Windows into Worlds

In an extract from his new book Seeing Sense, Jake Hope discusses the importance of visual representation and inclusion, and interviews illustrators Yu Rong and Poonam Mistry.

Visual literacy offers readers the opportunity to literally see themselves reflected in the visual texts that they encounter. This can be enormously empowering, showing that reading is inclusive and embraces a wide range of life experiences and backgrounds, affirming many different identities. For professionals working with books, whether in schools, libraries or bookshops, this means attention should be paid to ensure that representation in their book stock is not outmoded or problematic. Just as society shifts and progresses over time, so too does our understanding of what it means to be inclusive and how best to achieve this.

Despite the immediacy that visual representation allows, as part of an overall collection, the inclusivity and authenticity of what is being represented can be easy to overlook.

Encountering a wide range of characters with varying backgrounds and lifestyles can be an effective means for helping to normalise situations and increase exposure to a broad range of experiences from an early age. Illustrations within the books we read are able to convey subtle messages that can enrich and at times challenge societal conventions, taking an active role without this needing to be part of the main narrative of the story and thereby feeling didactic. An example of this might include two characters of the same sex holding hands whilst taking a child to school; the inclusion of children wearing glasses, hearing aids or other support equipment in classroom scenes; or a range of different cultures being represented.

Here I explore different facets of diversity and lived experience and how these can be represented visually in books in ways that are respectful, contemporary and authentic, helping to ensure that books are inclusive and reflect the society they are part of.

Cultural diversity

Signifiers of different cultures can be embedded into visual narratives in a variety of ways. Broadly, this may include skin-tone, hair-colour and hair type but can also be referenced through subtle details, such as the foods that characters are depicted as eating, the clothes that they wear, or the environment they are located within.

In appraising visual representation in books, it is important to look out for caricatures, where physical attributes are exaggerated in ways that perpetuate stereotypes and to consider when the book was published as books from a certain age are likely to depict a view of people which is influenced by the politics of the day. An example of this is Tintin in the Congo, a graphic novel featuring the eponymous boy journalist, and written and illustrated by Hergé. The depiction of the people and landscape of the Congo in this graphic novel drew upon limited source material, much of this steeped in colonial viewpoints. This is reflected in the style of illustration which led to criticism of the book’s publication in colour in the UK in 2005. Discussion ensued about whether the book should be removed from sale or whether it represented an important part of societal history and progress. There is a danger that wiping out books of this kind leads to making history anodyne, but equally it’s important to contextualise these limited and outdated portrayals through raising awareness of the visual representations of culture that counter these stereotypes. If outdated representation constitutes the only opportunity for readers to encounter particular cultures, it risks perpetuating stereotypes.

10 Books for Keeps No.244 September 2020

Central to conversations around authentic representation of culture and diverse experience is who is telling the story. Discourse around own voices, recognising the way artists record and relay the culture and groups that they are a part of can be a powerful way to communicate representation that is informed and nuanced. It is important to ensure that representation is not at the exclusion of those who come from particular cultures or groups, indeed people with lived experience of what is being represented should be a part of constructing these stories.

Illustrator, Yu Rong (2019), discusses her approach to illustration and the manner in which this is rooted in Chinese traditions, a hybridisation of different cultural approaches: ‘I was inspired by Chinese paper cut which was created a long, long time ago. It is in a two-dimensional flat form, mostly in the colour red with topics focused on farming. People use them to decorate windows and doors to celebrate festivals. Studying at the Royal College of Art, I freed my mind of thinking, thus leading me to explore the possibilities for how to use paper cut to convey my ideas into artwork. Through decades of practice, I have learned how to use the characteristic of paper cut to fully express my creative ideas. It is fun, spontaneous and unique. My journey has turned the use of paper cut technique passively to a more positive free method.’

In selecting titles as part of collections, it is imperative to be aware of the role unconscious bias can play in these decisions. Unconscious bias is the way the brain creates shortcuts and tends to favour that which it is already familiar or comfortable with. This can act as an impediment to achieving a representative collection.

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