"Children's books are a way of preserving human rights in a democracy," Shami Chakrabati (pictured), director of human rights organisation Liberty, reminded the publishers, booksellers, teachers and librarians at last week's Diversity Matters conference to focus on making children's publishing more reflective of its readership.
Chakrabati, "once a voracious consumer of children's books", read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as "a thinly veiled metaphor for the war on terror", with surveillance, torture and interception of owls all presented as valid strategies in the battle against You-Know-Who. She concluded: "Presenting different children's lives for all children, presenting the truth about a complex and diverse society will be for the benefit of everyone."
And this need not mean contrived or politically correct publishing, says Louise Kanolik, librarian at Loxford school of science and technology in the London borough of Redbridge, which has 75 per cent ethnic minority students and 20 per cent refugees on roll. "Our students don't see colour, race or religion, they want a book about life as they see it, with everyone in it of different cultures just as life is, not tokenism." Such books couldn't fail to attract a wide readership, she argued. "You don't have to be a Martian to enjoy science fiction."
Author Beverley Naidoo said: "Have you ever heard Alice Walker, Nadine Gordimer or Chinua Achebe described as 'issues' writers? This kind of labelling does not happen in adult fiction."
Shami Chakrabati wanted delegates at the Arts CouncilCentre for Literacy in Primary Education conference to try to do better than "our political leaders (who) are good at telling us what the problems are but not so good at antidotes or solutions".
Some solutions are in the making: two major publishers have sponsored traineeships to attract non-white graduates (an area where film and television are far ahead of the publishing world) with a long-term goal of changing the book world's white middle-class image; the Frances Lincoln New Voices award will be given from next year for a picture book and a novel for younger children by unpublished authorsillustrators, which "celebrate diversity by content or authorship". Read more about the problems and the solutions on www.tes.co.ukbookmarks.