Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Protests over picture books: LGBT+ inclusion by Juliet Clare Bell

Many people will have read about the protests outside two primary schools in Birmingham recently, with protesters arguing against the reading and discussing of certain picture books at certain ages in school.

This is very close to home -literally- and I'm a member of SEEDS (Supporting the Education of Equality and Diversity in Schools), which was set up in the wake of the protests. At Birmingham Pride this year, we marched alongside people from the Muslim LGBT+ community and for the first time, the parade was led by prominent Muslim LGBT+ members Khakan Qureshi and Saima Razzaq, and also Andrew Moffat, who created the No Outsiders Programme. The joyful nature of the parade felt a long way from the protests and felt like a massive celebration of the wonderful diversity of Birmingham, and of teaching of acceptance and love. Very different was the meeting soon after in a highly charged setting with our local MP (who has, controversially, backed the protesters, directly at odds with his own party). As a picture book author and local parent, I’d like to talk about some of the books that are being read in the schools in the light of the protests.

No Outsiders Programme 

Created by Andrew Moffat, deputy head at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham, No Outsiders is a programme followed in some primary schools, using 35 picture books (five each year from Reception through to Year 6) to help open up discussions about inclusion and equality, alongside all the many other books the children will be reading/have read to them. Here are the picture books deemed controversial by some:

Mommy, Mama and Me (Leslea Newman and Carol Thompson),

                                                           (c) Carol Thompson (2009)

King and King (Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland)

                                                                (c) Stern Nijland (2002)

And Tango Makes Three (Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole)

                                                           (c) Henry Cole (2015)

and My Princess Boy (Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone).

                                                         (c) Suzanne DeSimone (2011)

In addition to these four books whose main characters/families are in same sex relationships or who do not conform to gender norms, there are two others about families in general which include mention (and pictures) of same sex couples in families alongside many other non LGBT+ families:

The Family Book by Todd Parr (used with Reception children)

                                                                 (c) Todd Parr (2010)

                                                                 (c) Todd Parr (2010)

“Some families have two mums or two dads. Some families have one parent instead of two.”
                                                                 (c) Todd Parr (2010)

And The Great Big Book of Families, by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith (used with Year 2 children)

                                                               (c) Ros Asquith (2015)

The book talks about lots of different families before moving on to different homes, holidays, food etc. It’s a beautiful, inclusive book.

"Some children have two mummies or two daddies.  And some are adopted or fostered."
                                                               (c) Ros Asquith (2015)

But back to the four books that have caused the most controversy. As with so many books for young children, these are about relationships and love. It seems almost absurd to mention it but because of all the misinformation, it’s worth stating that they are in no way whatsoever about sex.

Mommy, Mama and Me (read in Reception, with five- and six-year olds) is about a loving family unit with two parents doing ordinary, everyday things with their child. 

                                                            (c) Carol Thompson (2009)

“Mommy gently combs my hair. Mama rocks me in her chair”
                                                           (c) Carol Thompson (2009)

“Mommy packs a yummy snack.  Mama rides me on her back.”
                                                         (c) Carol Thompson (2009)

At the end of the simple story, Mommy and Mama kiss the child good night.

That is all. It’s like many other lovely picture books for young children about the important adults in their life.

King and King (Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland is read in Year 4 (with eight- and nine- year-olds).

                                                             (c) Stern Nijland (2002)

It’s a fairy tale about a prince whose mother, the Queen, is trying to marry him off to a princess. He’s not interested in any of the princesses she’s lined up for him. Instead, he falls in love with the brother of one of the princesses, and as with many fairy tales: "it was love at first sight":

                                                               (c) Stern Nijland (2002)

and the two princes marry instead.

In year 5 (where the children are nine- and ten- years old), And Tango Makes Three is introduced.

                                                               (c) Henry Cole (2015)

This is the true story of two male penguins in Central Park Zoo who paired up and eventually (after trying to incubate a stone)

                                                               (c) Henry Cole (2015)

were given an egg that needed looking after. They incubated the egg, which hatched successfully and they brought up the baby penguin as their own.

In Year 6, the final year of primary school, where the children are ten and eleven years old, they read (alongside the other books in the No Outsiders programme, and countless other books)

Suzanne DeSimone (2011)

My Princess Boy
This is another story of love and acceptance, written by a mother about her son who likes to wear dresses and who is completely loved exactly as he is.

