Children’s authors, YA authors, I have two words for you: inclusion rider.
It’s the concept championed by Frances McDormand at the 2018 Oscars – the idea that anyone negotiating a film contract can request (or, better still, demand) 50:50 gender diversity in the cast and crew.
I’m saying we adapt this rider and use it to address one of the book industry’s inclusion issues – our problem with class.
The Bookseller recently highlighted a NLT study that said children from low income backgrounds miss out on author visits. Small beans, perhaps, until you consider the latest report from The Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, which shows that the privately-educated (just 7% of the population) are fives time more likely to occupy top professions, including those in the arts.
When we go into schools we bring our profession alive. We make a career as a writer seem real, achievable, within reach. If we only do this in the classrooms of the 7% we are part of the problem.
This is where the rider comes in, one that I steadfastly uphold and want you to as well.
When speaking at a private school, request (or, better still, demand) that a local state school is invited to join in. If that’s not possible, ask that they cover the cost of your author event to be repeated at a nearby state-funded school.
If you outline your reasons – I usually begin by saying that social mobility is an important issue to me – then a fee-paying school with a community conscience and space to accommodate others will agree.
I don’t rely on author visits to pay the mortgage (I bolster my book income writing for other media) so am in a position to make this a demand. If author visits are your bread and butter, and you cannot risk losing the booking, couch the rider as a polite request.
Mentioning the rider is key, slowly making the concept familiar, simple, expected.
I was state-educated in Peterborough, where I thought our family did all right for itself – we had a car, a bungalow and even went on holiday abroad when I was in my teens. When I got to university, and started working in the arts – first in journalism, then acting, before moving into writing – my perspective shifted.
Here were levels of parental wealth and prestige education that I hadn’t even fathomed existed, gifting my peers with confidence, connections, opportunities and time. They had the headstart, and the rest of us were running to catch up with our legs tied together.
Once I achieved some measure of success, I became a supporter of Arts Emergency, a charity that creates an ‘old boy’ network for the state-educated. I mentor for social mobility charity Brightside, advising young people how to access a career like mine. And, as a YA author, I vowed never to speak at private schools.
Until I did.
The bookshop arranged the visit and, via a series of miscommunications, I only realised on entering the school’s reception – wood-panelling, fresh flowers, plush armchairs, a view of the manicured gardens – exactly where I was.
I ran a workshop where Year 8s talked of reading Charlotte Bronte and Aldous Huxley just for kicks, and I quickly switched to writing exercises aimed at adults.
Later, a debate arose among Year 9s around an issue in my book The Big Lie – do some children deserve a better education than others? The pupils saying ‘yes’ believed their parents worked harder than everyone else, a stance challenged by the socially-conscious. The teacher who escorted me back to reception could hardly contain his joy that I had brought up what he called “the elephant in the room”.
That same week, I visited a state school in my hometown where the English teacher had forgotten I was coming and left me to teach his classes for the day. His bored A Level English Literature students were mostly reading Sylvia Day and they struggled with the writing exercises in which the private Year 8s had excelled.
That was my education and I’d done okay in spite of it, not because of it. I cried in the car on the way home.
And I began to listen to my agent who had always encouraged me to speak at private schools. Those Year 9s, she said, might not have debated education inequality had I not provoked it – those pupils who will be our future leaders, our future changemakers.
At the press conference following her rallying Oscar speech, McDormand warned against complacency and slacktivism. To make something ‘trend’, she said, is not enough.
So, please do share this article widely, but don’t forget you must also do something. Look to Kerry Hudson’s brilliant Breakthrough Festival and Kit De Waal’s crowdfunded Common People collection, as inspirational acts. And two words: inclusion rider.
Julie Mayhew is the author of four YA novels (Hot Key Books) and the forthcoming adult title Impossible Causes (Bloomsbury Raven).