Julia Eccleshare’s recent analysis of the children’s book industry trends has shed interesting light that most books published recently have focussed around family issues. It’s a trend we’ve noticed as well, and this isn’t exactly a problem – except when you’re trying to find books to give to every child in the country.
When you’re looking for a book that can appeal to children of every background, things get tricky. Many of the issues now popular in children’s books (family breakdown, accidents, deaths and mental health problems), could potentially be triggering to a child who has experienced trauma from similar situations.
In England alone, there are 72,670 children and young people in care who are looked after by their local authority. The wellbeing needs of those children are often much greater than for other children, and books can be a vital source of escapism and adventure. One child let us know that books "have really taken my mind off my problems". Another child said about a book: "I thought I was in a different world because I was enjoying it so much!"
Accurate representation is also important at an age when children begin to read on their own. Children should be able to see themselves in a story, and it’s an opportunity to inspire them, but some portrayals of difference are shown as negative and holding them back rather than being a normal part of everyday life.
This is particularly problematic with characters who are only defined by a disability or when alternative family settings aren’t represented accurately. There are some great examples of heroes in stories who have been fostered or orphaned, the most famous being Harry Potter. But we’re also looking for stories that normalise a child’s situation – why can’t a character just happen to live with a foster carer and then the main story carries on? It’s just as important for children to see themselves represented in the background, in normal life, rather than the character’s entire journey being dictated by their parents’ status (living/dead/missing).
It’s great to see children’s books tackling such difficult topics, and lots of children will benefit from reading them, but often those are children who have never experienced those issues themselves. The increasing gap in the market for pure adventure and fantasy books as well as authentic representation means many children are in danger of not getting the escape they need. What's key is there being lots of different books out there with different themes enabling all children to find a book that they can connect with and escape into.
Diana Gerald is c.e.o of BookTrust.