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David Baddiel: Children’s Fiction Needs More Wheelchair Whizzkids

September 30, 2019

Disabled children have been “airbrushed” out of bestselling children’s fiction for more than a century in order to present an unrealistic version of the world, David Baddiel has said.

The comedian and children’s author criticised popular modern children’s books for featuring fewer disabled characters than were portrayed during the Victorian era, when children with disabilities often starred in bestselling novels, such as Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Over the past 12 months, only one book in the top 100 bestselling children’s fiction titles featured disability and stated this in the descriptions provided by publishers, according to data from Nielsen Book research shared exclusively with the Observer. That book, about an amputee bank robber, was Bad Dad by David Walliams. Baddiel, who has just written his own novel starring a disabled child, said that among bestselling children’s stories “disabled characters aren’t represented enough, which is not just an issue for disabled people. In my opinion, it’s an issue for all children.”

He added: “Leaving [disabled people] out of children’s understanding of the world is wrong ethically and socially – and in terms of storytelling, because children do know what the world is like.”

Nielsen found that just 165 (or 0.2%) of the 77,000 children’s fiction titles sold in the past 12 months featured disability or disabled characters, according to the descriptions from their publishers. Nielsen also analysed the data about all the children’s fiction titles published since 1898 and found just 708 books containing these keywords in their descriptions.

Instead of excluding disabled characters from stories, which Baddiel describes as a “weird convention” of many children’s books, writers should be helping children understand that disabled people are not defined by their disability. “Somewhere in the children’s book universe, there exists a very old-fashioned notion that we mustn’t sully children’s innocence,” he said. “It’s not a question of teaching children about the world. It’s about reflecting the real experiences a child might have.” Baddiel was speaking ahead of the publication this month of his sixth novel for children, The Taylor Turbochaser. It stars Amy Taylor, an 11-year-old disabled petrolhead who transforms her motorised wheelchair into Baddiel’s version of the batmobile, but with added fish tanks, and drives her friends to Scotland on a cowpat-fuelled adventure.

Like Baddiel’s other children’s books, The Taylor Turbochaser is a story about a child whose wish comes true – not a novel about having a disability. And, unlike the disabled children in popular children’s classics such as Heidiand The Secret Garden, who miraculously learn to walk after they get some fresh air, Amy remains in her wheelchair at the end of the story. It is her unhappy, divorced dad who is healed most by her journey.

Baddiel was inspired by his memories of playing at driving his father’s Triumph Spitfire. He decided to write a novel about a child who could actually drive – and the idea of a disabled girl who wanted to “pimp her ride” popped into his head.

“Once I had that story idea, nothing could hold me back. The idea that you might not put a disabled character in a children’s book because of some weird convention – I don’t understand the point of that. You make your story richer by including diversity of experience. And, also, it’s real.”

He acknowledged that less famous writers may be more fearful about breaking conventions in case it alienates publishers or parents, and he feels lucky he can write about what he wants to. “Because I am a bestselling author, I have a certain licence.”

A report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education earlier this month further criticised the lack of diversity in children’s books. It found just 4% of new children’s books contain a minority-ethnic hero, and only 7% featured any BAME characters at all. The proportion of minority-ethnic pupils at UK schools is 33%.

Similar research, carried out by Guardian Books on the top 100 bestselling children’s picture books earlier this year, found that only five featured a BAME character in a central role. Only one included a disabled character, and she did not speak or play a main role in the story.

Other popular authors, such as Katherine Rundell, have also included disabled characters in their novels over the past year, and forthcoming titles from publishers suggest that in 2020 more writers will follow suit. In February, Walker Books will publish The Good Hawk, set in an alternative post-apocalyptic Scotland. One of the lead characters has Down’s syndrome. In April, Canongate will publish The Infinite, starring an autistic girl who is obsessed with numbers and can time travel.

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