Diversity in children’s books: are we on the same page?
PUBLISHED: 17:18 29 August 2018 | UPDATED: 17:35 29 August 2018
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According to a recent study, just 4pc of the children’s books published last year featured a black, asian, or minority ethnic character – what does this mean for young readers?
Sophie’s Snail by Dick King-Smith was my favourite book growing up – largely because Sophie and I were quite a lot alike. Small and determined, we both had active imaginations and would run around our gardens, making friends with the animals and insects who made it their home. And if the cover was anything to go by, we even looked alike too – right down to our mop of dark, curly hair.
In total, there were six books in the Sophie series, and I devoured each of them. They were simple, funny and made me feel a little less alone – even though I wasn’t, really. I had a loving, present family and in the classroom and at the park, it certainly wasn’t difficult to find people like me.
Yet even to me, feeling noticed and recognised in the books I read was incredibly important. It was part of the reason I would pick up a book in the first place. But would this have been the case if I hadn’t been part of such a big majority - so represented and seen?
For a growing number of children in the UK today, this is not the case. Many young readers struggle to find themselves in the books they read because their lived experiences are simply not included. And even those that are available only tell a particular kind of story – and it’s usually one of struggle.
A study conducted this year by the literacy charity Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), and funded by Arts Council England, revealed that of the 9,115 books published in the UK last year, just 4pc featured a black, asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) character – despite the most recent census, in 2011, stating that minority groups make up 14pc of the UK population.
Of the books looked at, 1pc of the books featured a BAME main character and just 0.6pc could be classed as comedy. In contrast, 56pc of the titles explored issues of contemporary realism - touching on topics such as war, refugees and racism – while 9pc could be classed as historical, and 4pc science fiction.
Marilyn Brocklehurst, who has had a long career as a children’s and schools’ librarian, and now runs the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre in Alby, is not surprised by the results. She says: “This is an issue that needs addressing and which librarians and booksellers have been concerned about for decades.”
Throughout her career, Marilyn says that she has constantly been on the look-out for good quality children’s books which appropriately reflect the diversity of today’s society.
“It’s essential that all children see them themselves reflected in the pages of their picture books – and that older readers find characters in novels that offer them connections with their own experiences, and how they live their lives.”
While Marilyn does her best to keep her shop in north Norfolk stocked with a diverse range of titles, she can only stock what is available. “There are by no means enough BAME titles for me to buy,” she says.
“I know that publishers have been made aware of this and are taking steps to redress the balance. It is up to high street booksellers to support new initiatives by publishers, and ensure that new BAME titles are purchased and made available on their shelves.”
And when it comes to what types of books are available, Marilyn agrees with the CLPE findings. “We stock a large selection of books which help children to understand terrorism, humanism, the horror of war and the terrible suffering of refugees,” she says. “There are many books which encourage children to put themselves in the place of someone in distress, and which emphasise the importance of tolerance and humanity.”
But other genres of books are still lacking, she says. “Picture books and stories fall very short. We desperately need more books featuring children living ordinary lives and having fun, making jokes, solving mysteries and enjoying adventures.
“We need more books such as Joseph Coelho’s wonderful Luna Loves Library Day, Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps, Ryan Wheatcroft’s We Are Family, Grace Nichols’ No Baby No and Lauren Ace’s The Girls,” adds Marilyn. “These titles are joining old favourites like Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, alongside the excellent work of Malorie Blackman and others – but it isn’t enough. We need more.”
Adam McGee, the community librarian at Norfolk and Norwich Millenium Library, says: “When I first started I was amazed that there were so many more books about animals than there were actual girls as central characters. Thankfully, while not where we need to be, diversity in children’s books is picking up.”
Diversity is dependent on more than just the inclusion of BAME characters – it’s about gender, disability and LGBT issues too, explains Adam. “We recently had an LGBT+ themed story time for Norwich Pride that was very well received,” he says. “So there’s definitely an audience out there.”
When it comes to exploring these themes, Adam has a few favourites – but acknowledges that there are lots of different ways to talk about the topics in question without compromising the story.
“There are some books that try a less literal approach to representation which can be very effective,” he says. Mixed by Arree Chung, Dogs Don’t Do Ballet by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie, and Worm Loves Worm by JJ Austrian and Mike Curato are among his favourites.
While Marilyn and Adam both agree that there are a number of wonderfully written, beautifully illustrated books on the market, there is still a way to go. But the more books we read, borrow and buy from our schools, libraries and shops, the more likely this is to happen. It communicates a clear message to authors and publishers that a range of different voices need, and want, to be heard.
ON THE SHELF
Marilyn and Adam recommend some of their must-reads…
For books on tolerance, Marilyn recommends We Are All Born Free by Amnesty International, The Silence Seeker by Ben Morley and Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland.
For books on LGBT+ and gender issues, Adam says to try I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jane Jennings, Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love and 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewart
For books with BAME characters, Adam recommends The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton, Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini, and How To Find Gold by Viviane Schwarz.
For books about disability, Adam says to try Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donaldson and Through the Eyes of Me by Jan Roberts and Hannah Rounding.