A response to the results of CLPE’s report on diversity in children’s books
By Simran Divatia, a second-generation Indian based in Reading
The first time I read a book that had a main character that looked like me, I was 11. It was many years too late, because I had spent most of my childhood feeling as though the magical adventures, schoolgirl mischief or secret mysteries I so loved to read about were things that did not belong to me. The few characters that I did see that looked like me always fell into the background, saying very little, and not being mentioned again as soon as the adventure started. As a young Indian girl growing up in a predominantly white town, I started to think that only white characters were the heroes of the story. As a result, every imaginary story I wrote starred a girl who looked nothing like me, and even when I drew myself as a young child, I drew blonde hair and pinkish skin. This was the image that was repeatedly fed to me as what people should look like, and I started to think that I must have to also look like that to fit in.
This was all over 10 years ago, and I would have hoped that now it has changed. I think in my idealistic imagination, I thought that now when a little brown girl goes to the library, she is faced with masses of books filled with people who look just like her, that she can see herself saving the world, or falling in love, or learning magical spells. However, last week CLPE published a report called Reflecting Realities on children’s books in 2017, and the result showed that very little has changed at all. 4% of children’s books last year featured a BAME character, and only 1% had a BAME main character. It feels like a shock that even now there is so little diversity in children’s books, but maybe it should have been expected. Books that are ‘diverse’ in their content are still viewed as a relatively small market, and so are less likely to get advertised in mainstream media or sold in the larger bookstore chains.
After the report came out, I had the chance to interview Delaram Ghanimifard and Ken Wilson-Max, both of whom are publishers at small independent companies. It was helpful to talk to people who had shared the experience of not seeing themselves in books as they grew up, and now were disappointed but not surprised to see how little progress had been made in this area. As publishers of diverse books themselves, they knew all too well the struggle that accompanied trying to increase BAME representation in children’s books. Delaram said something that especially rang true with my own experience of diversity in 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.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly how I felt as a child, and how so many other children in this country must be feeling as they read book after book that does not show anybody who looks like them. It is a shared experience between many young readers, and most can pinpoint exactly the first time they read a book about somebody who was like them. (For me, it was Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, and from the vivid descriptions of the home-cooked food down to the tiny familiar interactions between people, I felt like I was reading something that catapulted me straight back to Mumbai!)
Ken had approached the situation with a lot more hope and optimism than I had felt when I first saw the report. Instead of focusing on the negative of the result, or the why were the figures not higher, he said that we should be looking forward to how we can now make an improvement and boost that percentage!
People are much more similar than different. Expanding our range of experiences and learning about how similar we actually are is a good start. We need to cross barriers, from creators to the publishers, and as a whole accept new cultures and new opportunities.
It’s a more positive way to look at the results. Disappointing as the statistics may be, they show us that there’s a very clear solution. There need to be more books that feature BAME characters! Authors need to write more stories about them, the media needs to give more attention to the books that already exist, and booksellers need to fill their shelves with a range of cultures.
Luckily, that’s exactly the impact that this import report has been having. It has been brilliant to see how it has made people take notice and talk about the issue of ethnic representation. Media outlets from The Guardian to The Independent have shared articles discussing the results of the report and what has to be done. This has been wonderful because it has drawn attention to small publishers like us at Tiny Owl, who are publishing books that feature a range of BAME characters!
“There are positives: wonderful, creative authors and publishing houses and illustrators – people I reach for first and foremost. Lantana and Tiny Owl are newer houses with diversity at their core and beautifully produced lists.”
It is a good thing that we have all seen this figure of 4% and not accepted it as okay. This report has brought focus to an issue many people wouldn’t even have been thinking about because it didn’t affect them! Media have taken notice of small companies like us, and booksellers will be able to see that diverse books are something that their readers want to have available to them! Hopefully things will start improving for representation, and soon there will be a time when all children have a huge range of books that feature people that look just like them.
Simran is an intern with Tiny Owl
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