A recent study called ‘Reflecting Realities’ by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) found that of all the children’s books published last year in the UK (9,115), only 4% featured characters from a BAME (Black or minority ethnic) background.
This is a remarkably low figure, given that the report also states that 32% of children of school age are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
What’s going on? And why is this a cause for concern? After all, some might argue that the traditional demographic of the UK is white and so it’s only natural that children’s books have mainly white characters written by mainly white authors. They might also argue that stories are ‘colour blind’ and it doesn’t matter what colour or ethnicity the characters are as long as the story is well-written and kids enjoy reading it.
However, if characters from BAME backgrounds are not featured, what message does this send out? That only white characters are significant? Let’s hope not. No surprise then, that many authors and publishers have voiced their dismay at the findings, such as this blog from Tiny Owl which hits the nail on the head here:‘Children see themselves as the images they see in books and on TV. They will get a wrong image of themselves if they are not represented realistically in the books that they read. In their heads, they will find themselves looking differently, or they see themselves labelled as they are in the books. When you realise as a child that you look different to the main characters, you start to feel that something is wrong with you, or that that must be the ideal type and you aren’t the same as them. It can even make them lose confidence.’
Nobody wants children to lose confidence – writers, publishers, teachers, parents, librarians – no-one.
The findings led me to ‘audit’ my own writing to analyse how often I have included BAME characters.
I have been a published author for 20 years and of the 34 books I’ve had published (32 fiction, 2 non-fiction) I can report that:
- 31 contain at least one BAME character (90%)
- 7 contain BAME main characters.
- 6 of the 7 are fiction titles: Accidental Friends (YA), Can’t I just Kick It? (Girls FC) Has Anyone Seen Our Striker? (Girls FC) Stinky Street, Blue Bog Baby, We’re the Dream Team, Right? (Girls FC) and the 7th is my black baby version of Baby Football Fan baby record book.
How much or little my audit represents other white authors who’ve had a similar number of books out I don’t know.
I don’t think 90% is bad, although it still means that the majority of my books feature white characters as the main protagonists. It still means most of my BAME characters only play ‘walk on’ parts in the story.
I’m not sure what I can do to change that or, indeed, if I should try. When a character comes to me they come ‘ready-made’ – skin tone and all. Most of my characters are white. Some are from different countries such as Poland or Ukraine but they are still white. Is that because I am white? Probably. Should I start ensuring I have more BAME character as main characters? I admit I’m conflicted. I feel it would be wrong to include BAME characters artificially as I think that’s patronising and counter-productive BUT because I mainly write contemporary books in familiar settings, I feel the children in the classroom settings I give them should reflect today’s society. That’s a no-brainer.
There’s a school of thought that says white writers shouldn’t include any BAME characters in their books. That white writers can’t understand or share the black experience. I’m not sure about that. Writing is about using our imagination, isn’t it? For sure, white writers should avoid stereotyping and tropes, (eg: the black kid always being good at sport/dancing ) and BAME writers should do the same (eg: white kids as the racist/bullies) but writing is about freedom of expression. Let’s not limit anyone’s creativity.
However, I am aware that it’s harder for BAME authors to get published by mainstream publishers, and that might account for the low % of BAME characters in books so I welcome initiatives such as this from Random House. More BAME authors would lead to truly authentic tales of the BAME experience and that needs encouraging.
Who’s Getting it Right?
In my opinion? Writers like Malorie Blackman and Catherine Johnson and Narinder Dharmi who feature POC (people of colour) characters in a natural way. In Blackman’s Pig Heart Boy, Cameron needs a heart operation. Should he accept a pig’s heart? That’s the focus. That’s the issue. Cameron is black. That’s not the focus. That’s not the issue. Tom Palmer’s Football Academy series gets it right, too. The boys in the team all come from different backgrounds. James is black. His story ‘Free Kick’ is about football, not his colour. These writers illustrate that diversity does not come at the expense of good story telling (why would it?). It enhances it.
Many picture books are on the case, too. Nick Sharratt and Pippa Goodhart’s ‘You Choose’ series reflects all children. Read Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pëna. Laugh with 15 things Not to do with a Granny by Margaret McAllister & Holly Sterling and buy the absolutely astoundingly illustrated ‘You’re Safe With Me’ by Chitra Soundar & Poonam Mistry (Lantana Publications). These are just a few examples of books by BAME writers/illustrators or that feature BAME characters as a ‘given’ (as opposed to a racial issues-based story). For more go to the trailblazing Letterbox Library.