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Tiny Owl’s campaign for more visibility for diverse books continues!
Children from BAME backgrounds aren’t seeing themselves reflected in the books they read. We launched our campaign Diversity Now! to try and change this.
We kicked off by speaking to children’s author Elizabeth Laird and illustrator Jion Sheibani to get their ideas on what we can do to challenge the status quo. Our next interviews are with the amazing author and illustrator Jackie Morris and fab author Savita Kalhan.

We asked:

“32% of school children are BAME, but according to Reflecting Realities survey only 1% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017 had a BAME main character. There are some indie publishers who work hard to create diverse and inclusive books, but they don’t have the same visibility in the media, bookshops, schools and libraries. What can be done to change this?”

Read her fantastic response below!
Jackie Morris posing with our owly and hers!

I was lucky enough to begin my work in the children’s book industry with Frances Lincoln, where my editor was Janetta Otter-Barry. I’ve been working in the industry for 26 years now, but I have been living in the uk for 57.

When I began working in the industry neither the commissioning editors, nor the books published showed much of a reflection of the real world, but Frances Lincoln have always had a diverse list, not because it is ‘politically correct’ but because Janetta has always had a great respect for a good story, great illustrations and a belief that people will enjoy stories from all around the world. I’m proud to have grown up in the industry with her as a colleague.
I believe that books can build bridges, can teach us about each other, can help people see the world through the eyes of others. – Jackie Morris
I remember working on Time of the Lion, a book set in Africa, with a black child as the main character. It’s a book about trust, families, poaching. Even as I was working on the cover there was an article on the radio that stated ‘books with black characters on covers don’t sell as well as those with white characters’. I also remember being told by a card company that I couldn’t paint a black angel because ‘it wouldn’t sell’.
How much has changed? Well, wonderful to see The Hate You Give garlanded with awards. I adore Julian is a Mermaid.
I wish there were more books in translation published in the UK. There are so many beautiful books for children from around the world, wonderful stories waiting to be shared. It’s how we learn about each other, through stories. And we need those bridges to be built more now than ever. I believe that books can build bridges, can teach us about each other, can help people see the world through the eyes of others, and I also believe that we shouldn’t be complacent because of a few steps forward.
More diversity is what is required, and a striving towards excellence. It’s the debt we owe to all our readers.
Jackie Morris is an author and Greenaway-shortlisted illustrator. 
We also spoke to the fantastic author Savita Kalhan. Read her answer below:
Savita Kalhan is the author of books including The Girl in the Broken Mirror

As an author, a reader and as someone who runs a teen reading group in my local library for kids aged from 11 to 18, I know how important it is for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read, and for their minds to be opened to the diversity of modern society. We all know that this promotes understanding and empathy across cultures. So why are there not more books featuring BAME characters?

Large publishers are hampered by the risk-averse commercial preferences of their children’s editors and sales teams, who view BAME representation as a tick-box exercise best “solved” by importing a small number of US BAME-centred books that have already achieved commercial success in the US, with the result that these publishers, and the BAME-centric children and teen/YA books commonly available in the large-book retailers, are in effect largely “Reflecting American Realities”. So there is much that large publishing houses can do to redress this balance.

There is much better representation of inclusive and diverse books published by the indies, who of course lack the commercial clout of the larger publishers. Whilst this is a particular problem vis-a-vis the chain booksellers, financial constraints can also be a limiting factor with respect to promoting BAME books to the media, independent bookshops, schools and libraries.

UK Indie publishers active in the BAME space could perhaps band together under a common banner to devise marketing / social media campaigns specifically targeted at schools and libraries highlighting:

i. The Reflecting Realities findings in terms of the dearth of BAME characters in children and teen/YA faction in comparison with the (children’s) general population.
ii. The active role played by indie publishers in redressing this imbalance
iii. Listings of relevant BAME-centric indie titles, including back-list, current and forthcoming publications
iv. Promotional material with respect to item (iii) above.
v. Periodic press releases to general media and trade publications e.g. The Bookseller, School Librarian etc. highlighting the campaign, including progress, milestones etc.

These are just some of the ways in which the balance between 32% BAME children versus 1% BAME characters in children’s fiction can begin to be redressed. I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s and rarely saw a BAME character in a book. We are now 2019 and it is one of the biggest shames of the publishing industry that the situation has changed so little.

Savita Kalhan is an Indian-born British author whose works include The Girl in the Broken Mirror and The Long Weekend.

  • Read our introduction to the campaign
  • Find out what Elizabeth Laird and Jion Sheibani said about diversity!

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