Where the BAME boys are… Looking for diversity in children’s picture books.

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 and 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?

Where the BAME boys are: looking at diversity in children's picture books.
Where the BAME boys are: Diversity, Boys and Picture Books

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.

Not one.

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. It was 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 the problem of lack of diversity in children’s picture books.

Miles Morales is Spiderman in an alternate universe.

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, even having worked in Children’s publishing for well over a decade, 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.

Our favourite finds

You might be nodding your head or rolling your eyes. And you’re probably thinking ‘duh, this is true but obvious’. If so, then please skip on to the good news…

Which is that while there aren’t enough of them, there are some great books out there. My children and I went through the ones we could find. Both on our own shelves and out there in shops and libraries. And we created a list of our favourite brilliant and (importantly) high quality picture books.

All of them star black, Asian or minority ethnic boy characters.

All of them are wonderfully illustrated, and fun to read. And we did, in the end, even find a few with dinosaurs and aliens.

I am still looking for pirates and superheroes though – so let me know if you find any!

Click here to check out the list. You can also read my reviews of each title and get a sneaky peak inside.

If you’re up for a longer read, I’d love to share with you why I focused on boys and what I found out during my search for these books. Researching around the issue gave me plenty of food for thought. I would love to know what you think about this too. So head on to page 2, to join me down that rabbit hole!

Stack of picture books that star a black, Asian or minority ethnic boy character.
Our favourite picture books featuring BAME boy main characters.

6 Comments

  1. I always look for books with more diversity for Erin but they’re not always that easy to come by. I wish our library had more.

  2. I think this is a really important topic, I want my children to grow up understanding and respecting others individuality and uniqueness. We recently had a great book, The Forgotten Forest, which can be personalised with a huge range of options from skin tones to wheelchairs, to represent all children.

  3. There definitely should be more books that celebrate diversity. Not just for those wanting to see characters they can relate to, but for everyone!

  4. Such an important topic and im shamed to admit something I hadnt thought about until you brought it to my attention. Ive seen some lovely personalised books that have this option. Hopefully there will be more moving forward

  5. I work in a pre-school and we have lots of books that feature different ethnicities and disabilities. Never realised they are so tough to find

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