Diversity for all
This also all means it’s just as important for children to see reflections of ‘others’ in stories too. Their experiences inside the world of books should also more accurately reflect the world in which we all live.
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.
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.