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BAME representation in children’s literature

Children’s books carry values and ideas that are ingrained firmly in a child at an early age and are crucial to the forming of their character. It is through reading that children are introduced to people, places, and concepts outside of their own personal experiences. Children use stories to make sense of and draw conclusions about the world around them. Any opportunity to enhance empathy in children and lessen their potential for misguided fears or prejudice is integral to their formative years. It is therefore essential that races, cultures, and voices from all spectrums are represented in children’s literature. 

A recent study conducted by the Centre of Literacy in Primary Education found that only 1% of children’s books published in 2017 had a Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic (BAME) protagonist, and only 4% included BAME background characters. This figure is staggeringly low given the 32.1% of school children in England of BAME origins. Although there is movement in the publishing industry towards creating children’s literature that is more representative of its readership, progress remains painfully slow.

It is shocking that a child of a BAME background is more likely to encounter a book in which an animal or object features as a protagonist rather than a character which shares their ethnicity or cultural heritage

As it stands, there are more children’s books featuring inanimate objects as main characters than children’s books with a protagonist of a BAME background. It is shocking that a child of a BAME background is more likely to encounter a book in which an animal or object features as a protagonist rather than a character which shares their ethnicity or cultural heritage. The same cannot be said for children of a white background. 

There have, however, been improvements in BAME representation in recent years. In 2017, BAME characters featured as part of a main or background cast in only 4% of children’s books. This number increased to 7% in 2018. The statistics are of course promising but there is clearly still a long way to go yet. The question is: why is progress so slow? 

Although the number of BAME characters in children’s books has increased, there are concerns raised surrounding misguided portrayals of these characters. The report by the CLPD found that characters from BAME backgrounds were often “less well drawn than the equivalent white characters, both in terms of actual illustration and in terms of character development”. 

Stories need to include informed, genuine, fleshed out characters – not written in the spirit of harried box checking or the odd colouring-in of a character’s complexion

The CLPE report reveals that BAME characters often fall victim to tokenism and typecasting, with characters drawn using exaggerated features and characteristics to amplify their ethnicity, reducing them to no more than caricatures. More concerningly, writers at times have leaned towards troubling portrayals of BAME characters. For example, “a direct correlation with skin tone and the virtue of the character” was found with “the more virtuous the character, the lighter their complexion and vice versa”. 

It is not enough for children’s books to simply feature BAME characters. Stories need to include informed, genuine, fleshed out characters – not written in the spirit of harried box checking or the odd colouring-in of a character’s complexion. 

The responsibility to create more diverse content ultimately lies in the hands of the publishing industry. There has been a diversity push by smaller publishing houses such as Knights Of, an inclusive children’s publisher which works with writers, illustrators, and retailers to promote diversity both on and off the page, but they are not in the majority. 

More needs to be done to promote inclusivity in the industry and create pathways for BAME illustrators and writers

In general, BAME people are underrepresented in the cultural and creative industries. Only 5.58% of children’s book creators came from a BAME background in 2017. More needs to be done to promote inclusivity in the industry and create pathways for BAME illustrators and writers. Mentoring and networking opportunities can be vehicles to facilitate the entry of BAME creators into the industry as well as actively seek out emerging talent.

As well as creators, there needs to be an increase in diversity behind the scenes. Aimée Felone, Co-Founder of Knights Of, says “when you open the doors as it were as to what publishing looks like you see a very homogeneous space and unfortunately that is reflected in the books that come through”. Better representation of people of colour among decision makers in the industry will encourage meaningful discussions surrounding tokenism and generalisation to support the informed representation of different cultures and heritages. Until the publishing industry makes conscious efforts to facilitate pathways for BAME people in the industry and support creators of colour, the progress towards a range of children’s books that are more representative of their readership will remain painfully slow.

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