Two years after the stark revelation that only 1% of British children’s books featured a main character who was black, Asian or minority ethnic, the proportion has increased to 5%, according to new analysis. But a child from an ethnic minority background is far more likely to encounter an animal protagonist when reading a book than a main character sharing their ethnicity.
Two new reports into representation in children’s books are published on Wednesday, with the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) finding that 5% of children’s books published in the UK last year had an ethnic minority main character, compared to 4% in 2018 and just 1% in 2017.
The number of books that featured any black, Asian or minority ethnic characters also increased to 10%, up from 7% in 2018 and 4% in 2017. This is still well below 33.5%, the proportion of primary school aged children in England who are from a minority ethnic background.
“We’re pleased that it continues to go up, year on year, but the starting point was just so low. And even where we’re at, when you step back, that’s still so disproportionately low that we need to make sure that the incremental increase doesn’t make us complacent, or doesn’t make us feel like we’re kind of done,” said Farrah Serroukh, who directed the CLPE project. “We want to encourage the publishing industry just to continue to strive for better.”
The report also reveals that some publishers had pushed back against the CLPE’s past research, and asked them to also report on the number of animals in children’s books, hypothesising that it would “go some way towards qualifying the lack of ethnic minority presence”. But the publishers said that 38% of their books featured animals or inanimate objects as main characters, meaning that children are almost eight times as likely to encounter an animal main character than a human main character who isn’t white. This fixation on animals, write the report authors, “diverts the attention, energies and efforts of stakeholders from addressing the real issue”.
“Given that ethnic minority presence makes up such a small proportion of these human casts, these self-reported figures further illustrate the ways, in which under-representation can impact on reader identity and shape reader outlook,” says the report.
A second report into diversity, from children’s reading charity BookTrust, found small growth in the number of people of colour working as authors and illustrators in the UK over the last two years. In 2019, just under 9% of children’s authors and illustrators were people of colour, creating 7% of titles. In 2017, 6% of authors and illustrators were people of colour, behind 4% of titles. The number of people of colour debuting as authors and illustrators also doubled over the period, to 24, but the report notes that almost half of these were self-published or published by a hybrid publisher.
“Things are going in the right direction, but these things take a long time to change, and they need everybody to work together on them,” said Jill Coleman, director of children’s books at BookTrust. “After the first report, people were shocked to see just how bad things were in black and white – there’s kind of no getting away from the numbers. I think there has been quite a change in people’s attitudes, due to all sorts of things going on since the last report was published, not least Black Lives Matter, which really did impact on publishers. And so publishers have a different attitude now, they’re much more interested in making change, and are aware that the situation is not a good one.”
BookTrust is challenging the publishing industry to increase the number of creators of colour in the UK to 13% by 2022, when it will publish its next report.
Sarah Crown, director of literature at Arts Council England, which funded the CLPE report, said regular surveys had been “crucial in helping to address historic imbalances and lack of opportunities”.
“While it’s encouraging to see consistent improvement over the past three years, there is significantly more work to be done, to ensure all children can see themselves in the books they read and that the children’s publishing industry reflects the diversity of 21st-century Britain,” she said.
• This article was amended on 24 November 2020 to clarify that it is in England that 33.5% of primary school aged children are from a minority ethnic background. An earlier version did not specify any location.