Inspiring Young Readers
Letterbox Library: a children's booksellers celebrating equality and diversity by Dr. Fen Coles, Co-Director, Letterbox Library
Letterbox Library is a 36-year-old, not-for-profit, children’s booksellers specialising in children’s books which celebrate equality and diversity. Uniquely -and unlike ‘traditional’ bookshops- all of our books are pre-selected by a team of highly skilled, book-hugging teachers, librarians, parents and young reviewers. Through their keen readings, our review team rejects close to three quarters of the books publishers send us!
Like many educators and parents and carers, we have known for a long time that if you give children lots of choices in the sorts of books they have access to, the more likely they are to be interested in reading. Providing inclusive story books is an important part of that. Books which incorporate the widest range of human experiences and identities gives young minds many more characters to engage with. And, inclusive books achieve even greater things… empowering many more children to become readers in the first place: by reflecting back their lives, their identifies, their families and their wider communities, inclusive books allow children to interpret the world of literature as one which recognises them, which sees them, which welcomes them as participants, be that as readers or as future authors and illustrators.
This isn’t an argument for pushing much-loved classic off the shelves. Classics haven’t become perennial bestsellers for no reason- and nostalgia certainly has it place as adults share and pass down books to the children in their care as acts of love, carrying on precious traditions of family storytelling and shared story time. But, we do need to make much more room on our shelves. This is an argument as much for having a truly creative industry as for making all readers feel they can participate in that industry. To keep the landscape of children’s literature expansive, exciting, enriching, imaginative, children must be able to enjoy not just the wild things and the hungry caterpillars and the gruffalos but also the characters who look like them searching out buried treasure, learning Hogwarty wizard spells and hunting for bears in snowstorms…!
Inclusive books, or what we call Mirror Books, are just that: books which make us all feel welcome and like we ‘belong’, whatever our ethnicity, our faith, our gender, our abilities, the type of family we’re being raised in. But, the very best inclusive books are also, of course, fabulous stories, rich in character and plot.
Representation in children’s books really does matter. Last year, the Centre for Literature in Primary Education did a first-of-its-kind piece of research into representation in UK children’s books and, they concluded, “If in their formative years, children do not see their realities reflected in the world around them or only see problematic representations mirrored back at them, the impact can be tremendously damaging.” (‘Reflecting Realities’, Centre for Literature in Primary Education 2018). Included in the list of ‘damages’ is that many children are put off books and reading altogether. Mirror Books build a child’s sense of self and identity and they can also build self-esteem and confidence in a reader. If children never have Mirror Books, then we run the risk of them feeling as if books are not for them, that the world of books has nothing to do with them. Which runs the risk of not only disenchanted readers, fewer readers, but also an unrepresentative industry which is also an impoverished industry and one which will never reach its creative potential.
Letterbox Library is a not-for-profit social enterprise and workers’ cooperative.
You can find out more about their work and see all of their book collections for schools and nurseries here: www.letterboxlibrary.com
Letterbox Library also co-runs with Housmans Bookshop the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction: https://littlerebels.org/
Errol’s Garden by Gillian Hibbs, Child’s Play: 2018
Never Ask A Dinosaur by Gareth Edwards, Alison Green Books: 2014
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