‘What’s taking so long?’: children’s books still neglect BAME readers, finds study

Although picture has improved since 2017, research shows that last year only 4% of books for the youngest readers featured a minority ethnic hero

In most children’s books, according to one London primary school pupil, “people are peach”. Another feels there are “no black people” in the stories they read, meaning that the characters they imagine always seem white.

The children, from Surrey Square primary school, were being interviewed for a new report into representation of people of colour, which reveals that in 2018 only 4% of children’s books published in the UK had a minority ethnic hero. The survey included all new books for children aged between three and 11. The proportion is an increase on 2017, when just 1% of main characters were BAME.

Published on Thursday, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s report, Reflecting Realities, also reveals an incremental increase in the number of new children’s books in which a BAME character features at all, up from 4% in 2017 to 7% in 2018. But with the proportion of minority ethnic pupils at UK schools currently at 33.1%, the report’s authors conclude that there is still a long way to go to achieve representation that reflects the UK population.

“While we have seen improvements across all areas,” the report says, “the baseline set in the first cycle was tremendously low.” In total, 11,011 books were published for children in 2018, of which 743 had a BAME presence.

Children’s author Kiran Millwood Hargrave called the findings “damning and unsurprising”.

“The question I am asking myself is what is taking so long?” she said. “Children’s lives are, by necessity, protected from experience of the wider world and so books offer vital insights and life lessons. We read for connection, for recognition and for empathy. Without representation, we cannot truly expect readers to gain these singular joys, and, more seriously, we cannot progress towards a fairer society.”

Millwood Hargrave said that books are often described as windows, but she was clear: “They must also be mirrors, a way of examining the world as it is and could be.”

“This begins with creating an inclusive environment for BAME readers,” she said, “who will go on to become editors, publishers and writers. Diversity is not a buzzword; it is a fact and strength of our society, and it’s time our writing culture reflected that.”

Onjali Raúf, winner of the Waterstones children’s book prize for her story of a refugee, The Boy at the Back of the Class, agreed. “It is absolutely essential for all children of all backgrounds to be introduced to the many beautiful, hitherto hidden worlds which make up their own,” she said. “Children’s books are lifelong touchstones, and carry messages that ingrain themselves deeply in ways we are only now beginning to understand. Any act to enhance empathy and understanding, do away with the ‘other’ and help diminish fears and prejudice has to begin early. It is utterly crucial that cultures, voices and characters from all spectrums be gifted to us.”

The report also reveals that 42% of children’s books published in the UK in 2018 had animals or inanimate objects as “main cast characters”, meaning that “a reader from a BAME background is much more likely to encounter a book where an animal is the main character than they are to encounter a book that contains a character that shares their ethnicity or cultural heritage”. This, the report’s authors add, cannot be said for a reader from a white background.

As well as counting the types of characters, the report also examines the content and style of books published, and discovered issues with the portrayals of characters and “the impressions that such representations could convey”.

It was often the case, they found, that BAME characters were not drawn as well as the equivalent white characters, both in terms of character development and also in the style of illustration.

“There were a significant number of books submitted where characters were drawn with exaggerated features that amplified their ethnicity in a way that reduced them to caricatures,” they write. “We observed instances of colourism, in which there was a direct correlation with the skin tone and the virtue of a character. The more virtuous the character, the lighter their complexion and vice versa.”

Authors also frequently reached for “different types of coffee to describe different skin tones, with characters at times being described as being a ‘mocha shade’ or having a ‘latte tone’,” reducing them to “a menu item in a coffee shop”.

Raúf was clear that diverse stories needed to be written “genuinely and well: not through a harried tokenism, or checking off of boxes, or the odd colouring-in of a character”, citing a need for “genuine voices, genuine stories, genuine portrayals”.

The research, which is funded for three years by Arts Council England to create benchmark figures, acknowledges that publishers show a continued willingness to engage with these issues, citing independent press Knights Of, which launched and crowdfunded a diverse children’s bookshop in Brixton, London. But according to Farrah Serroukh, who directed the project for the CLPE, there is still much to be done, because “all lived experiences [are] worthy of note and exploration”.

“New readers deserve to be able to see themselves in all stories,” said author Catherine Johnson, who won the Little Rebels children’s book award this year. “Literature should be inclusive. Stories are all the richer for reflecting as wide a variety of experience as possible. Readers lose out otherwise.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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