Representation in children’s books matters. A LOT. Seeing yourself reflected in books encourages a love of reading and learning to see the world from multiple viewpoints increases empathy. Today, I am discussing the highlights of the CLPE’s 2020 Reflecting Realities report as well as showcasing twenty picture books (fiction and non-fiction) that feature Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic main characters.
Back in 2018, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published its first report on Reflecting Realities (read it here). The report was shocking: only 1% of children’s books published in 2017 contained a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic main character. As the report stated:
“reading is a tremendously important factor in developing empathy and understanding for lives and contexts beyond your own. In fact books that offer perspectives from beyond your own life or context can be individually and collectively transformative.”
What I found particularly concerning about the 2018 report, was that when a character of colour was included, they were often found to be stereotyped. It is not enough to just have a diverse character plonked in a book for the sake of it, indeed the inclusion of stereotyped diverse characters can be very damaging. What we need is for children to see themselves reflected in the pages of children’s literature in an authentic way across picture books, children’s fiction and non-fiction. And thankfully we are beginning to see positive change!
The 2018 report shocked the publishing world into action. It was clear that this needed to change and fast. Several publishers have created access schemes for creators of colour such as Penguin’s WriteNow scheme and Faber’s FAB Prize. There are also agencies actively helping publishers to increase representation within their workforce, such as BAME Recruitment whose CEO, Cynthia Davis, outlined the importance of ongoing strategies to publishers in The Bookseller’s 2020 Children’s Conference. Book Trust has also set up an absolutely incredible initiative to support diverse writers and illustrators called Book Trust Represents.
There are some outstanding small presses that publish diverse children’s books, but many have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tiny Owl is currently crowdfunding to stay afloat. It was not surprising to me that fellow diverse publisher Knights Of was one of the first to offer support, donating £1,000! I hope other publishers will follow suit.
So what does this all mean? Well, CLPE has just published its second Reflecting Realities (November 2020, read it here). The report states:
“In 2019 33.5% of the school population were of minority ethnic origins, in stark contrast only 5% of children’s books had an ethnic minority main character.”
This increase from 1% to 5% is a good start but clearly there is still a LONG way to go. However, there are many positives in this report to celebrate, particularly in the picture book space. The table below shows the breakdown by age group and you’ll see that representation in picture books has increased from 6% to 30%!
The collective effort by publishers, booksellers and creatives HAS made an impact. Many fantastic books have been published over the past two years. A fist-pumpingly-good success story is Look Up! by Nathan Byron and Dapo Adeola (Puffin) which won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize – the picture book category AND the overall prize! Not only does this book have authentic representation but it has an undeniably relatable relationship of a brother and sister. The main character, Rocket, is so endearing and every time my daughter sees the stars she now shouts “LOOK UP!”
The duo have gone on to publish Rocket’s second adventure, Clean Up! Meanwhile, Dapo has been incredibly supportive of fellow creatives of colour, running events with Book Trust Represents. He has also recently written an open letter to the BBC about making sure all illustrators receive the recognition they deserve (you can read and sign his letter here).
Other children’s picture books featuring a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic main character include Tom Percival’s Big Bright Feelings series (Bloomsbury). Here are my reviews of Ruby’s Worry, Ravi’s Roar and Meesha Makes Friends. These books showcase emotional wellbeing in an inclusive way that makes them accessible to all children – my daughter and I absolutely love them.
Representation has also been seen in non-fiction, such as How to be Extraordinary, written by WriteNow author, Rashmi Sirdeshpande, and illustrated by Annabel Tempest (Puffin). This stunning book includes extraordinary people from all around world, a truly diverse and inspiring read.
More recently, children’s TV presenter, Dame Floella Benjamin told her Windrush experience of moving from Trinidad to England as a young child in a picture book called Coming to England which is gorgeously illustrated by Diane Ewen (Macmillan). Floella and Diane have told this real-life experience with vibrant energy, using relatable emotions for ALL children (read my full review here).
I also love the Work It, Girl series by Caroline Moss & Sinem Erkas (Quarto) which has done fantastic biographies of Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Mae Jemison (read my reviews here and here). Representation has also reached books for the very youngest too, in the form of the “ABC” picture book. We’ve seen lots of these for different themes, from Halloween (Nosy Crow – review here) to Mindfulness (Quarto – review here). M is for Melanin by Tiffany Rose is an ABC-book that celebrates Black children from A is for Afro, to F is for Fresh, to W is for Worthy. This New York Times best-seller has just been published in the UK by Macmillan.
The CLPE report only takes into accounts books that feature human (rather than animal) characters, making the point that, “A focus on animal characters diverts the attention, energies and efforts of stakeholders from addressing the real issue. Under-representation of ethnic minorities in children’s literature is a very real and longstanding issue.” This is a very valid point. That said, I do think there are some picture books on racial identity that use animal characters to great effect, particularly in mixed race stories.
Two outstanding books I’d like to mention are: The BumbleBear by Nadia Shireen (Penguin) about a bear called Norman who loves honey (read my review here), and The Tigon and the Liger by Keilly Swift and Cosei Kawa (Lantana) which is a wonderful story about celebrating being mixed race (read my review here). If you are looking for a book that celebrates being mixed race with a human main character, I would recommend I am Violet by Tania Duprey Stehlik and Vanja Vuleta Jovanovic (read my review here) and also Maisie’s Scrapbook by Samuel Narh and Jo Loring-Fisher (Lantana), you can read my interview with Samuel here.
For me personally, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties whilst reading picture books to my children that I truly began to see myself represented in fiction. Reading Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers (Andersen Press) was an incredibly emotional moment in my life – I saw myself in Luna. It brought me to tears – representation really does matter! Luna Loves Art is equally fabulous and look out for Luna Loves World Book Day next year!
Thanks to the ongoing work of CLPE, Book Trust and the publishing industry as a whole, hopefully before too long ALL children will have the joy of reading books where they see themselves reflected.
If you would like to support Tiny Owl, you can donate here or buy one of their wonderful books here! My daughter’s favourite Tiny Owl title is definitely The Drum by Ken Wilson-Max (read my review here).
Some of the picture books recommended are from my personal collection, others have been gifted to me by publishers. This feature contains my honest opinion.