Illuminating and important as the Reflecting Realities reports are on the issue of diversity in children’s picture books, one thing they don’t look at is gender representation. So there are no facts or numbers to back up my impression that BAME boys are infrequent main characters in picture books. Even in comparison to BAME girls.
It is girls who are usually under-represented in books, so this is an odd impression to get. Yet after spending a lot of time going through the books currently on the market, I am positive it’s correct.
One reason for this is probably effect of high profile recent campaigns around gender equality. Publishers seem to have taken to heart the need for better representation of girls. As a consequence, BAME girls have benefited with lots of really wonderful books being released.
Though this is great, it should be seen in the context of the CLPE’s figures. And I’m not suggesting that representation of BAME girls needs to be scaled back to make room for BAME boys. Quite the opposite. Both are far from the levels they really should be, so we need more, and better, of both. My point is just that it seems to me BAME boys are falling even further behind.
Digging through the rabbit hole of academic research and public discussion made me question what additional problems this lack of BAME boy visibility might cause.
And here I stumbled upon a well-documented, worldwide problem about boys and books. Boys, it seems, don’t read as much.
The gender literacy gap
There is a mountain of evidence from all over the world pointing to a gender literacy gap between girls and boys. Including from here in the UK. What this means is that (statistically) boys are falling behind girls in reading and literacy skills. And BAME boys, as a result of other socio-economic factors at work, are disproportionately affected.
This literacy gap starts as soon as they enter education and only grows worse as they progress through school. As literacy skills are the foundation for most studies, this has boys, and especially BAME boys, falling behind in other areas too. Not “just” reading.
So not engaging with books means potentially, therefore, not developing the literacy skills that frequent reading promotes. This can, and often does, lead to children not doing as well at school. And not doing well at school can limit the opportunities they then have when they leave school.
With such a clear, well-documented, chain of consequences, we obviously need to be getting boys reading more. We need to help more of these children achieve their potential. Boys need to find enjoyment in reading right from the start.
The literacy gap starts as soon as children enter school, so it makes sense, therefore, to begin with picture books.
Boys and reading
How to develop a love of reading in children is one of the great conundrums of education. But people generally agree that a great way to create readers is with books that make a personal connection; stories featuring relatable characters that reflect a child’s own sense of identity back to them.
So, like all children, BAME boys would undoubtedly benefit from books that include characters on whom they can project themselves. Characters who have adventures and experiences that they want to make their own. Books featuring kids like them.
Boy, girl, animal, vegetable…
Now, I’m not saying that boys can’t relate to a white, female or even animal character. Because of course they can.
At age five, for instance, one of my son’s favourite characters was Lisa in the picture book Corduroy. Lisa is a black, 1960s New Yorker, who loves teddies and sewing. Characteristics and interests that, on the surface, held no obvious relevance or appeal for my son at all.
However, he liked Lisa, he told me, because she is so kind to Corduroy. Kindness is a trait that my son values very much, and clearly feels is an important part of his own identity. He sees himself (quite rightly) as a kind person. Lisa is also kind, and so he identified and sympathised strongly with her, despite all their other, more obvious differences.
So reading about ‘other’ kinds of people – people who may look, act, talk and live differently to them but who also might have less obvious shared traits with them – is a great way to built empathy in children for people who are on the surface poles apart. This is the value of books as a window.
But by the same token, what about children who never see a character who reflects their own face or identity? Do we risk sending them the message that these stories, these books, are not for boys like them?
If they never, ever, see themselves reflected in the stories they read, then making a connection with books will surely be that much more of a challenge.