Monday, 31 August 2015

Books make a difference...

If you're an author or a book illustrator or a story-lover in general you'll already know that books make a difference and sometimes they can have such a profound impact on readers that they cause thought or life altering changes. Non-fiction books are often designed to do just that of course. I'm thinking of well-written sensible self-help books that can inform, encourage and prevent people from feeling so alone with a particular difficulty. Often if you have no one to talk too or place to find advice it's a book that can help you get started in the right direction. So books like that can be a healthy starting point to moving onward.

But fiction can often have this effect too. The dilemmas, set-backs, traumas and tragedies that characters in stories face, journey through and overcome often reflect what may be going on in real life for a reader. There is a lot of strength and encouragement that can be gained from finding a like-minded soul in a book who becomes your friend and inspiration as you read. 

This doesn't apply only to books for grown-ups. Heroes and heroines in children's books can be good role models and offer life lessons often in quite subtle ways.

In recent years there has been a fair bit of talk about ensuring that children with disabilities or children who live with family difficulties of varying kinds are represented in children's books. There are more books being produced now that ensure that this does happen and it's something I really do feel very passionate about. Why? Well, first of all for all the reasons about the good effects of books I've mentioned above. And secondly...imagine you are a child who is deaf or a wheelchair user or has a complicated autism spectrum disorder - or maybe you have a sibling who has profound difficulties or you are a 'young carer' spending hours every day taking care of a parent and doing chores that most kids are never asked or expected to do. You pick up a book and everyone in it seems to be living in an entirely different world than the one you live in. No one has your issues. Someone like you or someone with a family like yours simply doesn't exist. You don't feel included or represented.

Copyright R Hawkes

While stories are meant to be escapist and entertaining and fun (and no one wants characters who only do dull everyday things) there is something special for young readers about finding a story that makes them think "I'm like that. I know what that's like. He/she is just like me."

There is another reason why stories that include characters, especially main characters, who have different disabilities or difficulties is a good thing. They help all children absorb the values of inclusion, kindness, social cohesion in a quite natural and subtle way. No big lectures, no being talked at by teachers - just stories that show what life may be like for others. Stories that get you thinking and put you in touch with others whose lives may be a bit different to your own. There is no need, of course, for such stories to go overboard on issues! It's enough for a character to just happen to be in a wheelchair or just happen to have Down's Syndrome...and for no particular big deal to be made of this. In other words, as I often say, for a hero or heroine to just happen to have a disability in the same way that someone might happen to have size three feet or brown hair. And, of course, at the same time being realistic and positive.

Copyright Karl Newson

So for your children, grandchildren, the children you work with or know, search out some good books that reflect the lives of all children so that they learn about others and develop an empathy and understanding for all types of people. Let's support authors and publishers who are good at enabling children feel represented in stories so that all young readers will come across more books with characters that make them think "I'm like that. I know what that's like. He/she is just like me!" Because all children are unique and all children are special.

Hilary Hawkes

Strawberry Jam Books