TALKING POINT A Place at the Table

Inclusive Mindsa collaboration of consultants and campaigners with a passion for inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children's literature, hosted its third conference ‘A Place at the Table’ on 6 Feb 2018. Inclusive Minds was started six years ago by Alexandra Strick and Beth Cox. Penny Joelson, who attended this latest conference, writes that it was a celebration of the progress that has been made in that time, as well as an indicator of how important it is that people don’t get complacent, but continue and extend the good work.

One of the lovely things about the conference was that delegates sit at tables and that as well as listening to speakers, there were several opportunities for round table discussions. Delegates included publishers, authors, booksellers, representatives from different organisations and, most importantly, ‘Inclusive Minds ambassadors’. Having identified the need to make connections between book creators and people with ‘lived’ experience, Inclusive Minds has been developing this network of young people from diverse and under-represented backgrounds who have expressed a willingness to help authors ensure that the characters they create are as realistic as possible. The ambassadors include people from different cultural backgrounds, LGBT and disabled people. As an author, I have so far found my own sensitivity readers and advisers for my books, but now that I know this network exists, I am sure I will make use of it in future. The ambassadors I met were enthusiastic about working with authors, and gave us interesting and helpful insights into their experiences.

... one thing ambassadors wanted to see was incidental diversity – books where diverse characters are integral to the book, but not the central ‘issue’.

The first speaker, Juno Dawson, was happy to be in a more celebratory mood this year, having been at the first ‘A Place at the Table’ event three years ago. Back then, she said there was a lot of frustration, a feeling that the same conversations kept happening, but nothing was changing. Things are different now. She quoted a list of examples including Patrice Lawrence’s wonderful Orange Boy which won the YA Book Prize last year, and her latest book, Indigo Donut. (I loved both of these!) Also Angie Lawrence’s The Hate You Give which has hardly been off the New York Times Number One spot for a whole year. The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, with a transgender main character, was the best selling hardback debut of 2015, and Robin Steven’s detective series (the latest – A Spoonful of Murder), starring a young girl detective from Hong Kong, has been highly successful. Juno also referred to the good news that she is continuing to get publishing contracts herself.

The fact that the Carnegie and Greenaway team are involved in consultation about diversity is also very positive. Juno also reminded us that it is not only the actual books and authors that need to be more diverse, but also the people who make decisions about books. Her message was don’t think ‘we’ve done it’ but ‘keep it up!’

Around our table we then discussed barriers to inclusion. Comments included concern about getting it wrong, worry about a backlash and the issue of affinity bias – editors who naturally connect with books that remind them of themselves.

As a way forward, it was suggested that publishers need to take more risks and be less conservative. Possible concerns about foreign co-editions and that the market will be small for these books, have so far been proved to be unfounded. Juno told us that This Book is Gay had sold in 21 countries – more than any of her other books.

Author Robin Stevens talks about Inclusive Minds Ambassadors. Picture credit: Penny Joelson

Robin Stevens spoke about how she used Inclusive Minds ambassadors to help with her more recent books, and she said they gave her confidence and made useful suggestions. The young people who volunteer as Inclusive Minds ambassadors often aspire to work in publishing, writing or illustration themselves, so it is a mutually beneficial relationship as authors and illustrators can support them too.

Cerrie Burnell talked about her childhood experiences and encouraged authors to ‘write the things you know about, write the things that you want to see, write what you care really passionately about’.

We heard about lots of new projects: from Moon Lane Books, a new inclusive bookshop opening in London this month (April 2018), to Knights Of, a new inclusive publisher. Siena Parker from Penguin Random House spoke about their outreach project which aims to find, mentor and publish new writers from under-represented communities.

I was particularly moved by Nadine Kaadan, who said that when she tells people she comes from Syria, she is only asked about the war. That is people’s association with Syria. She wrote The Jasmine Sneeze to break this stereotype and focus on the smells of the beautiful city of Damascus. 

Breaking down stereotypes is key – and one thing ambassadors wanted to see was incidental diversity – books where diverse characters are integral to the book, but not the central ‘issue’.

It was an inspiring day, and I am very glad that I had the opportunity to attend.

To find out more about Inclusive Minds visit:

And if you are interested in becoming an ambassador for Inclusive Minds, know someone who would be interested or, if you would like to find an ambassador to help with something you are working on, visit:

Feature photo: Alexandra Strick, co-founder of Inclusive Minds. Photo by Penny Joelson


Penny Joelson is the author of I Have No Secrets, a YA thriller featuring a protagonist with severe cerebral palsy, which has been shortlisted for ten awards including the FCBG Children’s Book Award.
Twitter: @pennyjoelson 


Carry de la Harpe is features editor for Words & Pictures

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