Books can show us the world both as it is, and as it could be – “mirrors and windows”, as the author Malorie Blackman notes. For children, they are currently falling short on both counts. In the pages of a picture or chapter book, readers have their experience affirmed or glimpse exciting new possibilities: mastering a fear of the dark, or travelling through space. Yet a young black or Asian child picking up a book today is more likely to encounter a rabbit than a protagonist who looks like them, says the expert who has led a new review of representation, Reflecting Realities. This is astonishing in an age when 32% of school-age children are from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds; and is bad news not only for them but for all young readers. Publishers are offering a dated, narrow and skewed picture of the complex, diverse, interconnected world around them.
Don’t blame Beatrix Potter. This is not a historic, cumulative problem; the new research covers only books published in 2017. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education asked publishers to submit titles with BAME characters and received fewer than 400, set against the roughly 9,000 books published for children aged three to 11. Quality and sheer variety are as important as quantity. Only 1% of titles featured a BAME lead character; in a quarter of the books submitted, BAME characters figured only in the background. A tenth of books with BAME characters dealt with social justice issues – while just one was classed as comedy. Celebrating cultural practices and unpicking complex experiences is one thing; but defining non-white characters primarily by race and culture, or focusing relentlessly on struggle and strife, is another. There is something askew if BAME protagonists can be found fleeing wars but not taking buses – as there is if future worlds are led only by white boys.
The report welcomes the promise of publishers, from established mainstream names to new independents to do better in addressing all forms of diversity. But those within the industry warn that some are paying lip service: offering short-term internships as a fix for the lack of representation at senior levels, or feeling that they “already have one” when offered a title with a black lead.
Half a century ago, Ezra Jack Keats published A Snowy Day. The glorious collages and simple prose capture a child’s wonder and joy so evocatively that it swiftly became a classic. It was also the first mainstream picture book to feature an African American child; and one in a realistic urban neighbourhood rather than a suburban idyll. Keats noted that the manuscripts he had previously illustrated featured at best “token blacks in the background” and included Peter “simply because he should have been there all along”. Peter’s spiritual grandchildren are alive and well. But it is perplexing how few of them reach shops and shelves even now. In commercial terms, it is surely shortsighted. In the wider perspective, it impoverishes us all.
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