Today’s world can often seem extremely anti-LGBTQ, with society feeling oppressive toward people who fall outside the line of heterosexually. But there is still a lot of good news, especially with the recent news about the book called Julian Is a Mermaid.
The book is a children’s picture book that tells the story of a young boy called Julian who comes to terms with his queer identity, showcasing his attempts at dressing in woman’s clothing and how his nana reacts to his attempts to embrace his new identity. The author and illustrator Jessica Love, who was partly inspired by a trans friend, never expected it to be published. After all, many U.K. and U.S. imprints are yanking books off shelves who have gay or trans protagonists, with children’s work a big victim of this unfortunate practice.
Image via Amazon
On Sept 11, Jessica Love was proven wrong when her book won the much coveted Klaus Flugge prize. The prize goes to the most exciting newcomer in children’s book illustration and on Wednesday night, Jessica Love took it home. The judges called the book ‘astonishingly beautiful’ and were further quote as saying:
‘Julian Is a Mermaid reminds us that picture books can make us understand the world differently and better; that they are for everyone. It is a groundbreaking book.’
Love went onto note that the recaption had been mostly positive but there was some hostility toward her work for supposedly spreading the ‘gay agenda.’ She noted Julian is a Mermaid was drawn from her own personal life, with Julian’s nana based off her own queer role modes, her aunt and her aunt’s wife. She wanted a book that could provide the support she received to millions around the world.
Image VIa Letstalkpicturebooks.com
She is extremely humbled to win the prize and is now working on a sequel, again featuring Julian and his nana. She found the book’s success totally gratifying and paralyzing at the same time. She hopes to continue to give her characters further life, while hoping the success doesn’t overwhelm her. But with the amount of joy and praise she has received from the LBGTQ community, she is likely to continue to soar upward much like Julian himself.
YA is a massively polarizing genre, and, when faced with its possible decline, any avid reader is bound to have one of two drastically different reactions. One possible reaction is something along the lines of: Finally! Now I’ll never have to read about an entire world that somehow possesses the logic and nuance of a Buzzfeed zodiac quiz! The other is NO!
If you’re in the first camp, consider what this sharp decline actually means: fewer children are reading.
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It’s no secret that childhood reading is extremely beneficial with significant academic and interpersonal perks: readers score higher on tests and have stronger interpersonal skills, including empathy and the ability to understand others. Delighted critics may rejoice the disappearance of YA’s infamous, highly-stylized dystopias and not understand the problem—that’s not what YA is. And the decline in British YA sales has had consequences beyond fewer possible blockbusters: children’s books are also underperforming in libraries. Experts warn that this decline—which comes in the wake of drastic budget cuts—may have lasting consequences on the reading habits of a generation.
To answer the question of why this is happening, let’s consider the matter of where this is happening. Though YA sales have been consistently strong in the U.S., sales have suffered in the U.K. specifically—2018 saw the lowest profits in eleven years. (To refresh your memory, that was the year before The Hunger Games‘ release changed the game for YA fiction.) To understand the crisis, it’s critical to understand the difference between the American and British market for YA books: there isn’t one. According to British YA authors, the U.K. market for children’s literature is oversaturated with American content.
In 2018, all of the U.K.’s top 5 bestselling YA novels were by American authors. Only one British writer even cracked the top 10: Michelle Magorian, author of Goodnight Mister Tom (which is a decades-old classic rather than a new release). Those across the industry are concerned about what this might mean for U.K. children… and what it already means for U.K. authors.
Promotion is centered around these foreign books while advances for British authors remain dauntingly small—£1,000 for an entire novel. These prohibitively small payments will limit new authors struggling to break into publishing. U.K. authors have also reported that American books tend to receive the most promotion, making their marketing efforts far more successful. And it’s not just authors who aren’t seeing any income: the aforementioned library cuts have led to the termination of around 1,000 librarians and shrinking purchasing budgets for new material. Fewer librarians, fewer books, and fewer young readers.
There are factors besides the overwhelming American cultural influence, most notably, a misconception about what YA is. For starters—not a genre. YA Waterstones buyer Kate McHale stresses, “YA is an age category.” With big titles covering topics ranging from fantastic depictions of Nigerian myth (Children of Blood and Boneby Tomi Adeyemi) to a queer Muslim girl forced into an arranged marriage (The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Aliby Sabina Khan) it’s clear that YA is no longer all about who can write the hottest vampire kisses… if it ever actually was. YA is a territory of increasing diversity and a proven willingness to tackle difficult issues. The only thing these books have in common is that their protagonists are within a certain age range—the distinction of YA has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the significance of the piece.
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Children’s book consultant Jake Hope believes that another factor in the decline may be the price of YA books. Though teenagers generally don’t have significant (or any) income, books for that audience cost the same as books for adults who (generally) have disposable income. While this may be true, it’s also true in countries throughout the world. The concern of U.K. children seeing adolescence primarily through an American cultural lens seems far more significant. Furthermore, U.K. authors of color have voiced concerns about their representation in the market. Of the U.K.’s 2018 YA authors, only 1.5% were people of color—as opposed to a more significant (if still slight)11% in the U.S.
Image Via Nikesh Shukla Twitter
Just how steep is this decline, anyway? Steep. Publishers report a 26% decrease in sales. And just how serious are the consequences? Experts believe this could “severely” affect literacy levels. The solution to this problem might remain unclear, but the problem is increasingly obvious.