Why diverse characters in picture books are so important
It seems like it must be obvious why it’s important that our children’s books contain a diverse array of characters. And in many ways it is.
Just for starters, they help our children embrace diversity by showing them faces, cultures and experiences different to their own. Simultaneously, they help our children develop their sense of identity by showing them faces like their own too.
Any way you look at it, diversity in children’s books is a good thing for ALL kids. But if it’s so obvious, why do we need to talk about it?
The answer to that question is twofold.
Firstly, though diversity in books is obviously a good thing, it hasn’t been happening enough. You’ll find the evidence for that below. So talking about it raises awareness with book makers and sellers, and with buyers and readers too. That conversation is already leading to positive (if slow) change.
And secondly, the reasons why diversity is a good thing are many and varied. Understanding these reasons, rather than just intuitively ‘knowing’ it’s a good thing, has helped me personally try to make better choices. It’s helped me really think about what messages the books I buy are giving to my children. And it’s challenged assumptions I didn’t even know I had.
The CLPE ‘Reflecting Realities’ report
But where is the evidence for all this? Well, a few weeks ago, the CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) published their latest ‘Reflecting Realities’ report, looking at representations of ethnic diversity in children’s books published in 2018 in the UK. This is the follow-up to their pioneering survey, published last year, which looked at books published in 2017.
The first reflecting realities report came up with some grim, but sadly unsurprising, figures. 9115 children’s books were published in the UK in 2017. But the CLPE found that only 1% of these books had an ethnic minority main character. And this was out of only 4% that had any BAME character at all.
You could ask, if we are talking about minority groups, doesn’t it make sense there is correspondingly lower representation for them in books? Maybe (and I stress ‘maybe’!), but even on that criteria, publishers are failing miserably. To put this into context, in 2018, 32% of UK school children were of ethnic minority origins. So, far more than 4%, and vastly more than 1%.
In fact, it works out as very nearly a third of our children who rarely encounter faces like their own in books they read. And while the focus on improving diversity is often on black faces, the biggest ethinic minority group is Asian (6.8% of UK school children, compared to 3.4% black children). Yet Asian faces appear in only 0.14% of the 2018 UK children’s books analysed – fewer than any other ethnic minority.
The CLPE had gone in to the study expecting to find an imbalance. There was already an understanding within publishing that more representation of ethnic minorities was needed. Yet this was the first time in the UK that research had put hard numbers to quantify the problem.
Reflecting Realities – diversity in books report, year 2
It is great, therefore, that this year’s report shows a slight improvement on the original figures. Just look the numbers for picture books specifically, for example. The numbers went from 6% that featured a BAME character in 2017, to 9% in 2018 (picture book figures were slightly higher than the overall averages).
What the CPLE say they found most encouraging, however, was not this slight increase in numbers but rather the effect that their report had on the book community. As a result of the report, inspiring new initiatives were begun within book publishing, book selling, education and the wider community of book buyers.
Books can take years to create, produce, and put on sale. Undoubtably therefore it will take a little more time for the full impact of these reports to be clear. But hopefully all of this increased awareness and understanding will result in ever greater numbers of ever more diverse books, for all our children.
Quality of diversity in children’s picture books
But it’s not all about quantity. The CLPE survey was designed around their key questions about ethnic diversity. And an important element of this research was to look at the quality of representation too.
They were, for example, looking at how many BAME characters featured in each book. Or whether they were main or secondary characters. How much impact they had on the plot; how was their ethnicity communicated, and so on. They asked, were characters token background figures or active and fully realised participants in the stories?
This year’s report delved even deeper into the issue of quality. The CLPE analysed not only ‘how many’ but also ‘how well’ ethnic minority characters were represented in these books. And they found that there is still a way to go to ensure that the BAME characters in these books are positive, central and authentic representations of the communities and cultures they aim to portray.
In other words, being visible isn’t enough if it means being diminished or erased in other ways.
All this is especially important when it comes to books for younger children because research shows that children form their understanding and attitudes about race and their own racial identities by the time they are eight or nine. So their ideas about race and identity are set when the books they are reading are most likely to be picture books.
What they see in picture books during this time when their racial attitudes are developing is therefore incredibly significant. Arguably more significant and impactful than at any other stage of their reading journey.
Diversity for all
This also all means it’s just as important for children to see reflections of ‘others’ in stories too. All children’s experiences inside the world of books should accurately reflect the wider world in which we all live, regardless of the colour of their skin.
This is often talked about as books acting as windows, letting children see through to another viewpoint or culture beyond their own.
In books, children can meet a diverse range of characters – whether it be race, gender, physicality, culture or some other marker of identity. This allows children to practice empathising with those who are different to them. It allows them to see that people are not all the same on the outside, even as it encourages them to understand how much we have in common on the inside.
And the world of literature is vast, so children are likely to encounter a far wider range of identities than might be visible in their everyday community.
Books as mirrors
By contrast, books that offer children ‘mirrors’ rather than windows have been shown to help them relate more personally to the journey the characters may be on. And this in turn helps them build a better understanding of the world in which they live.
When children see people ‘like them’ visible, valuable and central to the stories they are being told, it reaffirms their own position and importance in society.
To fulfil both those needs, all our children need to be represented fairly in the books that we give them. And, as the CLPE’s report makes clear, it’s not just about the amount of representation. The quality and range of books is important too.
The 2018 CLPE report had one statistic that highlighted this. Only one book that featured a BAME character in their survey had been defined as a comedy. Which is, if you’ll forgive a terrible pun, nothing at all to laugh about.