Suzanne DeSimone (2011)

These are the books that have proved so controversial (you can see the full No Outsiders reading list here:)         No Outsiders book list

As with the other books on the list (including our own 'Denner's You Choose -Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt, Elmer -David McKee and Red Rockets and Rainbow Jelly -Sue Heap and Nick Sharratt), these books are about acceptance and love, saying that it's ok to be you, showing children that different people like different things.

These books cover protected characteristics in the Equalities Act 2010. It is illegal to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their gender, or gender reassignment, or race or religion, and (with the shocking exception of Northern Ireland) same sex marriage is legal here and holds equal weight in law with marriage between a man and a woman. This is not controversial subject matter for this country. These books are merely reflecting reality and ensuring, for example, that the many children of two mums can see themselves in a book, and those children without two mums can see that a slightly different family set up is still in many ways similar to their own. 

We need to encourage empathy in children, and picture books that reflect the wonderful diversity of the place we live in are crucial. Children need to see themselves and their families, and they need to see other families that are different from their own, in picture books. This includes children of different ethnicities, with disabilities, and families and children from the LGBT+ community. One protected characteristic does not over-ride another. All these characteristics are protected. We don't get to say one should be more protected than another. Our job -and the legal duty of schools- is to protect them all. What better way than introducing them in attractive picture books that are engaging and welcoming?

And yet we are witnessing some very uncomfortable scenes, far removed from the loving and accepting nature of these books...

Anderton Park School (one of our local schools) currently has an exclusion zone around it so that children and staff are not intimidated and/or frightened by the protesters who were standing outside at the end of the school day, chanting. Having been banned from outside the school, the protesters are now protesting slightly further away outside the exclusion zone, though on some days their shouting can still be heard near the school. When a group of us from SEEDS went to our local MP’s surgery to talk with him about his views on the age-appropriateness of these picture books, the police were out in force to ensure our safety. This was at an MP surgery session –to talk about the picture books mentioned above. These are books about acceptance and love. 

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the head teacher, said last week at a meeting on Defending Equality, that this protest has “at times, crushed my soul”. She said how she loves that it is her duty as head teacher, to foster relationships between those people with protected characteristics (under the Equalities Act 2010) and those without, and that equality is woven “into everything we do”, and that although the ongoing protest “has broken our hearts… we are not broken because Anderton Park is built on equality”.  Anderton Park School doesn’t follow the No Outsiders programme. They use many hundreds of books throughout school including some of the same books mentioned above (Mommy, Mama and Me; My Princess Boy, and And Tango Makes Three). She said at the meeting that they didn’t have consultation with the parents about using those specific books in school because they are doing nothing different from what they are always doing –teaching acceptance and equality.

There has been so much misinformation about the books being used in schools. I do not want to write too much about the protesters as I do think that the story has been manipulated by the media to make it look like it’s a more generalised problem than it is. The vast majority of schools are not experiencing these problems -including the vast majority of schools in Birmingham. But It is really worth watching the statement made by Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, who was brought in to try and mediate between Anderton Park School and the protesters:

Nazir Afzal's comments on the protests (scroll down on his site for his excellent video statement. It should be essential viewing)

In the Defending Equality meeting last week, MP for the nearby constituency of Birmingham, Yardley, Jess Phillips, talked about her concern and upset about the misrepresentation in the press of these protests. Although she was filmed challenging the main protester (who is not actually a parent of anyone at the school), she wanted to point out that in her own nearby constituency with approximately 40% of constituents of Bangladeshi- and Pakistani- origin, not a single person has mentioned it to her. This is simply not the fight that is most important to most people, she said, and she hates that it has been portrayed as such in the media.

Many Muslims in the UK have experienced an increase in Islamophobia and general racism in recent years and are feeling vulnerable. Many people in the LGBT+ community are also feeling vulnerable at the moment. Those who are LGBT+ within the Muslim community are some of the most vulnerable of all. We are living in very uncertain times politically. If people felt less marginalised, there would be easier dialogue and discussions and considerably less likelihood of outside parties managing to spread misinformation (as discussed by Nazir Afzal, above). Let’s work together –as writers, humans, parents, neighbours, teachers, citizens to ensure that we don’t choose one protected characteristic over another -that we fight racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, discrimination against those with disabilities together. As picture book writers, let us keep writing books that encourage empathy, with diverse characters so that everyone can feel seen. Publishers, let us see more diverse writers and illustrators being published and greater authentic diversity in our picture books. Let's be less defensive and more willing to have difficult conversations, accept that we will make mistakes along the way as we learn, and allow others to make mistakes and learn from them, too, as we try to celebrate diversity in all its richness. But one thing is clear: showing diversity in books should not be a debate. And nor should sharing those books with young children. It should be our duty.

