In July a writer friend posted a link to the report: Reflecting Realities – A Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature 2017. The report was created by the CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) and aimed to explore the extent and quality of ethnic representation in children’s publishing in the UK.
The results were dire. The report concluded that of 9,115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017
- 4% featured BAME (black or ethnic minority) characters
- 1% had a BAME main character
The stats didn’t surprise me. Every Christmas I spend weeks trawling bookshops and websites, asking teacher and librarian friends for recommendations, trying to find books for my nieces and nephews that feature characters who resemble them. It’s a disheartening uphill task.
What I do find disturbing about the report are these findings:
- Over half the fiction books with BAME characters were defined as ‘contemporary realism’ (books set in modern day landscapes/contexts)
I can already picture them. The ‘gritty’ books set on council estates in urban city centres.
- 10% of books with BAME characters contained ‘social justice’ issues (such as war and conflict)
- Only one book featuring a BAME character was defined as ‘comedy’
Where is the fantasy and magic for children of colour? Where are the dragons? The magicians and super hero powers? Where are the wacky, madcap books that make children giggle uncontrollably? Children of colour in the UK are taught so early to associate their skin colour with problems and strife. There’s no escapism for them through fiction unless they step into the shoes of white children. Meanwhile, white children are conditioned to associate conflict with ethnic minority children.
Author Nikesh Shukla, who sat on a steering committee for the CLPE’s report, told the Guardian:
“When you’re figuring out the world, being able to see yourself in books, as well as people who don’t look like you, is really important. It means you see your story as valid, and it can contribute to who you imagine yourself to be – and a kid should be able to imagine themselves as anyone in the world. These mirrors are so important.”
32% of school students in the UK are ethnic minorities. That’s a third. It’s not acceptable that their lives are represented so narrowly. It’s not acceptable that almost all of the books written for their age group look out onto a world that does not include them.
There are some signs of change. Rashmi Sirdeshpande has written a great blog post listing initiatives that are being undertaken by publishers and agents to diversify both the authorship of children’s books and the publishing personnel working on them behind-the-scenes.
Meanwhile, we can support the authors of colour that have been published.
Here are 21 to start you off.
1. Tola Okogwu – Hope’s Braids / Beth’s Twists / Kechi’s Hair Goes Every Which Way
Tola is a hair blogger, healthy hair coach and children’s writer
2. Zanib Mian – The Robot That Said Moo / The Muslims
Zanib is a qualified Molecular Biologist and taught Science in secondary schools before she quit her to create change in the children’s publishing scene. She launched Sweet Apple Publishers with a clear commitment to publishing inclusive books, many of which she has authored herself. Zanib has also launched a hugely successful publishing company for unique, quirky and inspirational Islamic books – Muslim Children’s Books Ltd.
Middle grade (8-12)
3. Sita Brahmachari – Jasmin Skies / Kite Spirit / Red Leaves
Born in Derby to an Indian doctor from Kolkata and an English nurse from the Lake District. She’s is an author and playwright who has also worked in theatre and education.
4. Alex Wheatle – Liccle Bit / Crongton Nights / Straight Outta Crongton
Award-winning Black British novelist of Jamaican heritage.
5. Candy Gourlay – Tall Story / Shine/Bone Talk
London based author and journalist originally from the Philippines
6. Polly Ho Yen – Boy in the Tower / Where Monsters Lie / Fly Me Home
Worked in publishing for several years before teaching in primary school.
7. Catherine Johnson – Blade and Bone / Freedom
Catherine is an award-winning children’s author. She also writes for film, television and radio. She co-wrote the highly acclaimed film, Bullet Boy, followed by commissions for Century Films, Working Title and Channel 4.
8. Benjamn Zephaniah – Refugee Boy / Face / Gangsta Rap
Award-winning artist. Poet, writer, lyricist and musician
9. Sonal Sachdev Patel and Jemma Wayne-Kitten – GITA
Jewish author Jemma Wayne-Kattan has helped reimagine one of the holiest books in the Hindu religion for children
10. Jasmine Richards – Secrets of Valhalla / Keeper of Myths
Born in London, raised in a library, and the first in her family to go to university.
11. Sam Hepburn – Her Perfect Life: A gripping debut psychological thriller with a killer twist
Younger readers – Quicksilver / Serpent’s Gold
Sam’s Sudanese father and English mother met at a London art school. They married and set up home in Khartoum. Sam moved back to England with her mother but began to revisit her Sudanese family in her twenties. Since then she has worked and travelled widely in Africa and the Middle East.
12. Yaba Badoe – A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars
Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker, journalist and author.
13. Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand – Out 15 Nov 2018 / Pre order it now
Was born in the U.K., but toured India during childhood holidays. Her debut novel is an epic fantasy inspired by Mughal India.
14. Natasha Ngan – The Elites / The Memory Keepers / Girls of Paper and Fire – Out Nov 2018
Part-time yoga teacher. She grew up between Malaysia and the UK.
15. Muhammad Khan – I am Thunder / Kick the Moon – Out 24 January 2019
Muhammad Khan is a maths teacher in a secondary school in Tooting and takes his inspiration from the children he teaches, as well as his own upbringing as a British-born Pakistani.
16. Tanya Byrne – Heart-Shaped Bruise / Follow Me Down / For Holly
Tanya worked for BBC Radio for 8 years. She now lives in Surrey, working as a freelance journalist and writing YA novels.
17. Nikesh Shukla – Run Riot
Novelist, TV writer and journalist. Editor of the anthology, The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by British writers of colour about race and immigration.
18. Alexandra Sheppard – O.M.G.s (Oh My Gods) – Out January 2019
Freelance social media strategist and YA author
19. Sufiya Ahmed – Zahra’s First Term at the Khadija Academy / Secrets of the Henna Girl
Born in India, moved to the UK as a baby. Sufiya lived in Bolton, Lancashire, before moving to London. She has worked in advertising and in the House of Commons, but is now a full-time author.
20. Malorie Blackman – Robot Girl / Noble Conflict / Chasing the Stars
Malorie has an OBE, held the position of Children’s Laureate from 2013 to 2015 and writes literature and television drama for children and young adults.
21. Patrice Lawrence – Orange Boy / Indigo
Patrice is an award-winning writer and journalist, who has published fiction both for adults and children.