Erin Houston is an English Teacher, EIS Equality Rep and PACTivist based in North Lanarkshire. She is also a UKLA/OU Teacher Reading Group Leader and tweets as @TheReadWarrior
As a Scottish teacher can you name the author of the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize for Fiction or who’s on the shortlist this year for the Scottish Teenage Book Prize? Or would you even have the time to find out?
This does not intend to put you on the spot, but is more to highlight that if you do not know the answer to these questions, there are justifiable reasons why. Teachers are busy, time is at a premium, we’re committed to education recovery and we work hard.
However, Scottish teachers don’t just work hard, we care hard too. We care hard enough to promote equality, equity and social justice, every single day. This is part of our GTC Scotland Professional Standards and lies at the heart of the EIS Equality Agenda. For busy teachers, well-written diverse literature can extend a helping hand, if well chosen. It can even do an essential part of our job for us, generating a self-sustaining curriculum of equality driven book chat, debate and general buzz. High-quality diverse literature has the power to intrinsically motivate and embed learning for life, when children read or are read to, simply for pleasure (Cremin et al 2015).
The initial question about book prizes, perhaps you did not know the answer. Yet, there is much about reading you will know innately. Perhaps even more so, now, as Post-Covid Education Recovery rears its head. We know children turned to reading through lockdown to support their mental health (NLT Annual Literacy Survey 2020). We know reading for pleasure can have an impact on a child’s wellbeing and academic success (OECD 2002). We know that reading plays an important role in helping assimilate children’s lives and they are entitled to see characters like themselves, portrayed realistically in the books they read (Book Trust 2020). These are not wild, unsubstantiated claims! These are evidence-based research findings. Scottish teachers are missing out if they are not opting to read diverse texts, in all classrooms, as part of a multicultural learning experience. This, after all, is what all Scottish classrooms are.
There’s a wealth of new texts out there, written by exciting writers, that are as wonderfully diverse as the learners we teach. Inclusivity of diversity in the classroom considers the various facets of disability, ethnicity, race, culture, religion, sexuality and gender. Investment in becoming a “Teacher who Reads” children’s and young adult literature (Cremin et al 2015) not only advocates sound literacy practice, but also builds greater empathy and tolerance – yes, even in grown adults!
A teacher who reads and showcases diverse literature, then encourages young people to engage in diverse reading, shows a willingness to relate to them. It emphasises that teachers are not aligned to outdated values of the world they grew up in, but are willing to acknowledge and embrace the realities that learners experience, now. These texts are written for our young people, by authors like them, to represent all of them, so they can see themselves in what they read. Diverse texts, therefore, can help teachers and our learners understand that there is an equal place for all in Scotland’s schools.
Recommended Scottish Equality Reads for Upper Primary and the BGE
Two new, highly popular books that deal with disability are by the award-winning Scottish novelist Elle McNicholl. Her debut winner of the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2021, A Kind of Spark breathes fresh life into Scotland’s troubled history with the Witch Trials. The main character Addie, an autistic girl, cannot comprehend the historical injustice, which so many around her are willing to accept. She feels compelled to set the record straight. It is particularly poignant in that Addie herself is different and undergoes her own set of trials. Addie’s greatest success is the impact she has on those around her (and upon the reader). This is diverse literature at its best. A superbly realistic story drives the plot. The situations Addie overcomes are entirely relatable. A real page-turner, delivering a message about the damage discrimination does. Elle McNicholl is one Scottish talent to read and watch, as the rights to A Kind of Spark have been bought and plans to turn the book into a BBC children’s live action mini-series are underway.
Also highly recommended is Elle’s second book. Voted as one of The Bookseller’s Best Books of 2021 Show Us Who You Are is a brilliant Science Fiction adventure, detailing grief and loss, highlighting how blatantly corrupt corporate capitalism impacts upon individual lives. It details a blossoming friendship between two neurodivergent teens, Cora and Adrien, whose lives intertwine, leaving them both reeling from the consequences. The power in this story is that Cora persists, despite the odds stacked against her. An important message for all girls. Both books are published by the forward-thinking, independent and inclusive publisher Knights Of.
Elle McNicholl, the author of these brilliant books, classes herself as an advocate for better representation of neurodiversity in publishing. Elle writes with clear purpose. Her gift being that she “showcases neurodiversity as embedded diversity, rather than writing specific “issue books” or using disability as a plot point. As for representation and inclusion Elle believes, “diverse texts by diverse authors is the way to go for inclusivity in children’s fiction, and disability is so often left out of diversity conversations.” So, please consider her words in the context of our own diverse cohorts of students, as clearly such sparky, refreshing and diverse perspectives are what learners need.
But, the absolute beauty of texts like these, is that they embrace equality for you. The reader can see what’s right and what’s wrong, can make their own judgement calls and can relate this to the real world. This is the true power of reading current, fun and engaging, young-adult texts, as a thirteen or a thirty-one-year-old or a reader of any age.
Scottish Teenage Book Prize 2022
The Scottish Book Trust Teenage Book Prize runs annually in Scotland and celebrates the very best of teen fiction crafted by Scottish writers or writers based in Scotland. Teenagers across Scotland read all three books on the shortlist and vote for their favourite. This year, the three diverse texts shortlisted are bound to get our learners involved in some effervescent equality engagement in how the books relate to their own lives. The Scottish Teenage Book Prize shortlist for 2022 is a mere snapshot of the high-quality diverse literature out there, this year. All are also available on audiobook.
First up, is The Infinite by Patience Agbabi and published by Canongate. It focuses on the character of Elle Bibi-Imbele, a “Leapling” with “The Gift” or the ability to travel through time, which actually turns into a race against it, pitting Elle (an autistic character) as our hero. The book deals with issues of bullying and discrimination through the excitingly fast-paced, time-travel plot. A welcome addition to BGE class libraries.
The second shortlisted book, Fin & Rye & Fireflies by Harry Cook, published by Black & White publishing, is an engaging, thought-provoking romance story, dealing with issues of sexuality and gender. However, the more complex, grown-up subject matter, may make it more suited to older teens. Sixteen-year-old Fin is dramatically “outed,” so his parents send him to another part of the country for conversion therapy and a “new beginning.” The themes of self-discovery and acceptance, intermingle with other darker and more startling issues that teenagers should be aware of such as, homophobia and transphobia. Mental health issues of anxiety and suicide are tackled tenderly against the backdrop of a coming-of-age story, that will appeal to teenagers and adults alike.
Finally, culture and mental health awareness are in focus, in the vibrant science fiction adventure The Infinity Filesby S.M. Wilson and published by Usborne. The character in this book, Ash Yang, is an orphan coping with grief, but somehow lands the most pressing job in the universe, as the custodian of The Infinity Files. She has the ability to stop wars across the galaxy…or start them. The pressure is on. There is much buzz around this book and a sequel The Infinity Guardians, is in the pipeline for 2022.
Promoting diversity through literature is a time effective methodology for busy teachers to address the Equality Agenda in Scotland’s classrooms. Diverse texts will enable you to take care of some important “equality work” without breaking too much additional sweat. Learners are bound to agree, that these books are exciting, engaging and are quality literature in their own right; they are not just “books about diversity,” or “pushing an agenda.” Readers will fall in love with the worlds and the characters that exist in them as they come to life in their hearts and imaginations. These books are perspective-giving, character-building, world-shaping tools that also have the power to keep the equality agenda front and centre, exactly where it should be in all our classrooms. Happy Reading!