• Mabel Osejindu

Diverse Representation in Children’s Books

What place do books hold in your world?

Oh, how I love books! Books are a joy! If you are a bookworm, like me, you’ll most likely identify with stories, literature and texts which have most connected with you from childhood. Books that made you laugh, cry, think and derive motivation. But when was the last time you saw a character of colour in a book or novel? Have you been able to affirm your own identity or heritage through them? Are the main characters and protagonists diverse and is it relatable to your background and life experience? Books with characters named ‘Olamide’, ‘Sandeep’ or ‘Tanisha’ about yam festivals, Sunday schools and life on inner-city London’s estates? Well, books create belonging. They help us see each other and understand one another, encourage cohesion and solidify one’s own identity. Books should be a vital avenue in challenging racial inequalities and promoting a common sense of mutuality, but recent statistics have shown that characters from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds remain significantly under-represented in a wide range of genres of children’ books. I mean - I imagine it's hard to be drawn to a character or storyline without potent recognition or identification with it!

Any book by Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine or Enid Blayton brought me the most delight for me as a young girl but never did I see a black character in any picture book or chapter book I read. Whilst I have huge admiration for the books of my youth, I do not recall any character that I thought was just like me. The characters in the books of my youth were interesting, funny and appealing but not once did I see my life through their lens of theirs. The characters in the books of my youth seemed so different to my own. They didn't dress like me, eat the same food I did or engage in the same activities that I did. In a sense, it was novel to read about such contrasting lives. But sometimes, I did wonder what it would feel like to read a book and think ‘wow she’s just like me; she’s got hair like my own, lips as thick as mine and family that resemble my own too’. Books inevitably shape children’s lives. Seeing stories and characters can affect how they see themselves and by seeing a character that looks and behaves like them, it affirms their existence and value in a way that only the heart and mind truly know.

Such misrepresentation of Black and Asian characters in children’s books is in stark contrast to the UK’s demographics and population in that there are 8% Asian/Asian British and 3% Black/African/Caribbean/Black British residents amongst the total 56 million residents in England and Wales (according to the 2011 Census). Book Trust and CLPE assert that representation in children’s books is not reflective of society. Following research by Penguin Books, just 1% of GCSE English literature students study a book by a writer of colour and 82% of young people surveyed did not recall ever studying a text by a black Asian or minority ethnic author. Only one GCSE English literature course features a black author and only 2% of children’s book heroes are diverse. In the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education 2019 survey of 2019, a tiny 4% of the children’s books published in that year had a Black or Asian character which effectively means that the 33% of primary school children from diverse ethnic backgrounds will most likely not be reading a story with a child in a family which is in any way like theirs or friends like theirs either. The Guardian even notes that children's books are 8 times as likely to feature animal main characters than Black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals.

Barriers to ensuring diverse characters in children's books are multifaceted. For one, there aren't enough authors and illustrators depicting such characters in books. For years, the issue has largely been ignored and if not for current coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and talks of inclusivity in the workplace and media, it may have remained to the back of our minds. One must question whether existing authors and illustrators even have the confidence to create a story with diverse characters and the resources to do so. How many Black or Asian authors or illustrators are agented with the manuscript accepted by publishers and popular nationwide/internationally? Some writers may even be of the view or worry that stories about diverse backgrounds do not sell or have high market value. Some might even fear backlash or criticism from cynics and racists for including people of colour in children’s books, especially in a society that always only validates White British identity. The market for children's books is competitive enough; let alone pushing to go out of the boundaries of what's generally accepted as marketable manuscript materials. Is it authors that need to write about more diverse characters or is it the work of publishers to accept the existing work of diverse writers who write about Asian and Black characters? A collaborative effort, I reckon.

Despite these frankly disheartening statistics, recent efforts have been made to make children’s books as diverse and inclusive as they ought to be. A range of initiatives has been striving to address historic imbalances and celebrate diversity more. The number of children’s books published in the UK over the last couple of years (2017-2019) featuring characters from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background has increased to 10% in 2019, rising from 4% in 2017, 7% in 2018 to 10% in 2019, according to CLPE. The number of British debut creators of colour has also increased from 12 in 2017 to 24 in 2019. Baby steps but still progress. By shedding light on this issue, an incremental increase is on the horizon.

In collaboration with @penguinukbooks, #LitInColour supports primary and secondary schools to make the teaching of English literature more inclusive. Their new research examines the problem of stories with diverse characters and intends to make practical recommendations to implement change. In addition, the “Woke Babies” box aims to empower young children to not only bring reading alive through their selection of black children’s books, tailored to children’s age and understanding. But also diversify books in libraries everywhere. Plus, have you heard of their new, exciting campaign called #hairytales brought to you by @tangleteezer and @wokebabiesuk? They have used 3 classic children’s books and given them a much needed revamp using black characters and have put black hair and all its beauty centre stage. They include “Zel Let Down Your Hair”, “The Puppet Who Wanted Hair” and “Jackson and the Hairstalk”, all written by the wonderful Trish Cooke. Plus all profits from the books sold will be donated to @prettybrowngirls, a charity that empowers young, black women! Events like Europe’s new biggest Black British Book Festival as sponsored by Penguin books was held last week in Birmingham, hosted by Birmingham’s Poet Laureate, Casey Bailey. There are brilliant books that will be celebrated including the works of @bernardineevaristo, @afuahirsch, @garyyounge, @malorie_blackman, @nadiashireendraws, @vashtiharrison and @dapsdraws. Truthfully, there has been headway in the publication of bestseller books featuring diverse characters including Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o & Vashti Harrison, Anita and Me by Meera Syal, Hair Love by Matthew Cherry, Clean Up! by Nathan Bryon & Dapo Adeola, Magic Betsey by Malorie Blackman, The New Small Person by Lauren Child, Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen, When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten and High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson.

I believe, it's worth assessing though how impactful these stories have been on a nationwide or international basis thus far, compared to those that feature White British protagonists, and indeed whether this movement is more poignant in the United States.

I think it's safe to say that more needs to be done to markedly ensure the celebration of the beauty of uniqueness and inclusion in children’s literature. But positively, we are on the first steps of that ladder. Books shouldn't just be created for the sake of satisfying an uptake in ethnically diverse books but rather for the benefit of the children and their levels of both confidence and self-esteem in their identity, and level of enthusiasm and engagement with books. That’s the ultimate success criteria for change. The changes we want to see should reflect the name of favourite characters that children of diverse backgrounds attest to, the sale and borrowing of such books and their knowledge and understanding that everyone is different and there is no one type of the main character in the world of books. However, this discussion is not just about the existence of diverse characters in books according to the presentation of skin tone and heritage. More thought should be given to the representation of single-parent and blended families, neuro-diversity, migration/immigration and disability to show that children are different in many other ways than just the amount of melanin present in their skin.

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