A survey of young readers says that inclusive treatment of disability in books benefits everyone, reports Geraldine Brennan
Quentin Blake picks up his pen watched by a group of Year 9 critics who want stories and images that reflect the full range of abilities children experience. So in the playground scene that he draws for St George's C of E school in Gravesend, Kent, a wheelchair and a walking frame are part of the picture.
He'd already seen one of his published illustrations, the "Chocolate Fudge Banana Cake" spread from his picture book, All Join In, reinterpreted by Louis Acott of St George's. Louis and his classmates have been reworking images by Blake and other top children's book illustrators as part of a project to examine how disability is reflected (or not) in children's books.
"I don't recognise that pig flying past," said Blake when Louis's picture was unveiled. "And is that a pram or an amazing haircut? But it's very good, it's very hard to do that without a scratchy nib."
At the launch of the project's report, Blake copied Louis's version of the All Join In picture (which, as well as a flying pig, included a child in a walking frame).
St George's was one of 30 schools that responded to a consultation on the Booktrust project. It was funded by the Roald Dahl Foundation through an award made personally by Quentin Blake as the foundation's president. The report argues that images related to disability and the introduction of disabled characters in a positive and uncontrived way is crucial to reflect a true picture of society and benefit all children, as well as making those with disabilities feel part of the picture in their books.
Project manager Alexandra Strick said many of the most pressing calls for change had come from mainstream schools. "It's clear that children in general want books that reflect how all children's lives are."
As Krystal Smith from Year 9 at St George's put it: "Some people find it hard to talk to disabled people so they take the mickey out of them. They should be in books naturally like everyone else. Nobody should be shut in a box: everyone should be treated the same."
Meanwhile the disability organisation Scope's three-year project In the Picture, to promote the inclusion of disabled children in early-years picture books, is under way with an image bank of successfully inclusive pictures from contemporary books and a guestbook section with contributions from parents and teachers.
The Quentin Blake Award project report, Making Exclusion a Thing of the Past: children's views on disability in books", can be downloaded from www.bookmark.org.uk www.childreninthepicture.org.uk