The problem of diversity in children’s picture books is an issue that’s been in the media a lot lately. It comes hot on the heels of a greater awareness about problems with how girls are being represented in children’s books, and these two things are clearly connected.
We all know that books can help shape attitudes an opinions, especially for young readers, and so it is incredibly important that all children get to see themselves reflected in inspirational characters and stories. I’m really passionate about this, and, with a background working in education and children’s publishing as well as a rainbow family, thought I was pretty clued up. But I had an experience recently that made me wonder whether there was another issue I had over looked.
Read on to find out why, along with pushing for greater diversity for all and better role models for girls, I think we should also be asking where the BAME boys are?
The quest for a birthday book
I came up against this issue of diversity in children’s picture books recently when I went to buy a picture book for a boy who had a birthday coming up. But instead of a fun book-buying outing, I found nothing but frustration. My daughter’s friend was 5 years old, and liked books, and dinosaurs, pirates and aliens. So we thought it would be great to get him a picture book on one of these themes. And as my kids love it when book characters look like them, we thought, ‘let’s get one with a character that looks like him’.
Simple task, right?
But despite searching in book shops and online, we couldn’t find any. Not one single pirate, dinosaur or alien picture book that we found (and there were many!) featured a BAME (black, Asian or Minority Ethnic) boy main character.
Superheroes to the rescue…
So we’d failed with pirates, dinosaurs and aliens. But what about superheroes? There had been black male superheroes in hugely successful recent movies like Black Panther’and ‘Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse’. Surely, therefore, there would be some BAME boys in superhero-themed picture books too?
Well, actually, surely not. We found that is considerably easier to find a picture book about a superhero vegetable than a superhero BAME boy.
Now it is no reflection on the greatness of superhero veggies, which we love as much as the next family. But, frankly, that was ridiculous. And it is a perfect example of problem of lack of diversity in children’s picture books.
Where are all the BAME boys?
This lack of racial diversity in children’s books isn’t news to anyone – me included. I’d struggled for years to find books that reflected my mixed-race niece’s family for example. So I was well aware of the issue (at least in how it related to girls).
But even knowing this problem existed, our failed quest to find a picture book for our friend shocked me. I realised for the first time precisely how very nearly invisible ethnic minority boys are in children’s picture books.
Even in the genres that you might (traditionally) expect boys to dominate – pirates, dinosaurs, aliens, superheroes – they just aren’t anywhere near well enough represented.