Diverse books – Working class heroes
Opening children up to authors’ diverse backgrounds can improve both their enjoyment and understanding of books
Boil-in-the-bag mince with a hefty dollop of Smash was considered a proper fancy tea when I was young. Books, let alone diverse books, weren’t really part of my life.
I grew up in a shipyard town on the banks of the Tyne. No central heating, a patchwork of overlapping second-hand carpets and ever-present candles for the frequent 1970s power cuts and those times we hadn’t paid the electricity bill.
Please spare me your violins, though: we were poor, but we were happy.
I didn’t read much back then; I couldn’t relate to the characters, who always seemed to be quite posh.
The authors themselves appeared to be a different breed, too. They spoke differently, studied at fancy universities and lived in that far-off utopia known as ‘doon sooth’.
But all my life I was scribbling down ideas and stories, and after decades of writing purely for the enjoyment of it, I found myself thrust into an extremely middle-class world.
I didn’t believe that it could happen to someone like me. But it did!
I soon realised that it doesn’t have to be only the well-off who can have all the fun.
There is an escapist element to reading and we all love experiencing exploits from someone else’s perspective; you don’t need to be short with big hairy feet to enjoy a story about hobbits!
We do, though, all need to be able to occasionally connect on a personal level for these stories to be important to us.
My recent series of books and graphic novels called Shinoy and the Chaos Crew has a working-class family at its heart and is aimed at getting children reading.
They are not stories about the hardships of that kind of life but rather about their extraordinary adventures.
I hope kids with backgrounds like mine who are reading this series can feel seen and represented by Shinoy and his family.
But what else can we do to get children connected with stories like these?
First of all, children enjoy hearing directly from writers: what do they look like? What do they talk like? What are on the shelves behind them?
Consider contacting local authors or publishers to see if any would be willing to organise a visit – most authors love to engage with schools.
Or perhaps they could send over a bespoke resource for you to share with your class. I have videos introducing myself and my books, and often make short, personalised ‘hello’ versions for classes reading my stories (tinyurl.com/tp-Shinoy).
If you wanted, you could even turn this into a writing project for your pupils – can they write a letter to an author and ask them about their book?
Reading and writing
I always find that classes who have researched the author connect much more with their reading.
When a child finds a character or scene that fits with the author’s background, it increases their understanding of the story and why it was written, which will also encourage them to write from their own point of view when tackling their own stories.
This helps reading and writing to become less of a chore and more of a personal adventure of discovery.
Now that I’m a ‘proper fancy’ author (and make my Smash and mince with petit pois and crème fraiche) I often wonder if I’m no longer working-class – even if rather by a technicality than by design.
The definitions and the movements between the classes will inevitably vary from one person to another, as will the details; remember, not all working-class folk live in high-rises in urban cities!
But it is vital that children from all upbringings should be able to see themselves represented in books.
Those children should also get the same opportunities to become writers, creating windows to their own underrepresented backgrounds.
It shouldn’t matter where you are from; it should only matter where your imagination can take you.
Chris Callaghan’s book series, Shinoy and the Chaos Crew (starting at £6.25, Collins Big Cat) is available now. Follow Chris on Twitter @callaghansstuff and see more of his work at chris-callaghan.com