Would reading more diverse books have helped you as a child? If you're happy to say how, please do comment in the comments section, below. And if you have any other thoughts, please share them. Many thanks.

Juliet Clare Bell is a picture book author, whose next picture book (which she will be able to announce soon) is due for release in 2020. Her experience of doing author visits in schools in this area has been overwhelmingly positive and still believes that this is solvable. Love, ultimately, will win.


Please feel free to comment, below. Many thanks.


Kerry Jenkins said...

Thanks for this really useful post and for taking the time to write the blog. As one of the two councillors for Moseley, and with Anderton Park School coming under my Ward, I have been supporting the staff, parents and children at the school since the protests started. I quickly find out that there are large amounts of misinformation shared with parents and found that this has been difficult to dispel. It is great to have something written like this that can be used by us all to educate, challenge and dispel the many myths that have been perpetuated.

Leila said...

Thanks for this comprehensive post. I cannot see how anyone could object to those books. Anyone (and there will be some) complaining about a 'gay agenda' should stop and think how often books have pushed a 'straight agenda' and a 'white agenda' and a 'nuclear family agenda' on children for years. As you say, diversity is not a debate, it is a duty.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you so much for your comment, Kerry. It is so sad to see the misinformation that has been spread by small numbers of people with a certain agenda, which is definitely not fighting discrimination and the teaching of acceptance and love. All these books can be viewed on Youtube by searching their names so any parents can actually see the whole books for themselves but it is so hard to dispel fake news. The spoken statement by mediator Nazir Afzal, which I've put in the blog post is extremely good. I wish all parents could see it. Thanks again, Clare.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Leila. As you have said elsewhere, there are many Muslims who do not feel this way and who welcome diverse books being used in schools. The misinformation handed out to parents has been done very strategically and the alliance with some far right people/organisations is very disturbing.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

from Robbie Donaldson: I tried to leave comments on the blog but couldn't do it through my phone. When I first saw the picture for Mommy, Mama and ME, I had to look twice to see what "the problem" might have been; I saw smiling faces, security and love, lots of love. Isn't that what any child, of any shape, colour or creed needs to succeed? x

Leila said...

FWIW I know that similar dis- and mis-information on many other topics, for example on 'what atheists believe' is handed out, outside mosques in our area. The current homophobic protests are the visible tip of a big iceberg. We also need to look at what Christian (and other) faith schools are teaching. Just being a faith school should never excuse you from teaching equality and the truth about beliefs and ways of life that differ from your own.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

It is true. And it was interesting at the Defending Equality talk last week when Jess Phillips (MP) was talking about the upcoming Relationships Education that will be brought in in September 2020 as compulsory. She was involved in the legislation and stressed the necessity of making it compulsory, citing her work with domestic abuse survivors. She said that if it weren't compulsory, children who are witness to domestic abuse would be some of those deliberately withdrawn from Relationships Education.
The protesters in Anderton Park Road are regularly referring to larger lobbying groups who are fighting against Relationships Education being compulsory. Exposing children to people whose family set ups are different from their own family set up should be happening in all schools, regardless of whether it's a faith school, or whether the majority of children in that school are of one faith. We have got a very long way to go -but I will never stop being long-term optimistic about acceptance and love winning through, even when the current climate sometimes feels so bleak. And there are always wonderful examples of good practice (great practice) to learn from.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

I agree so much, Robbie. Happiness, security and love -it's what most children would take away from that book whether their family set up is the same or different.

Candy Gourlay said...

Thank you for writing this, Claire. These are important books. Our world needs them.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

They are. There are lots of other great LGBT+ picture books and I thought about listing some but I thought it might confuse things here as it's showing the exact books that the protests have been about (but I do think you might like Morag Hood's latest: Aalfred and Aalbert -about two aadvarks. A certain person of our acquaintance loves it SO MUCH!) x