Earlier this week, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published their third annual Reflecting Realities report looking at ethnic representation in children's books published in the UK. Like so many, I was extremely disheartened to see only a marginal increase in the number of children's books featuring characters from minority ethnic backgrounds, and appalled at the fact that children's books are eight times more likely to feature animals as main characters than Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic people. It's simply not good enough.
In response to the report, The Guardian published an article citing the latest figures, and to say that White Twitter™ got pretty mad about it would be an understatement. The wilful ignorance in the comments section was appalling and it was a stark reminder that even in 2020, there are still people fighting so hard to resist equality.
"You already have your own books, in your own homelands, but you also want them forced on White people, in White societies, in White homelands too." - Ignorant Twitter User #1
Let's be clear: nobody is forcing these stories on white people. We're simply asking for more diverse storytelling so that every child has the opportunity to see themselves in the books they read. When over a third of school children in the UK come from minority ethnic backgrounds, how can anyone think it's acceptable that only 5% of children's publishing features Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic main characters? Don't these children deserve to have their stories told? The disparity is unacceptable and to suggest otherwise in the face of these statistics is deplorable.
"Now they're coming for the animals. What next? Trees?" - Ignorant Twitter User #2
Nobody is criticising animal stories. Nobody is suggesting we stop writing them. But when a child is eight times more likely to find a book with an animal main character than a character that looks like them, surely we have to accept that there's something majorly wrong with children's publishing. As Louise Johns-Shepherd (CEO of CLPE) explained:
"Perhaps people of colour should write more books?" - Ignorant Twitter User #3
Oh. This one again. Perhaps there would be more #ownvoices stories by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic authors if they didn't feel so disenfranchised by the publishing industry. If they felt that being an author was a viable career option for them. If they developed a passion for reading and storytelling by having access to stories that reflected their own realities and lived experiences at a young age. If publishers nurtured their authors of colour instead of signing them on to meet a diversity quota and then leaving them to flounder by denying them marketing and promotion, only to use the inevitably poor sales figures to justify prioritising "safe" white voices and sticking to the status quo. The harsh reality is that the publishing industry as it currently stands is plagued by systemic racism and without a complete overhaul, authors of colour will continue to suffer from a system that inherently favours white authors - whether intentional or not.
The consequences of a lack of ethnically diverse children's books goes far beyond children simply not being able to find books that feature characters that look like them. Children who enjoy reading are five times more likely to read above their expected reading level than children who do not (NLT). And children who read well perform better in all subject areas - not just English (BBC; NLT). In short, sparking a love for reading at a young age sets children on a path to future success. It seems incredibly unfair, then, that the odds are stacked against so many children who don't get to see themselves reflected in the books they read. To quote the CLPE report:
“learning to read is a social process, to be successful you need to connect with your reading material, you need to be able to see yourself, in some way, in what you read. The under-representation of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic characters means that readers from a range of backgrounds do not always have the opportunity to make those connections.”
Denying children access to books that feature characters who look like them - who share their culture, heritage and history - sends out a message that their stories are not important, that reading is not for them. It means that children from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic backgrounds who do become readers do so in spite of publishing and educational institutions rather than because of them. At a time when children's reading engagement is at an all-time low (NLT) we need to be doing everything we can to encourage children to become active readers. With video games, tablets and smartphones competing for children's attention, we have a moral obligation to make it as easy as possible for children to access books and to minimise the obstacles in their path.
So how do we fix this mess? The obvious answer is to publish more children's books featuring Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic characters. And while we're at it, publish more books that feature LGBTQ+ representation, neurodivergent characters, disabilities, divorced parents, adoption, fostering, immigrants, refugees. Make it so that every child - no matter their background - has access to literature that reflects their reality. For publishers, it's about careful curation; the knee-jerk reaction to publish as many diverse books as possible is pointless if the representation isn't authentic or nuanced. As the CLPE report points out, "we should not just expect more but we should also expect better in terms of the quality of ethnic minority representation in children’s literature.” This is a moment for publishers to really think about their contribution to diverse publishing. How are they supporting authors and illustrators of colour to ensure they have a platform to have their voices heard? What infrastructures need to be put in place so that writers and aspiring professionals from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are able to thrive in the publishing industry? These changes will take time because we're talking about the complete overhaul of an entire industry, but done properly the results could be incredible. Think of the children who will fall in love with books because they finally have an entry point into reading. Now picture those children going on to tell stories of their own, inspiring the next generation because they had access to books that featured characters just like them and they realised that their stories do matter and that they, too, could be storytellers. Yes, it will take time and money, hard work and perseverance, but surely it is worth it.
And what about the rest of us? What can we do to incite change? Well, until publishers take a more proactive stance about publishing more diverse and inclusive children's books, it's down to booksellers, librarians, parents and caregivers to find these titles and ensure that children can access them easily. For bookstores, it's about buyers making conscious decisions to stock a range of diverse titles for all ages. For booksellers, the onus is on us to find these titles and champion them in our stores. Curating these titles won't be an easy task and certainly there will be books that slip through the net, but this is the opportunity for us to do what we do best: recommend, encourage, inspire. Chain bookstores have the advantage of a hive-mind; hundreds of booksellers whose combined expertise is unparalleled and that no online algorithm can compete with. We ought to be sharing our ideas and reading lists with each other and building on them so that we're all in a strong position to help get these books into children's hands. For indies with a considerably smaller workforce, your booksellers might have to do a bit more homework. But let's be real, cherry-picking titles and championing books at a grassroots level is what indies do best. Many are already doing this sort of thing - just look at Round Table Books, the indie that's committed to selling only inclusive books. And with the arrival of Bookshop.org, I'm sure that collaboration between indie booksellers will only grow and get easier (the site already showcases some excellent bookseller-curated reading lists that group titles by theme / genre).
