With a growing number of young people identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer, it’s important to explain identity in an inclusive way. Troy Jenkinson, a headteacher at a Leicestershire primary school, has written a heartwarming and funny kids’ book – The Best Mummy Snails in the Whole Wide World – which aims to do just that. We asked him about the hows and whys of the publication, and here’s what he had to say…
The issue of diversity in our schools is growing. Stonewall, an English organisation dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights, released a report in 2017 that says 45% of LGBTQ+ students have experienced homophobic bullying, with the same percentage of the victims never telling anyone about it.
When I started working at my new school, I was informed by a governor that a child in the school had been picked on for having two mums. I can’t abide by bullying, so I decided to do something about it. At the same time, I found some individuals were using the word “gay” as an insult. Stonewall estimates that seven in ten children hear phrases like “That’s so gay” or “You’re so gay” in school.
I read Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s picture book, And Tango Makes Three, which explores the issue, and decided to talk to the students about same-sex parents in families, which seemed to eradicate the problem. Then, in September 2016, a similar problem occurred with a younger child who had two mums. I knew how well the first book went down with the kids because it was based on animals, and having searched for a book with two animal mums in a same-sex relationship, found there was nothing out there. I went away and wrote The Best Mummy Snails in the Whole Wide World for one of my teachers to share in an assembly, and she loved it. She suggested I get it published, and so the journey began.
I chose snails for three reasons. Firstly, children relate well to domesticated animals. Secondly, we’d just introduced a snail as a class pet in our school. Lastly, snails lay eggs, making the births a bit easier to explain.
Attitudes have changed for the better since I was at school, but I think we’re still working in the shadows of Section 28; the infamous law that prevented schools from “promoting homosexuality.” Most other workplaces have anti-discrimination guidance to support their staff but, until now, education has been left behind.
The children themselves don’t appear to have any issues with the subject when it’s brought up, and it’s helpful to be able to inform parents that schools now have a duty to teach about the protected characteristics of the Equalities Act (2010). I feel so passionately about this that I’ve recently worked with a working party from my union, the NAHT, to produce national guidance for schools to support LGBTQ+ staff, and have planned a range of educational activities for teachers that can be found for free on my website.
Initially, I searched for publishers and found a couple of companies who offered me a contributory contract for my book as I was a novice writer. Effectively, they wanted me to pay a substantial amount and then I’d earn royalties back from each book sold. I’d lose all rights to my book, and found I wouldn’t have creative control of my work. After speaking to another author, I opted to self-publish through CreateSpace. This allows my book to be sold on Amazon, and a couple of independent bookshops have agreed to stock my book – including Five Leaves Bookshop and Gay’s The Word, London – but to get my book into mainstream bookshops requires a distributor, so I’m now approaching literary agents to try to get my book more widely available.
Ben Blacknall created the artwork for me. I spoke to him about the concept and he immediately created the prototype characters. I loved them. This was another reason for opting to self-publish as I knew exactly what I wanted the book to look like, and I knew I wanted him to do the illustrations. He’s just started the prototypes for my new book, The Happiest Axolotls in the Whole Wide World, which tells the tale of a relationship growing between a mottled and an albino axolotl, who find that despite the differences in their outward appearances, they both have the same needs and fears.
I have two other finished stories: one about tackling racism, and one that considers and teaches children the value of money. I’ve also got ideas about lots of other stories that challenge perceptions of anxiety, disability, the perceived stigma of high intelligence, and bereavement.
I’ve had some lovely feedback from parents and grandparents who’ve bought The Best Mummy Snails in the Whole Wide World for their children. One parent said that her little ones loved it and she thought it sent out a great message of peace and love.
The best suggestion I have for any parent wishing to share my book with their child is to spend time reading it with them and asking them what they think of the story. Let the children lead the conversation. When I shared it in an assembly, I asked the children to think about the moral of the story. A year-six boy put his hand up and said, “It’s easy to explain the moral of the story. Love is love. It doesn’t matter if you have two parents of the same sex, or parents of different sexes, they still give you love.” I thought that was very profound. If this is the message I can get across to all the readers of my book, I’ll be really happy.
The Best Mummy Snails in the Whole Wide World is available at Five Leaves Bookshop