Authors, agents and publishers have praised the increase in the number of books with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and mental health themes in 2015, but added that more needs to be done in terms of publishing BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) authors and books that feature characters with disabilities.
Catherine Johnson (pictured), the author of several children’s books, including The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, said there has been a “blossoming” of work by LGBT authors this year. Citing authors such ase Liz Kessler, James Dawson and Sarah Benwell, she said: “The publishing industry has seen that books with LGBT characters and themes can be strong sellers as well as critical successes. Readers and bloggers have shown publishers there is an active demand for books that honestly reflect gender and sexuality.”
Tom Bonnick, business development manager and commissioning editor at Nosy Crow, said many books were now being published in which being LGBT is “just a fact of identity” and not a “sideshow”, singling out George by Alex Gino (Scholastic).
Johnson also highlighted the increase in the number of books tackling mental health issues, citing Holly Bourne’s “marvellous” Am I Normal Yet?, and pointed out that “even Zoella’s bestselling protagonist [in Girl Online] has panic attacks”.
Jasmine Richards, author and senior commissioning editor for children’s fiction at Oxford University Press, said diversity had “never been such a livewire topic” in publishing and praised the launch of Megaphone, a writer development scheme for authors from BAME backgrounds.
However, she also said that the industry has “a long way to go if we are going to see more books that reflect children of all backgrounds and see a publishing industry that reflects the society around us. If we don’t reflect all the young people in our society then we will lose them to other forms of media that do a better job of representing them.”
James Catchpole of The Catchpole Literary Agency, said he had noticed a “timely” shift from the idea that it was enough for “well-meaning straight, white, able-bodied authors to write gay/disabled/BAME characters, to the idea that we need to discover those voices directly”.
“As a disabled person, I know that even authors with close experience of disability are going to get it wrong—often,” he said. “Of course it’s the same with white authors writing people of colour. So the real solution is to have more diversity at every level of the industry.”
Catchpole stressed that he did not think straight, white, able-bodied authors should not try to write more diversely, but said they should “take it on the chin” if they get it wrong. “It’s not enough to just have good intentions,” he said.
Looking forward to 2016, Johnson said she wanted to seen more books about children from different social classes and more books with BAME characters, and urged publishers to put those characters on cover of the books. “I visit libraries and schools and run writing workshops with young people,” she said. “When they write stories, these black and brown British children will only write about white characters. Because as these lovely articulate children tell me: ‘People who look like me don’t have adventures’.”
Richards said she would also like to see more books in which children from all backgrounds go on fantastical adventures, because fantasy is not “just for characters that are white, straight or non-disabled”. Bonnick agreed, saying that if publishers only allowed BAME writers to write about BAME issues they would create silos. “I want to see submissions from authors of all backgrounds, writing about whatever they feel like.”
Cat Anderson, a bookseller at The Edinburgh Bookshop, said she would like to see more on refugees, immigration and communities coming together, as well as how disabilities affect children. “I’m hearing-impaired and the impact of self-esteem is immense. I am also interested in dyslexia and in lifelong language impairments that affect the everyday understanding of the world around us.”
Transgender author James Dawson urged retailers to support diverse literature, saying: “There are wonderfully diverse books out there. YA authors are writing them and publishers are publishing them. What we need is retailers to champion those titles. Moaning about a lack of diversity on Twitter isn’t doing much to champion the diverse books that are out there, on shelves, ready to buy.”