For teachers and librarians, the most powerful tool in your arsenal is social media! EduTwitter is a brilliant place for educators to share reading lists and book recommendations, and I can't tell you how many diverse books I've come across by engaging with likeminded readers and bloggers on Twitter and Bookstagram. And then of course there's the authors themselves, who regularly use social media to connect with their readers and promote other authors whose books they love. Most of these authors are available for events and while the pandemic has put a stop to bookshop tours and school visits, Zoom and Instagram Live have become brilliant alternatives to ensure that readers still have the opportunity to engage with authors. These talks are an invaluable resource for inspiring children and a great way to discover new books. Just be mindful that authors are people too and even in lockdown they aren't necessarily in a position to do events at the drop of a hat or for free (like everyone they deserve to be compensated for their time so don't take advantage of their good nature!) Oh, and while we're on the topic of author interactions: please don't approach Black authors if you're only interested in hearing them talk about race issues or if you only want to host them during Black History Month. You might think you're being part of the solution, but it's tokenism and that's a major part of the problem.
Start Young, Start Now
Given how imperative reading for pleasure can be on a child's future success, the best thing you can do for a child is get them hooked on books at an early age. With that in mind, I thought I'd share some of my favourite diverse books aimed at the youngest of readers. It's not an exhaustive list by any means, but it's a starting point. These are books I love to read and recommend in the bookshop where I work and I'm pleased to say they've proven extremely popular with our customers. I hope you enjoy them just as much!
Look Up! by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola | More Info
A touching story about a girl called Rocket who just wants the grown-ups in her town to PUT DOWN their phones and LOOK UP at the night sky! Featuring a loveable protagonist, a sweet sibling relationship, and lots of space facts, Look Up! is one of my all-time favourite picture books and one of my go-to recommendations for younger readers. Once you've read it, be sure to check out the sequel, Clean Up!
Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love | More Info
When Julian sees three beautiful women dressed as mermaids when out with his nana, he can't stop thinking about their wonderful costumes. Inspired by their beauty, Julian sets out to create a mermaid outfit of his own, but will his nana approve? A kaleidoscope of colour and emotion, Julián is a Mermaid is one of the most heartfelt picture books I've ever read, and a touching celebration of individuality and being true to yourself.
My Hair by Hannah Lee and Allen Fatimaharan | More Info
A gorgeously illustrated story about a little girl trying to figure our how to wear her hair on her birthday. From bantu knots to braids, this heartwarming story features a wonderful cast of characters and celebrates all different hairstyles and identities. A must-read.
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry and Vashti Harrison | More Info
Zuri's hair has a mind of its own and she struggles to style it. But today is a special day and it's important her hair is just right. When things go wrong, she enlists the help of her dad who - with the help of some online tutorials - helps Zuri get her look just right. An incredibly moving story about the love between a father and daughter and the beauty of natural hair, Hair Love is a book every family needs to read. Don't forget to check out the Oscar-winning short animation that inspired the book too! (It's also worth pointing out that this is the first picture book I've come across that portrays a character with tattoos. Kudos for the representation!)
Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers | More Info
Possibly the most stunning picture book I've ever read, Ocean Meets Sky is a touching story about a young boy called Finn who sets out to find the imaginary place in his grandfather's stories where the ocean meets sky. Reminiscent of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, readers will find it impossible not to fall in love with this tender story of imagination, family and grief. The book pays tribute to traditional Chinese culture through its emphasis on oral storytelling and family, and both Finn and his grandfather are represented as having Asian heritage.
An uplifting story about two sisters and the bond they share, The Proudest Blue follows Faizah as she overcomes taunts and misunderstandings from her classmates when her older sister starts wearing hijab at school. Brimming with emotion and powerful illustrations, this is a book every child needs to read. Truly a book to cherish.
Meesha Makes Friends by Tom Percival | More Info
Meesha loves making things but she struggles to make friends. She never knows what to do or what to say and she struggles with social cues. But when she meets Josh, everything changes. Perhaps there is a friend out there for her after all! The latest in Tom Percival's Big Bright Feelings series, Meesha Makes Friends shares the same warmth, sensitivity and positive outlook as its companion stories, Ruby's Worry, Perfectly Norman and Ravi's Roar. Filled with diverse and inclusive characters and beautiful illustrations, this is a book every child needs to read and one that every teacher should keep in their classroom.
Sorry for the long (and slightly ranty!) post, but this is a topic that's close to my heart and one that I think we need to keep talking about it we hope to see real change. I'm planning on posting more diverse and inclusive reading recommendations in the future (including Middle Grade and YA titles) so if you have any suggestions of books to include, feel free to drop me a message on here or on social media. I'll do my best to check them out and include them in future lists!
In the meantime, here are some great resources that will help you identify further reading: