Today, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published Reflecting Realities, its 2017 report on ethnic representation in UK children's literature and I can't stop thinking about it.
- Only 1% of the 9115 children's books published in the UK in 2017 featured a BAME main character despite Department for Education (DofE) stats for the same year indicating that 32.1% of compulsory school age children were of minority ethnic origins.
- Only 4% featured BAME characters.
- Only ONE book featuring a BAME character was defined as a 'comedy'. ONE.
- 10% of BAME books submitted involved social justice themes.
This isn't a surprise to anyone in publishing but it's a sobering read all the same.
If books are mirrors to reflect our own lives and windows into the world around us, these statistics show that we've failed children across the board. Children need to be able to see themselves and, more importantly, the people around them, in the books they read and not just in culture-driven or issues-based narratives. We need to move from ‘diversity’ to ‘representation’, from ‘niche’ to ‘normal’.
It’s not just about bunging in a brown child to tick a box. It’s about accurately reflecting the world we live in. The reality is that Caucasians account for a tiny proportion of the world population. And that world is changing rapidly. The future of Britain – sorry, Farage – probably isn’t ‘white’. In fact, a 2014 Policy Exchange report suggests non-white people will make up 20-30% of the population by 2051 (14% in 2014). The 2017 DofE figures show that 32.1% of school-age children are of minority ethnic origins. Let that sink in. That's almost a third. Now have a quick glance at the children's section in those big, shiny bookstores. We’re talking about diversity as if it’s a fluffy, cuddly nice-to-have for children when in so many instances, this is what their classroom, their community and their future place of work will actually look like. And if it isn’t now, chances are it will be as they get older. Riz Ahmed hits the nail on the head when he says:
‘We're talking about representation, not diversity. Representation is not an added extra. It's not a frill. Representation is absolutely fundamental to what people expect from culture and from politics.’
Moving from niche to normal
Diverse stories shouldn’t have to be 'niche' and underrepresented writers shouldn’t feel obliged to write about social justice issues. Of course, they should be able to - those stories are important - but they should be equally empowered to write a bonkers book without a moral angle. BAME, LGBTQ+, differently abled and low-income people have rich internal lives that don’t revolve around the elements that put them into those categories*.
In picture books, for instance, the presence of such characters can be even more powerful when it’s incidental rather than integral to the plot. A book about a zebra in space that just happens to feature a child in a wheelchair as opposed to a whole story around a boy whose life-issue is that he can’t walk normalises diversity. After all, why can’t a little brown girl have a normal dinosaur experience? Why do we need to ask the question, is this essential to the plot? Does it drive the plot forward? Who cares? We’re talking about reflecting society. How about we flip the question and ask if the erasure of diverse characters is really justified?
Who can write diverse characters?
Surely with sensitivity and quality research, anyone can. I often hear that fears around cultural appropriation, misrepresentation and tokenism can hold writers back - I'm going to save that one for a separate post but there are ways of dealing with this. It doesn't need to be a full-on roadblock.
AND WHERE ARE ALL THE DIVERSE CHILDREN'S WRITERS, ANYWAY?
I for one am keenly awaiting the results of the CLPE author/illustrator study to be released in September this year. I've been going out of my mind trying to understand where the issue is. Is it top of the funnel? Underrepresented people not thinking of writing as a career? Not feeling like they belong on the bookshelves? Malorie Blackman often says 'if you can't see it, you can't be it'. Is it further down? Not enough underrepresented writers signing with agents? Or is it the publishers? Are the manuscripts too niche? Not enough of a social justice spin on them? Is it about the demographic makeup of the industry? Or the commercial viability of books by underrepresented writers? The answer is almost certainly a mix of these. The 'why' matters because it shapes what good solutions should look like. And what 'success' looks like too.
A glimmer of hope
Since the news broke this morning, I've seen a number of posts from agents, publishers, and authors looking to effect positive change. I've had a few conversations with people in the industry about what we can do and there are things in the pipeline, which I can't talk about just yet but they fill me with hope. In their Huffington Post article, Aimée Felone, Co-Founder of publisher Knights Of, and Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series, also have some wonderful suggestions as to what we can all do to make a difference.
Finally, there's some great work being done already, which I will share in Part 2 to this post. Yes, there's a lot to do but change is afoot.
*The CLPE report focused on ethnic minority representation but the same principles apply to other underrepresented groups.