Diversity in children’s books is a real problem. Here are a couple of statistics for you, courtesy of The Bookseller:
- 32.1% of pupils of compulsory school age in England are of minority ethnic origins.
- Only 4% of all the children’s books published in the UK last year featured a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) character.
And then, the other day, I was going through this summer’s Amnesty magazine and discovered this article by poet Charlie Dark, in which he talks about his experience of growing up in London and not seeing himself represented in books—a problem that his own kids now have:
“Growing up, I read a lot but never recognised myself in any of the books. Now I’ve got kids – aged 13 and 11 – and they ask me: Dad, why aren’t I in any of these books? At some point you want to read stories that mirror a reality you can identify with.”
As a white person, I’ve always had the privilege of seeing my reality mirrored in the books I read (as well as the films I watch, the websites I visit, etc.). I can’t imagine how damaging and dispiriting it must be to read books in which people like you never feature, and what messages that must send about what is possible for you in your life.
Of course, kids use their imaginations, and they can identify with characters who look different. Dark himself says that he loved books like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Catcher in the Rye and Jane Eyre. But, he adds:
“Representation validates who we are.”
I’d also like to add that diversity in children’s books is not just an issue for the 32.1% of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds. It’s a big issue for white children too. Books help to shape your view of the world, and the world they are entering is full of diversity. I’d argue that even in places where the population is more homogeneous, exposure to more diverse children’s books would be beneficial.
In the US, they’ve been tracking things diversity in children’s books for a lot longer than the UK, and they’ve been making progress. Here’s an infographic from Lee & Low Books:
As the Lee & Low article acknowledges, diversity in children’s books still lags behind diversity in the US population. But the last couple of years have seen a real increase. That’s the result of some strong activism, clear measurement, and a real acknowledgement within the publishing industry of the need for change. I hope the UK follows a similar trajectory.
But beyond the headline number, there are other important issues. Who’s writing the stories? Who’s illustrating the books? Who’s doing the editing and commissioning? And what kinds of stories are being told? It’s about more than just sticking a few diverse characters in the book.
The Bookseller article, for example, points out that of the books that even contained a BAME character, many of them were just in the background—in only 1% of books were they the main character. And in the US, according to the Lee & Low article, Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 6% of new children’s books published in 2016.
We’ve got a long way to go.