Why are Australian children's books suddenly so political?

From My Muslim Mate to Love Makes a Family, what’s behind the recent rise in socially conscious children’s literature?

Like etiquette guides for society’s youngest members, children’s books have always had an educational aim. Reckless kids learn caution, selfish kids learn to share, the child who rages at her mother gets her comeuppance. But if children were once taught by books to follow the rules, increasingly, they are being encouraged to break them – or at least, to question them. So what has precipitated this upswell in activist literature for youngsters?

When I ask about the trend at the Younger Sun children’s bookshop in Melbourne, a bookseller pulls a dozen examples off the shelves including books about queer theory, feminism, Islam, multiculturalism and citizenship aimed at primary-aged children. Some of these titles are from the US and UK – such as Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz, What Can A Citizen Do? by Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris and A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara – but many titles are Australian. Diversity and representation is a key theme.

“The publishing industry has realised the importance of diversity both in the books it commissions and its own staffing,” Angela Crocombe, manager of Readings Kids bookshop, tells Guardian Australia. She says the last six months have seen several major Australian releases on topics including multiculturalism, gender and Indigenous issues.

According to Crocombe, the recent Australian books are part of a global trend influenced by the American organisation We Need Diverse Books. The advocacy organisation was started in 2014 in response to the announcement of an all-white, all-male panel of children’s book authors at a major publishing convention. The organisation offers grants, awards and mentorship schemes to foster diversity in children’s books. “Many years ago, the default character in children’s books was a white boy. That changed to being a white girl, but recent books are featuring dark-skinned girls in leading roles,” Crocombe says.

Child chooses what books to read at a library
Dr Leonie Rutherford: ‘Children’s books reflect changes in political discourse and social concerns.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Three years later, Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls, an American collection of stories about successful women, broke publishing history when it raised more than $600,000 with a crowdfunding campaign. “Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls blew up a trend that was already gathering momentum,” Crocombe says. It spawned a sequel and a range of imitators, including Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different and the Australian book, Shout Out to the Girls.

Self-love in a diverse world is a noticeable trend in the range of new Australian books. “You’re brown, Belle!” says one child to another in Wide Big World, an exuberant book from author Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrator Isobel Knowles in which kinder kids and their teacher discuss the ways in which they are different. I Love Me by Sally Morgan and Ambelin Kwaymullina features bright cartoons of Indigenous kids and encourages readers to be their own biggest fans. Meanwhile, Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys’ All the Ways to be Smart celebrates creativity and emotional intelligence.

“Australia has a strong tradition of social awareness in its children’s books,” Rosemary Johnston, professor of education and culture at Sydney’s University of Technology, says. Johnston says even Dot and the Kangaroo, published in 1899, urges the protection of native animals, and the 1918 May Gibbs classic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie warns against pulling flowers out by the roots. “The importance of the environment, respect for Indigenous people, racial and gender equality and multiculturalism have been themes in Australian children’s books for years. These themes come in waves, and perhaps we’re seeing a resurgence now.”

Gender stereotypes are gently rebuked in Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer, which depicts a diverse range of families, including one with two dads, in moments of candid domesticity. In Want to Play Trucks by Ann Stott and Bob Graham, one boy wants to play with trucks, the other with dolls. Potential conflict is avoided when a compromise is found – the dolls drive trucks.

“Picture books are usually part of a shared reading experience, and allow families to negotiate group norms and navigate uncomfortable experiences,” says Leonie Rutherford, senior lecturer in writing and literature at Deakin University. “Children’s books reflect changes in political discourse and social concerns, and books about same-sex families and gay identities are more prevalent now.”

Mother reading book to son on sofa
It’s a good time to snuggle up with a child and read about a diverse, inclusive Australia. Photograph: redheadpictures/Getty Images/Cultura RF

Intercultural friendship is also a theme in recent releases, such as My Muslim Mate by Amal Abou-Eid, and My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood. In the latter, a migrant child finds Australian culture scary until she makes a new friend and starts learning English. Blankets are a metaphor for language and culture, and two blankets provide extra warmth. But sometimes the politics are more pointed: I’m Australian Too, by Mem Fox and Ronojoy Ghosh, uses rhyming verse to celebrate Australia’s multicultural heritage, but ends on a poignant and explicitly political note, with an illustration of a child in a refugee camp and the words: “Sadly, I’m a refugee / I’m not Australian yet / But if your country lets me in, I’d love to be a vet”.

With an election year approaching, and issues of race and gender being kicked around like a political hacky sack, it certainly seems like it might be a good time to snuggle up with a child and read together about an inclusive, diverse Australia.

A short guide to recent political kids’ books in Australia

Wide Big World by Maxine Beneba Clarke, illustrated by Isobel Knowles
“You’re brown, Belle!” says one child to another, starting an exuberant book about the joys of diversity. With its crisp use of words and rhythm, this book is fun to read aloud.

My Muslim Mate by Amal Abou-Eid
When they’re not busy riding their scooters, Charlie and Khaled chat about their similarities and differences. Simply illustrated, the book is a great starting point for kids to learn more about Islam.

Love Makes A Family by Sophie Beer
“Love is baking a cake. Love is knowing where everything is.” This bright, bold book for toddlers depicts a diverse range of families in moments of candid domesticity.

All the Ways to be Smart by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys
A celebration of creativity and emotional intelligence featuring a diverse cast of kids. A reassuring read for primary-aged children who feel like a round peg in a square, academic hole.

I’m Australian Too by Mem Fox, illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh
Kids from migrant backgrounds explain their family’s journey to Australia in rhyming verse. The book ends on a poignant note, with a refugee child who has “not yet” been allowed to become Australian.

Want to Play Trucks? by Ann Stott, illustrated by Bob Graham
One boy wants to play with trucks, the other boy with dolls. A compromise is found – dolls who drive trucks. A gentle rebuke of gender stereotypes.

Sorry Day by Coral Vass, illustrated by Dub Leffler
A devastating aspect of Australian history is seen through the eyes of a child, who holds her mum’s hand as they await the prime minister’s apology to the Stolen Generations. The topic is handled sensitively for an upper-primary audience.

If I was Prime Minister by Beck and Robin Feiner
A diverse bunch of kids imagine how much better Australia would be if they were prime minister.


Philippa Chandler

The GuardianTramp

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