Representation not only means that children can see themselves in their favourite stories, but teaches them to understand lives and experiences beyond their own.
Over the past year, debates surrounding issues like police brutality and colonial-era statues, as well as the healthcare inequalities that have been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, have contributed towards a much-needed global dialogue about race.
At its core, this dialogue has drawn attention to the need for an increased awareness of the role that race, and structural racism, plays in almost every aspects of our lives — including our sources of entertainment. A central emphasis in these discussions has been the need to teach children about racism and raise them as anti-racist, shining a spotlight on children’s media, particularly books, as an important target for scrutiny.
Much of this has focused on unpacking the harmful tropes and stereotypes in popular children’s literature, sparking debates over whether certain books and authors should be blacklisted from bookshops, libraries, and children’s bookshelves. Dr Seuss’s work has been a particularly high-profile subject of analysis for its racist undertones, with Dr Seuss Enterprises recently announcing their plans to cease publication of a number of his books.
This process of unpacking reveals new questions about the content of children’s literature. How many books are out there that contain positive portrayals of children of colour?
The statistics paint a grim picture. A 2018 study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) found that only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured characters from BAME background, with only 1% featuring a non-white main character. This level of representation is alarmingly disproportionate with the reality of a multi-ethnic UK — even though 32.1% of school pupils in 2017 were from a BAME background, children are almost eight times more likely to encounter an animal or inanimate object as a main character.
Tackling the lack of positive BAME representation in children’s literature is therefore a matter of addressing the balance, pushing for the publication of more children’s books that positively and accurately portray BAME children and their experiences.
Why is this diversification important? The answer to this question is summarised by author Rudine Sims Bishop in her analogy of “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors”. Books can act as “mirrors” in which children see themselves and their lives represented. For children from BAME backgrounds — as well as, for example, working-class children or children with disabilities — these mirrors can be hard to find, and when they exist their reflections can be distorted. However, when these portrayals are positive, children can recognise their worth — reading becomes a means of self-affirmation. For children who are in the majority, books can be windows into the experiences of others, a critical means for developing understanding lives and contexts beyond their own. Representation in children’s books normalises difference, and as such is a key first step in producing children who can recognise and oppose discrimination.
For these reasons, it’s important that BAME representation is not only attached to stories that centre the characters’ experiences of race, although these are vital. Children need books that show BAME characters experiencing the same everyday escapades and fantastical adventures as white characters, alongside stories that address important issues and communicate important social justice narratives. This is similar to arguments that have been made in relation to disability representation, which stress the need for stories where characters “just so happen” to be disabled, rather than their disability being centred as a source of sympathy or inspiration.
For parents wanting to diversify their children’s bookshelves, critical race theorist Lindsay Pérez Huber has suggested several questions to ask when choosing books with BAME characters, including what roles the characters play, whether they are represented in culturally authentic ways, and whether they have agency. Helping children to critically engage with what they’re reading, and to identify and challenge problematic storytelling, is an important part of raising anti-racist children.
Of course, a key concern in diversifying children’s literature is ensuring that ‘diversity’ isn’t just a buzzword, and that the inclusion of BAME characters isn’t simply box-ticking. The children’s literature industry needs to be fundamentally transformed, with equal investment in BAME authors — who in 2017 made up only 5.58% of children’s book creators — and books where BAME characters are front and centre. If children’s books are mirrors, then it is important that they reflect not only the lives and experiences of the children reading them, but also the diverse and interconnected society in which they live.
At JAN Trust, we understand the importance of representation for tackling discrimination and empowering marginalised communities. We work with BAME women in the UK to educate, empower, and encourage them to help them become active citizens and tackle issues in their communities.