In 2017, a shocking report was made by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) – it found that only 1% of British children’s books featured a main character who was black or minority ethnic. It was the first study of its kind looking at diversity and representation in children’s publishing. The report looked at all children’s literature in the UK and quantified the information to reveal the number of times a BAME character was featured. Since that report in 2017, this figure has only increased from 1% to 4%. The increase of books featuring a BAME character generally has risen from 4% to 7%. This shows there is still a long way to go before representation reflects the population as the percentage of minority ethnic pupils in UK schools stands at 33.1%.
So why is the publishing industry failing to accurately represent BAME characters?
The answer is simple, we don’t have enough creators of colour who are willing to identify, write and represent using voices that these audiences can relate to. How can we create potential authors and writers if minority children are growing up with books that do not represent their appearance or ethnicity? How are they expected to grow into confident individuals who see themselves as equals?
Reading stimulates the imagination and develops understanding – especially in children as it shapes the way they see the world and find their place within it. A lack of representation in something as minor as a storybook, can lead to the internalisation of a distorted image of identity. The CLPE report found that 10% of the books that were published with BAME characters contained ‘social justice’ issues such as war and conflict. In an article for The Guardian, Alison Flood posed an important question, “do minority backgrounds only have a platform when their suffering is being explored?”. We should not be presenting minorities in a way that is culturally stereotypical or negative, nor should we be assuming that war and conflict is a normalised concept amongst minority children. Ultimately, we need to dismantle the structures that convey BAME characters in this way and offer a more positive and authentic way of communicating genuine stories and voices.
Authors such as Hena Khan are working towards stabilising these cultural differences. Her children’s book Under my Hijab, released this year, is aimed at helping young people overcome prejudice, celebrating modern Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab. Khan even employed Aaliya Jaleel – a university student, to illustrate the book. Jaleel explained that she wanted to illustrate the diversity of hijab-wearing women in order to “give confidence to the young girls who don’t see themselves represented”.
Matthew Cherry also released Hair Love earlier this year, a children’s book about an African American dad who styles his daughter’s afro hair for the first time. He explains that he wanted to challenge gender norms and represent a “modern-day idea of a father, but especially highlighting African American fathers who so rarely get depicted in mainstream media in this way”. After an overwhelming response from audiences, Cherry paired with Sony to bring the book to animation. Hair Love is simply a representation of a typical interaction between father and daughter, but it is powerful because it is an interaction that hasn’t been seen on these platforms before. Not only does the book promote individuality, but educationally it promotes perseverance, collaboration and hard work. Its success suggests a real desire from readers that more literature and film ought to be conveying a more diverse and representative picture of the world.
Last year, I worked with children aged 5-7 in a local primary school in Sheffield. I read to them weekly, and observed the unsettling disconnect between the literature produced by the educational syllabus, and the children in the classroom consuming it. The children were predominantly of a BAME background – with 85.8% of them speaking English as their second language. I noticed that in almost all the books we read, the story had white characters and culture at the centre. Both development and engagement are less likely to occur if we cannot connect or resonate with the material in front of us. In England, 64% of children meet the expected standard in reading and writing, but in this school only 21% of them reach that average. It is no surprise, as these children are challenged and academically judged under an education system and curriculum that is predominantly tailored to a ‘white’ standard.
Both development and engagement are less likely to occur if we cannot connect or resonate with the material in front of us, The Letterbox Library is a leading children’s bookseller that is offering a solution to this. As an education supplier, they aim to provide teachers, librarians and parents with inclusive children’s books. Their ‘No Outsiders book pack’ supports primary schools to develop a curriculum in response to the 2010 Equality Act. Partnerships like this display an active response and challenge to misrepresentation which hopefully will help motivate children to read – improving academic figures and increase aspirations of becoming an author or illustrator in the future.
Harnessing representative change is uncomfortable. Author Swapna Haddow points out that whichever way we talk about diversity “if it comes from a white voice it’s patronising, if it comes from a brown voice it sounds like we’re shouting”. This rings true across several sectors of media politics and education. Underrepresentation is a result of complex social, geographical, cultural, historical and economic barriers – but it is the duty of government officials and influential companies to recognise and maximise the space for ethnic minorities to ensure a sense of pride and understanding around identity.
Diversity is not just a buzzword that employers should respond to in order to fulfil a quota, inclusivity should come naturally, but the publishing industry needs a revolution. There have been a number of recent launches of new imprints by publishers to address the lack of diversity in books, including Stormzy’s #Merky Books. However, real change can only occur with a dramatic cultural shift across industries and in daily life – whether this be parents, teachers, employers and role models we should all make the commitment to recognise that this is a critical issue that still has so far to go.