A reflection on book lists, in the wake of Children’s Book Week.
In the twenty-first century, lists have become a ubiquitous way of organising information. On social media, where many people vicariously live out their existence, lists have an enviable pull on our psyche. So much so, that lists are probably now one of the most popular ways to package content on the internet – for both marketers and consumers. We’ve even been known to use a few in our blog.
Lists have many benefits for the reader: they make the reading experience quantifiable before we even begin, they are self-validating as well as offering the prospect of new information, and they organise content intuitively in an easy-to-digest format. Lists have always been a guilty pleasure for book lovers who, when asked, regularly lament the impossibility of ever categorising their likes and dislikes while at the same time lining up novels in their head into an order they can gleefully divulge if really pressed to do so.
So within an industry on which lists have more of a stranglehold than most, what kind of impact can lists have on the fortunes of culturally diverse books? Diverse children’s titles rarely make it onto the UK’s ‘Absolutely Best in the World Ever’ lists, generally because they are compiled by people who are remembering their own childhood and the sort of books they read when they were growing up. Take the list compiled by the Book Trust in celebration of Children’s Book Week last week: out of the hundred ‘best books’ they listed, only four could have any claim to being diverse.
Diverse books (in the widest sense) fared better on the Book Trust’s recent Guide to the Best Books of 2015, a list that included nine such titles out of a possible fifty and included books in which race was not a subject in and of itself [was not held up as a category of difference] (Fifteen Things Not to Do with a Baby written by Margaret McAllister and illustrated by Holly Sterling is one example). This is an indication, perhaps, that children’s book lists are starting to become more inclusive, in recognition of the wider range of diverse titles that are beginning to appear on the market in the current climate.
In the end, however, lists tie up the publishing industry in a bit of a Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, book lists that don’t include many diverse texts often serve as a call to arms for those in the industry who are angry at institutions perpetuating a lack of inclusivity. There a was a furore on Twitter when the BBC unironically published a list of ‘The Greatest Children’s Books for all Time’ to celebrate International Children’s Book Day, which contained only two books that were not Anglo-American (The Little Prince and Pippi Longstocking). Rather dangerously (if lists can ever be described using such hyperbole), there is something about lists that sounds clear-cut and authoritative and that’s-an-end-to-it, particularly when they have been published by an institution as culturally significant as the BBC. It was probably this fact, above any other, that inspired many incensed commentators to challenge such narrow definitions of greatness by sharing their own rival lists, bringing to the fore culturally diverse and other inclusive titles that deserve attention from the book-buying public.
The problem with these rival lists is that they often tend to include ONLY diverse titles, excluding anything not specifically challenging the status quo. An immediate antidote to the glaring omissions in documents such as those published by the BBC, these lists carry the unlooked-for suggestion that diverse titles only have a claim to greatness when held up against other similar texts.
There obviously is a place for lists that highlight books that are multicultural, feature LGBT characters and include people with disabilities – they engage readers whose experiences don’t fit with those most often portrayed in mainstream publishing and get people interested and excited about the range of different books out there, just waiting to be bought and read. However, what the children’s book industry really needs is list-makers who are aware of the well-documented psychological power of lists and who use this power wisely and sensitively to create lists where the margins and the mainstream come together seamlessly to create an inclusive whole. That is how you write a list.
Here’s to all the future lists that will reflect what everybody is reading and showcase the amazing diverse books that we could and should be reading alongside the well-known Anglo-American classics.