Conversations around making the literature sector in Ireland more inclusive have been happening for some time, and the publication of Arts Council Ireland’s Equality, Human Rights and Diversity Policy in 2019 put a focus on the need for diversity across all artforms, so that no one is excluded.
In its policy, the Arts Council talks about promoting “equality of opportunity, access and outcomes for all those living in Ireland regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, civil or family status, religion, age, disability, race or membership of the Traveller community”. Socio-economic background is named as a further protected characteristic. It is these characteristics that Children’s Books Ireland has taken as the criteria for inclusion in our upcoming publication, Free To Be Me: The Diversity, Inclusion and Representation Reading Guide. The guide is introduced by Roderic O’Gorman, Ireland’s Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration & Youth.
The Free To Be Me project celebrates diversity, representation and inclusion in books for children and young people. The Free To Be Me reading guide features original cover artwork commissioned from illustrator Ashwin Chacko. The guide recommends 368 excellent books in both English and Irish, each accompanied by a “read also” recommendation. Each title has been selected based on its characters, rather than its creators, and all titles are indexed under themes or tags that align with the Equal Status Acts 2000–2018 or protected characteristics of equality legislation set out by the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission.
The aim of Free To Be Me is to raise awareness of the selected books among children, young people, teachers, families and other adults who influence children’s reading. We talk often in the literature sector about mirrors and windows, but the old adage holds that there is power both in reading a story that reflects your own and in getting an understanding of another’s perspective and experience.
Ultimately, the conversations that follow these readings may help to build a more equitable society, ensuring that all children and their families feel welcomed, valued, celebrated and respected. Free To Be Me recognises the potential of every child and young person in Ireland to learn about and better understand the richness and beauty of difference, and to understand their responsibility to protect each other’s right to be different and to live free from discrimination. Every child has the right to be free to be themselves.
With significant support from KPMG, a (primary and secondary) school resource pack will be developed, providing high-quality activities and creative means of engaging with 44 of the books recommended in Free To Be Me. KPMG staff will volunteer in schools in their local community, participating in a four-week programme that will introduce some of the featured books, and donate 100 books to each of seven schools. CBI will build on this idea by donating Free To Be Me Little Libraries to schools all over the island in the coming years, with over 50 libraries already funded (a value of over €50,000).
CBI’s experience of working with schools is that a common area of need is reading material that reflects school populations. The withdrawal of the school libraries grant in 2008 has prevented the majority of schools from keeping their library shelves stocked with books that reflect modern Ireland. Bunting, stickers, bookmarks and posters will bring a celebratory atmosphere to the schools.
The project also recognises that how children read varies depending on their preferences, abilities and needs. In partnership with the National Council for the Blind, Ireland, a database of the five accessible formats for each included title will be available, making it easier for young readers with visual impairments, dyslexia or other reading difficulties to access the books. The database will also include all languages that titles are published in other than English (or Irish). An accessible version of Free To Be Me will also be available to download free of charge.