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.
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 greater 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 so 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. 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.