How inclusive is our children’s literature?

As someone who has worked with children, young people and adults in a range of educational settings, I have come to understand the need for a positive representation of diversity.  We strive for what we might term as ‘full inclusion’ and I see the increased labeling of our society as consistent with a need for increased understanding about what these labels mean; not in an explicit way but in a general desire to represent the diversity of our society.  I see the medium for part of this as being children and young adults’ literature as it is during their time at school that they are developing social relationships with their diverse communities.

My position as a Primary school teacher meant I played an influential role in many pupil’s lives and when I became a Special Educational Needs Coordinator later in my career, I played an even more crucial part in developing the inclusive environment.  One aspect of my responsibility was to work on a one to one basis with pupils who were not achieving age related expectations in reading and writing.  I brought in a new reading scheme, designed for pupils in Key Stage 2, advertised as having ‘cool illustrations, chunked texts and a special dyslexic-friendly font.  However, I did not look beyond the fact that they were designed to accelerate reading progress at the actual type and depiction of characters and how representative they may or may not have been of the diversity in society.  For such an important part of each pupil’s daily session with me, I was missing the opportunity to deliver implicit messages about difference.

So I thought about this and over the years have become more and more interested, especially since having a son and looking at the vast selection of books given to/loaned/handed down to him since birth up to now (he’s currently 2!).  I looked at some relevant research and wasn’t surprised to find that, historically, disabled characters have been depicted as literary symbols or seen to assist the moral development of other characters that have more significant roles in the story (Dyches and Prater, 2000). More recently, looking at the results from Dyches, Prater and Leininger’s (2009) analysis of 41 books, there were positive results of increased characterisations seen to be more positive and inclusionary than previous analyses. Whilst this is encouraging, Hodkinson’s (2016, p.12) conclusions that a reading scheme used in his son’s school serves to ‘seemingly only continue to perpetuate the image of a homogeneous, normalised and ‘ableist’ society’ is a reminder that more focus on the kinds of fictional texts that our pupils are reading in schools today is required.

So what of the reasons for developing and reading inclusionary literature?   Some motives are seen by Miller (2012/13) as being linked to increasing tolerance of difference and is in opposition to the ways in which portrayal of difference is seen in textbooks that are akin to a more medicalised view.  Similarly, Wopperer (2011) cites reasons for why we should have fictional characters with disabilities and adds that it is as a way of helping young people to make sense of their world by relating to these characters; individuals without a disability can learn how they feel about individuals with a disability and in turn enhance social connections.

This discussion around including characters who have a special educational need (SEND) can be likened to Norwich’s (2008) notion of ‘dilemmas of difference’ posing the question; will portrayal of characters with SEND emphasise difference and thus perpetuate segregation?   Everyday social experiences show us that we are all different and therefore using children’s literature as the medium through which to do this makes sense from an inclusive pedagogic viewpoint. After all, children’s literature is a powerful medium through which one makes sense of the world (Hunt, 2001).

What were you reading throughout your education and what are your children reading?


Reference List

Dyches, T. T., and M. A. Prater. 2000. Developmental Disability in Children’s Literature: Issues and Annotated Bibliography. Reston, VA: The Division on Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Dyches, T. T., M. A. Prater, and M. Leininger. 2009. “Juvenile Literature and the Portrayal of Developmental Disabilities.” Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities 44: 304–317.

Hodkinson, A. (2016) ‘Constructing impairment and disability in school reading schemes’ Education 3-13, DOI: 10.1080/03004279.2016.1143520

Miller, D.L. (December 2012/January 2013) Literature opens doors for all children.  Autism. Thinkstock/Hemera. Kappan.

Norwich, B. (2008) Dilemmas of Difference and the identification of special educational needs/disability: International perspectives.  British Educational Research Journal, 35 (3), 447-467.

Prater, M.A. (2003) Learning Disabilities in Children’s and Adolescent Literature: How are Characters Portrayed?  Learning Disability Quarterly. 26. Winter pp. 47-62.

Wopperer, E. (2011) ‘Inclusive Literature in the Library and the Classroom’, Knowledge Quest, Everyone’s Special. 39 (3) Jan/Feb 2011 pgs 26-34.




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