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Aino-Maria Kangas
Children’s books and child readers’ diverse reality

Vier Menschenfigure mit Büchern in den Händen. Blumen im Vordergrund.
© Mira Piitulainen

​Who is visible and whose voice is heard in the media and the arts? These questions arise in social and cultural debate and in analysing contemporary children’s and young adult literature. Both minorities and the majority need children’s literature that reflects the diversity of society. What kinds of books are needed to ensure that all children have a share in the stories? How are they prepared for publication?

By Aino-Maria Kangas

At the end of April the Goethe-Institut Finnland and The Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature organized a webinar Towards a more diverse literature for children: a meeting point and how to get started to examine these issues. More than a hundred participants from all over Finland and Europe gathered to listen and join the debate. 

The speakers reflected on a range of issues including how the diversity of children’s literature can be enhanced to meet the growing demand. One question raised in the discussion was whether it is worth talking about diversity as anything other than a reality. Anna Moring, leading expert of the Diverse Families network said they use the term diverse reality to describe the different realities in which the families live.

Models of family in children’s and young adult books

Diversity includes not just types of family, but includes all kinds of cultural backgrounds, genders, sexualities, and bodies, as well as constraints. In this context, it is interesting to look at the diversity of family structures in children’s books. The Finnish Children’s Book Institute publishes statistics on children’s and young adult books – Kirjakori – which include information about the models of family in these books. According to the statistics, at least in children’s picture books there would be scope for more diverse images of family. 

Moring pointed out that the diversity of families is widespread: there are lots of alternative models of family, from patchwork to bicultural families, and one in three families takes one of these many different forms, at least at some point in a child’s life. However, only 12% of picture books published in Finland last year described anything other than nuclear families, as shown in Kirjakori 2020 Statistics. This means that many young children lack stories that describe their own reality or future. 

Diverse families often appear in children’s and young adult novels. The nuclear family is the most described family structure, and the proportion of other types of family in children’s books is close to the real figure, 29%. If you count the large number of single-parent families in young adult books, the combined share of diverse family structures is 60%. However, these figures hide the fact that members of these families may take up just a few paragraphs in the books. 

If you look at all the books published for children and young adults in Finland last year (which in general described any family situation), one thing stands out that occurs very generally in reality: the two-home model is represented in only three volumes. In comparison, there are 145 books describing nuclear families, 30 books describing families with single mothers and just 7 with single fathers. Of course, telling a story set in two homes presents its own challenges, but this could be seen as an opportunity. It might be more difficult to tell a story set in a nuclear family that has not already been told.

It would be fairer to children and young people to have more or less equal numbers of stories about each family structure (or any other manifestation of diversity). This need not be commercially unviable. The webinar speakers made it clear that a good story is the most important thing in all children’s literature; if it has this, the book will interest all readers. 

We need creators with different backgrounds

The number of publications doesn’t tell the whole story. At the webinar we also talked about how diversity is embodied in books. Postdoctoral researcher Jaana Pesonen pointed out that a mere difference in the physical appearance of children’s book characters is not enough: we need to think about diversity on many different levels. Pesonen also said that in Finland, the majority of characters and creators in children’s literature are still white Finns. This easily leads to configurations in which diversity is shown as different, rather than as normal. Thus, some well-intentioned literature may paint a distorted picture of reality.

Germany is ahead of Finland in recognizing the value of diverse children’s books. Frank Kühne, the editor in chief of Germany’s largest children’s book publisher, Carlsen, said in his talk that diversity has come to be more the rule than the exception, as it corresponds to the reality of the target audience. So publishing diverse books is easy to justify in a business sense. German publishers have acknowledged the importance of diverse books for a long time, and previously published them as a contribution to society. Today, diverse books are published for both social and economic reasons. There is still room for improvement in the children’s book market in Germany, where the aim is to find more diverse creators to tell more diverse stories.

Finland, too, is waking up to the more diverse reality. Creators from diverse backgrounds are in demand, and during the webinar children’s author Johanna Lestelä and illustrator Carlos da Cruz talked about their experiences in the Finnish children’s book community and gave participants advice on issues such as how to approach publishers. Lestelä, who is well known for her series of Tuikku books, stressed the importance of having a clear idea of the book as well as an active and persistent approach to finding a publisher. Giving the manuscript to beta readers and especially the target audience will help to mirror the reality child readers live in. Da Cruz spoke about how important it is to know your history and encouraged creators to make use of their own cultural background in shaping their identity as artists. In his series, Apassit, he drew on his Portuguese roots, French background, and everything he has learned about Finnish culture, to make the books stand out. He also stressed how important it is to find a publisher that suits your own style.

Let the story lead you into a diverse world

Finland publishes a lot of literature whose diversity goes unnoticed by many. Illustrator Emmi Jormalainen stressed that sometimes elements of diversity are not mentioned deliberately, for instance on the back cover, because it would shift the focus from the core of the work. Authors J.S. Meresmaa and Magdalena Hai mentioned in the discussion that fantasy is filled with descriptions of diversity, but this gets lost among other elements of the genre unless it is specifically highlighted. Of course, it is harder to draw comparisons with reality in fantasy than in realist literature, but diversity in these other worlds may be just as present as in the real world.

What is a good children’s or young adult book that mirrors the diversity of real life? Moring hinted that the aim is not to describe all aspects of a particular issue, but to let the story guide you. Lestelä encouraged authors to think carefully about what story they want their book to tell, and to whom, avoiding stereotypes. According to Pesonen, the concept of safe space can help here – a safe book does not contain hostility and welcomes all readers into the world of the story.

What kind of world would you write?