‘‘We’re very aware of how Anglo they are,’’ Lambert says. ‘‘We haven’t done enough to break out of our colonial heritage. So we’re trying to think of ways we can bring a more diverse range of people onto the shop floor.’’ This includes ordering, displaying and promoting books that don’t fall into gender stereotypes, and books that depict people of all colours, abilities, shapes and sizes.
The problem is particularly acute in children’s books. While there has been a push towards diversity in recent years, Lambert says there’s still ‘‘a lot of lazy publishing’’. The Little Bookroom is having trouble finding enough suitable books to read to toddlers and their parents at its monthly Feminist Friday story times.
International statistics bear this out. This year The Guardian conducted a survey that showed that if anything, the lack of diversity was growing worse. Of the 100 bestselling children’s books published in Britain in 2018, only five featured a BAME character (black, Asian or minority ethnic) in a central role. This is in a country, mind you, where one third of schoolchildren are black or from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Why such a disappointing result? According to Britain’s Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, the perception among publishers that diverse books didn’t sell had created a bias towards white characters, and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nor was there any joy for feminists in this survey. Male characters outnumbered female in more than half the books and female characters outnumbered male only one fifth of the time. One in five books didn’t feature any females at all. Since the previous year, the bias against girl characters had actually increased.
As well as working in her own stores, Lambert has approached the Australian Society of Authors to set up a panel to discuss decolonising bookshops at the ASA’s conference next June. She’s also hoping to set up a staff exchange program with Lost in Books, a social-enterprise children’s bookshop in Fairfield, Sydney, which specialises in multilingual and diverse books.
Apart from the Polly and Buster series, what other books does Lambert recommend? She’s a fan of All the Ways to be Smart by Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys, a picture book that is joyous, life-affirming, and challenges stereotypes about what it means to be clever. ‘‘It’s quietly revolutionary.’’
Then there’s Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Fashionista, which is less about fashion and more about the power of expressing yourself and your individuality.
I hope that Lambert and other like-minded booksellers will increase the sales of diverse books and put more pressure on publishers to commission and acquire them. Witches, monsters, kids who are smart in unconventional ways and self-expressing fashionistas all deserve their day in the sun.
Jane Sullivan’s latest book, Storytime, is published by Ventura Press at $26.99.