Thursday, 3 November 2011

Who owns morality?

By the time you read this, it will have been announced that The Great Big Book of Families has won the Under-7 category of the School Library Association's inaugural Information Book Awards.

This is naturally a great honour; writers and illustrators love winning prizes. But I have two special reasons for being pleased about this one. Firstly, it comes from an organisation close to my heart. For six years I ran a campaign to support and promote School Library Services in the UK. So I am very happy that an award given by the SLA has gone to my work.

Secondly this book sums up a lot of what I think about children and books. I had wanted to write something like this for a long time, ever since a girl of twelve wrote me a letter thanking me for helping her learn to read and mentioning that her family consisted of her "my mum and my budgie."

I have felt for ages that children's picture books lag far behind children's reality in depicting the wide range of what constitutes a definition of "family". And reflecting children's own experience is one of the two most important things a book can do (the other of course being to introduce them to ideas way beyond their experience).

I'd done what I could in the past with books about Grace, who lives in a family of three generations of women, with an absent father, and in stories like My Grandma has Black Hair, Nancy No-size and The Colour of Home, in trying to widen the portrayal of families in picture books. But I wanted to tackle the big idea that "families come in all shapes and sizes" in one book. And I wanted to do it with Ros Asquith.

I honestly believe that if Ros hadn't been taken with the idea, The Great Big Book of Families, would not have been written and published; I certainly told my editor at Frances Lincoln, Janetta Otter-Barry, that if Ros said no, I might not write it.

So I was thrilled when Ros did like the idea and wanted to illustrate it. From the small acquaintance I'd had with her before and my knowledge of her cartoons, I just knew she would understand "where I was coming from" politically with this book and would not need elaborate explanations. Over a couple of lunches in Gloucestershire and North London, we talked about exactly what the book was about and for and then I took the plunge with a draft text.

It changed of course when Ros's glorious pictures came in. And we worked on it as a very committed quartet: me. Ros, Janetta and the Art Director, Judith Escreet. It was published in the UK in April 2010 and in the US in 2011. Pleasingly, it has already picked up foreign editions in double figures but we always knew that there would be an issue in some countries with one spread.

On the second opening, headed up just "Families" I wrote, among other text, "Some children have two mummies or two daddies." Ros illustrated this statement appropriately. This seems to me to be incontrovertible fact, at least as far as the western world is concerned. The book has had three starred reviews in the US, which is where you might have expected a book containing this statement to be not so well received.

But I had to turn down an edition in an Arab country which would have involved removing those words and those pictures. My publisher was very understanding, even though no publisher likes to give up a foreign rights deal.

In the last couple of weeks, I have seen two conflicting reactions to the book. The first was a review on, which Ros emailed to me (I make it an iron rule never to look at Amazon reviews or rankings so had missed it).

This one-star review was headed up "Lacks morality" and included the words: "For those who think "this looks like a cute book", think again. I checked this book out at the library and actually had to have a discussion with my kids about why we don't marry people of the same gender. As a Christian with high moral standards I don't have to teach my kids that such things are acceptable. It is not acceptable to God and it is not acceptable to me. I hate it when people are so concerned with "political correctness" that they worry more about offending people than offending God."

I have learned over the years to mistrust the term "political correctness," even though it refers to something I have been thinking about for around four decades. I prefer words like "inclusiveness" and "diversity" because in my experience, PC is only ever used by people who are against those things. Take the reviewer above. S/he says my book "lacks morality" when s/he means "does not share my morality." And "we don't marry people of the same gender" when clearly we do. At least we do in  nations from Argentina to South Africa, as well as in 20 European countries and 13 American States.

S/he also has a hotline to the Almighty about whether such unions are "acceptable." Something, I as a professed though uncertain Christian do not share.

I was not upset by the review - the less so as a few days before I had received an email through my website from a teacher in the US who said, " Sadly, there are many parents in my school community that do not believe their students should be learning about people in the LGBT community....It's people like you who make families with "two moms" the norm, that keep me going." I think my correspondent meant "normal" rather than "the norm" but I really appreciated the email.

There will always be people who don't understand what I am getting at or do understand it and don't like or approve of it. Every time writers publish a new book, they are putting their heads on the block. It would make for a quieter and easier life just to stay schtum.

That doesn't appear to be an option for me. So it is especially pleasing to have a book that means so much to me acknowledged with a prize. Thank you SLA!


Penny Dolan said...

Congratulations to you and Ros, to Judith and everyone involved with the book - and to all those who voted with joy & wisdom!

Katherine Langrish said...

Fantastic news, Mary,and I am thrilled for you, Roz and the book - and I agree with you totally about people like the Amazon reviewer with their shuttered and bolted versions of morality.

Katherine Langrish said...

(Perhaps the thing that annoys me most is that reviewer's narrow and arrogant assumption that 'political correctness' rather than a wider and more generous morality ruled you...)

Stroppy Author said...

Congratulations here as well! well deserved xx

Paeony Lewis said...

What a thought-provoking post. I was especially drawn to your sentence: "I prefer words like "inclusiveness" and "diversity" because in my experience, PC is only ever used by people who are against those things."
Now that you've said it I realise that's how I feel, but was never sure how to express my disquiet (albeit I'd have used the word 'usually' instead of 'only ever').

Anonymous said...

congratulations - well deserved for a lovely book! And also for sticking up for tolerance, an underated virtue.
Michelle Lovric, as anonymous because Blogger doesn't want to play with me today.

Savita Kalhan said...

Congratulations, Mary! Hopefully, one day, it won't feel as though you're putting your head on the block...

Lucy Coats said...

A well-deserved prize for a wonderful book. Unfortunately Amazon is no less prone to having intolerant and ignorant commenters than anywhere else. There will always be people with opposing views. That's why we must just keep on keeping on writing (and drawing) a picture of life as it really is in all its amazing and fabulous diversity. Well done, Mary - many congratulations from me too. x

Kelly Robinson said...

This looks flat-out amazing. And needed!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Wonderful Mary and very well deserved. I really feel that this is the sort of ground breaking book that is very much needed and I shall be recommending it to everyone.

Nicola Morgan said...

Congratulations! I've only just come across this so apologies for my lateness. And I think you know that really the narrow-mindedness of such responses is just that - narrow-mindedness.

Besides, you are describing things as they are. Pfffth.

Anonymous said...

You're right that 'lacks morality' really means 'doesn't share the same morality as the writer.' But phrases like 'more generous morality' and 'inclusiveness' to describe your morality, or terms like 'ignorant' and 'intolerant' to describe your opponents, which your commenters have used, are equally disingenuous. The fact is there are a lot of people who believe, for very good reasons, that homosexual behaviour is something more than a mere statistical abnormality. I'm sure you don't want your blog to descend to an argument around that point, and in any case blogs will never be a suitable vehicle for exploring moral philosophy. Suffice it to say that your book (no, of course I haven't read it, life's too short) is, wittingly or no, one more salvo in our modern culture wars. Self-righteousness doesn't really help your cause and is actually quite distasteful.

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