled children and apps such as the one from Signed Stories, prove how the quality of the book and illustrations can be maintained, yet be made accessible to a much wider audience.
Alex: I definitely feel that there is increased awareness of this issue amongst many children’s publishers since Booktrust and I ran the Quentin Blake Award project, and since Beth and I were involved in the ‘In the Picture’ project. In terms of how this awareness actually manifests itself in the books themselves, progress is slow. It is becoming more common to see the more ‘obvious’ things (like a wheelchair) appearing in a picture book and there has been a trend for subjects like Asperger’s syndrome to appear in teen fiction, however, in the main, children’s books still don’t come close to reflecting the high number of children with additional needs, and many forms of disability simply don’t appear at all.
2. What’s your favourite book/product/app from the past year from an inclusion and accessibility standpoint?
Beth: From an inclusion standpoint, for me, it would have to be one that is actually coming out in the next couple of months. It’s called ‘One, Two, Three, Run’ by Carol Thomson and published by Child’s Play. It features two main characters, one of whom has Down’s syndrome, but this is entirely incidental to the text. Of course, I couldn’t neglect to mention ‘Maggot Moon’ by Sally Gardner, published by Hot Key Books. The main character is dyslexic and (spoiler alert) there is a beautifully executed same-sex kiss, although neither of these things are an issue, just part of the story. The iBook takes it even further, giving the reader an insight into the story behind the books and examples of how a page of text might look to a dyslexic reader.
Alex: I’d agree with Beth. And the app that accompanies Maggot Moon is also spectacular in terms of understanding dyslexia. I also love the insight into the broad spectrum of experiences of deafness shown in Chrissie Keighery’s ‘Whisper’ (published by Templar). The Inclusive Minds website (www.inclusiveminds.com) is going to spotlight some of the books we like, and try to talk about some of the learning points for future books. In terms of accessibility, at the risk of blowing our own trumpet, I’d also mention that Beth and I are creating a highly innovative touch and feel book with Booktrust and Child’s Play. We are working visually impaired children themselves to create a book of really meaningful textures and shapes for children of 2-4 years – watch this space!
3. If you could make “publishing people” – editors, sales and marketing, design etc – do just one thing that would make an impact of accessibility/diversity, what would that be?
Alex: Can I have two things please?! I’d say firstly aim to reflect society as it really is, so that all children really see themselves, their families and situations somewhere within the children’s book landscape. And secondly, keep an eye on basic things like contrast, print size and choice of font, because a few small changes can mean your book could suddenly reach a much larger audience – and that’s better for everyone.
Beth: I’d make them listen to what we have to say and act on it. Is that a cop-out? I think the key message I’d want to give is for publishers not to let a lack of knowledge put them off trying – there are plenty of people and organisations (Inclusive Minds, for example) who they can go to for advice.
4. Who do you admire and why?
Alex: Another cop out, but I’d have to say Beth! It’s amazing to find someone quite so likeminded, hardworking and determined. I think we both also admire the wonderful Letterbox Library and all the publishers, writers and illustrators who have featured inclusive images and stories (particularly those who took the time to do a bit of research and get a bit of advice on their books, artwork and manuscript to get it right before it went to print!)
Beth: Thank you Alex, the feeling is mutual, which is why it’s great to be working together. As well as agreeing with Alex about Letterbox Library (who are, incidentally, a key partner of Inclusive Minds) I think we both admire Verna Wilkins for her proactive approach. Frustrated that her son didn’t see himself in books, and didn’t think he could be in them, she set up Tamarind Books to ensure real change. We can only aspire to be like her.
5. What has been your biggest achievement in your career so far?
Beth: Wow, this is a tricky one. The things I’m proudest of are a combination of many little things that are building up to make a difference. I think my biggest achievement is making a success of my freelance career through having a specialist area, a unique selling point if you will. Through our joint collaboration, Inclusive Minds, I hope that my biggest achievement will be gathering together a collective of people and making a real difference to the landscape of children’s publishing.
Alex: Establishing Inclusive Minds with Beth has definitely been a major highlight. I’m also incredibly proud to have worked with Ros Asquith and Frances Lincoln Books on an inclusive picture book I’ve co-written with Sean Stockdale, coming out this June! It feels like a real achievement to have actually made books like this (and the touch and feel book) happen, after years of wishing such books existed. Above all, I’m proud of really involving and listening to disabled children and their families, be it on these books, the Quentin Blake Award project or all the school resources I am currently creating with Booktrust.
6. If you could travel five years back in time what advice would you give yourself?
Beth: Five years ago I was stuck in a bit of a rut. Although I loved the company I worked for, I needed to move forward and my varied experience actually made it quite difficult for me to get a new job – I was either under or over qualified for every role. I wish I had known then that I would be where I am now. I always dreamed that I could do this, but I thought it was just that – a dream. So, I would have told myself not to worry, that I could make a success of being freelance, and that it would provide me with more opportunities than I could have imagined.
Alex: I think simply to have faith that we can make a difference, especially if we work together. It’s a slow process, but we are getting there, and as Beth says, we are starting to bring together other people with a real passion for this area.
7. And lastly if you were the living embodiment of a publishing business model what animal would you be and why?
Beth: The type of fish (I’m not sure which they are) that come together to seem bigger than their individual parts. By working collectively, they maintain their individuality, whilst achieving more than if they were working by themselves. This is what we hope to do with Inclusive Minds.
Alex: not very original, but I would say a chameleon, so we ensure the book world continues to adapt the way it presents itself to suit the many varied needs of children.
A huge thank you to Alex and Beth for taking the time to talk to us about this important subject that is very close to my heart. I highly recommend following them on Twitter (@WException and @Stricolo) and do go to the Equal Measures session at London Bookfair if you have a chance. If you have anything to do with children’s publishing, this is a must-be-involved-with topic.