Inclusive books for primary school foster understanding and acceptance

Contributed by Ayesha Ansari-Choudhury

Independent bookseller and teaching assistant

Fri 2 Apr 2021

In my work, I think about inclusive books for primary school and inclusive books generally. The words “Representation is not a privilege, it’s a right” are pinned boldly to my Twitter handle. In their simplicity, they make me reflect on my own bias, positioning and how Mirror Me Write came to exist.

Thanks to my mum and grandfather, who worked as librarians during their careers, I have always loved books and enjoyed access to them. As a child, reading provided me with hours of joy, comfort and escapism. I would submerse myself in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or be swept away on another of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five Adventures

At the time, I never realised the impact that the lack of representation in literature would have on me. I just read out of love. Conversations around representation and inclusion only began to strike me as being necessary as I grew older and started seeing a dominant, negative framing of particular cultures, religions and ethnic groups in mainstream media. I was part of the generation that witnessed the War on Terror, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and other moments in history that would pave the way for further divisions. 

These political shifts forced me to question my value and contribution to society and challenge the ignorance that was being allowed to prevail. I was no longer permitted to be “Ayesha who loved books”; I was now “Ayesha, a Muslim woman from a community that was being further marginalised, dealing with both racism and xenophobia”. As a result, I became “Ayesha who would challenge a lack of representation and inclusion at any given time, because I belonged and deserved to see honest, authentic representations”.

Opportunities to show representation are missed

When I became a mum, I soon found myself taking my boys to bookshops, with the hope that I’d cultivate a similar love for books in them. Walking between bookshelves, I felt surrounded by the same few narratives. I soon lost count of how many times The Gruffalo appeared on the ‘chosen book’ stands. Whilst I love these classic titles, I started looking for alternatives. I didn’t want my kids to see the world with tunnel vision.

Working as a teaching assistant, I also felt a similar frustration around delivering a curriculum with books and resources that did not feel true to the values of inclusivity and respect that we were teaching. I have witnessed moments of ignorance and missed opportunities, where teachers could educate with a wider cultural framework, context and narrative, but have either been genuinely unaware or have chosen not to do so. Of course, it would be wrong to label all teachers with this observation, as is clear from the wonderful educators I follow on Edu-Twitter

It was in this context that I decided to establish Mirror Me Write. I hope to affect positive change in both the primary and secondary curriculum by providing inclusive books for primary school that can support learning. In doing so, I also want to raise the profiles of diverse and own voice authors. 

Early introduction makes representation the norm

Introducing these books to children from the Early Years onwards allows representation to become the norm, rejecting the concept of a dominant or superior group. In seeing all people, regardless of race, gender or disability, in their books, we can help pupils foster acceptance and understanding.

When I started sourcing stock for Mirror Me Write, I was pleasantly surprised to find some incredible books. There are representational titles for almost every aspect of the curriculum, from the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) up to Key Stage 3. They include When I Coloured in the World by Ahmadreza Ahmadi, Felix After The Rain by Dunja Jogan, Look Up by Nathan Bryon, The Boy At The Back Of The Class by Onjali Q. Rauf, and Buster Finds His Beat by Pamela Aculey. However, there are not enough.

Both the education and the publishing industries need a seismic shift in their understanding of diversity, representation, inclusion and anti-racist education. Many communities are no longer satisfied with stories and curricula built on culturally appropriated, singular narratives. This change was highlighted by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that collectively ensued around the world following the tragic murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The BLM movement has been active since 2013, but this time industries were challenged and taken to account.

As a direct response to the BLM movement, we began to receive requests for ‘Black books and anti-racist texts’. From these requests, it was apparent that the message had still not been understood. These books were still being ‘otherised’ instead of appreciated for their excellent narratives, joyous content and dynamic protagonists. We should deliver books that are celebratory of all cultures, promote tolerance, provide authentic voices and are, frankly, just brilliant!

Representation is crucial to educational equality. Continuous and quality reading practices correlate strongly with adult literacy levels and economic status. The books we find in schools are often dated and lack relevance for many children. In Manchester, our base, access to books is a huge issue, where 27,000 children do not own a book. Part of the cause of educational inequality is that if children cannot find books they can engage with, then whole communities face being further marginalised and disadvantaged. Bringing relatable and inclusive books into schools results in every child feeling valued. 

Reading inclusive books for primary school enriches the curriculum

Inclusive and relatable books can do wonders in a curriculum. Many schools study the Second World War in Key Stage 2. This topic often includes a class read, such as Michael Morpurgo’s books. While such books are beautiful classics, their language can be difficult to engage with for many children. We have been encouraging schools to use Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan by Sufiya Ahmed. This fantastic book tells the real-life story of a French-speaking Muslim spy hand-picked by Winston Churchill to help fight the war. She is a heroic female protagonist, marking a refreshing change from the typically male-centric, white image of the war that has been propagated for decades. 

Books2All blog: Inclusive books for primary school foster understanding and acceptance
Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan published by Scholastic (2020)

Another book that we fell in love with and heartily recommend is The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook. It weaves together action and adventure so effortlessly that we were quickly hooked. Nizrana describes the landscape, creatures, smells and sounds of Sri Lanka, her home country, with care and authenticity. The protagonist, Chaya, isn’t your typical amalgamation of lazy stereotypes. Instead, Nizrana challenges gender stereotypes, creating a slightly reckless but deeply loyal and resilient character. Last year, we were blown away when a secondary school teacher took up our recommendation and encouraged his school to buy copies for all of his Year 7 class.

Books2All blog: Inclusive books for primary school foster understanding and acceptance
The Girl Who Stole an Elephant published by Nosy Crow (2020)

Some of the many of our titles, which we have been loving, recommending and promoting recently, are Anita and the Dragons by Hannah Carmona, Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, Hats of Faith by By Medeia Cohan-Petrolin, Freedom We Sing by Amyra León, The Lost Homework by Richard O’Neill, Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston, A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruq, Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu, Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah and Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan. Please check out our website for any further recommendations. 

Going forward, we want to develop on the links we have made, continue to promote inclusive books for primary school and keep speaking with schools about how they can affect change. We hope to collaborate with Books2All in the future. We love Books2All’s ethos and admire its commitment to combating educational inequality and making a positive change by ensuring books can get into the hands of children. 

Thank you for visiting our blog. Our vision here at Books2All is a world where every child finds the books that help them reach their true potential. If you have spare books in good condition at home that you think might be appropriate for school children, please sign up for our app’s pre-release waiting list. If you represent a school, please register to receive books for your students.

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