Children’s literature is full of freedom. It explores worlds of fantasy, magic, loss, joy, and absolutely everything in between. Young minds are so creative, and so eager to learn; children are crucially influenced by what they read and are affected by this as they grow up and form opinions about the world around them. So, when writers do not tap into all that wonderful possibility where boundaries are endless, it’s disappointing to witness.
It is so important that children read about more than white, straight, able-bodied characters, because this is not at all a reflection of the world around them and it will not teach them tolerance and acceptance of others around them. If children are introduced to a wide and diverse range of characters that represent the very real demographics of the world, they are much more likely to have an understanding and familiarity when they meet people who are different to them.
Fear and ignorance are deeply rooted causes for racism and prejudice. When people meet people different from them or who are not a majority within their own social bubbles, the first reaction can be to turn against them through a lack of understanding. Many children might not have met someone ethically, physically, mentally, or religiously different than them until they break out of that bubble as they grow older. But if children meet a wide range of diverse people in their literature from an early age then it means they have that initial understanding and education that prepares them to meet a whole host of people unlike them later in life.
Jaqueline Wilson is a fantastic example of an author who knows how to represent different people in society in a natural, healthy and sympathetic way. Her stories feature disabled characters, ethnically diverse characters, characters with single parents, characters who are poor, characters who are rich, and characters who are extremely real. Wilson’s characters are so fantastic because they show children from a young age that we are not all the same, and Wilson presents individuality and diversity through openness and celebration, rather than fear and hesitancy. I remember reading the book ‘Katy’ which was based on ‘What Katy did’ and it was the first time I’d read about a character who used a wheelchair. Looking back I’m so glad that children who weren’t able bodied would have seen themselves represented in novels like these. The most beautiful thing about diverse characters in literature is that children can meet characters in a fictional world, and when they see different types of people reflected in the real world, it isn’t scary, and their first reactions aren’t based in fear or ignorance.
In the free world of children’s fiction, we can see fairies, magic, goblins, dragons, spiders, aliens, animals and so much more. These characters are brought to life by imagination, so let’s put the image of a diverse and very real group of people in children’s minds as early as possible.