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

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. This gap starts as soon as they enter education and only grows worse as they progress through school. And as literacy skills are the foundation for most studies, this has them 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. That literacy gap starts as soon as they enter school. Beginning, therefore, with picture books.

A page from the diverse children's picture book 'The New Small Person', showing the BAME boy main characters.
Having more diversity in children’s picture books doesn’t mean more issue books. Books that deal with the ordinary, everyday world of children’s experiences need to also star BAME characters. The New Small Person by Lauren Child is a wonderful example, tackling sibling rivalry that could affect any child.

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 that age, for instance, one of my son’s favourite characters was Lisa in the picture book Corduroy. Lisa is a black New Yorker who loves teddies and sewing. Two things that held no interest for my son at all. But he liked her, he told me, purely because she is so kind to Corduroy.

Reading about ‘other’ kinds of people – people who look, act, talk and live differently to them – is a great way to built empathy in children for those different to themselves.

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? And 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.

What picture books with BAME characters are out there now?

The statistics from 2017 on diversity in children’s picture books are shocking. But the report for 2018 was (a little) better. Publishers, authors, illustrators, and booksellers are making efforts to redress the balance, providing more picture books with BAME characters. 

A page from the children's picture book 'Julian is a Mermaid' showing Julian dressed as a mermaid and taking part in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.
Julian is a Mermaid celebrates diversity in many forms, through a simple story and gorgeous illustrations.

But improving diversity in children’s picture books needs to be more than just a passing trend. This is not the first time that the publishing industry has been called out on diversity – some authors, illustrators, academics and book buyers have been calling for change for more than half a century. And yet it is still a struggle to find positive representation of BAME children – especially boys – in the picture books published today. Undoubtably the publishing industry needs to work harder to fix this.

And not just by publishing more diverse books, but by nurturing and supporting BAME illustrators and authors too. I’ve focused on diversity in the content of children’s books, but there is an even more pronounced shortfall in the creators too, with the Booktrust report on who are making the books revealing only 1.9% of UK authors and illustrators identify as BAME. So it is no wonder that the industry is struggling to represent other ethnicities and identities in the children’s books currently being published.

Parent power

As parents, we have more power than we realise to address this problem. We are, after all, the people most likely to be buying children’s books in the first place.

So we can use that power. We can seek out those books that are full of diversity of all sorts regardless of how we ourselves identify. We can read these books with all our children. And we can talk about them; spread the word so others find them too. We can ask our schools, libraries and bookshops to put them up front where everyone can see them. We can show the people who make and sell these books that having diverse characters does not limit their audience.

And we can be demanding of these books too. To improve diversity in children’s picture books, it isn’t enough to include a child coloured in with a darker crayon as one of the group. Or always the sidekick, or the best friend. Don’t confine BAME kids to books about race or loving their black hair (important as those books may be). Our brilliant authors and amazing illustrators are capable of far more than that, and our children deserve more too.


Diverse picture books with BAME boy characters

It’s not all doom and gloom! BAME boys do star in many wonderful picture books. We’ve made a list of our absolute favourites, and you see read it here. I’ve even done mini reviews with sneak peaks inside each of the books on the list. So you can take a closer look at these fabulous stories.

A pile of children's picture books featuring diverse main characters that are BAME boys.
Every single one of our top picks is a great read that will entertain any child. That they are also children’s picture books full of diversity is just the icing on the cake.

Further reading on diversity in children’s picture books

Want to read more on the subject of diversity in picture children’s books? Take a look at some of the sources I found.

I highly recommend starting with Dr Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal essay ‘Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors’. This hugely influential article is the origin of the oft-repeated metaphor of ‘mirrors and windows’ in conversations about children’s literature.

“When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what makes us all human’

Rudine Sims Bishop “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”

Check out the CLPE’s Reflecting Realities Reports 2018 and 2019. Both reports are full of thoughtful insights, careful analysis and inspirational examples of diversity done well.

Read the BookTrust research into representation of people of colour among children’s book authors and illustrators. This important research project looks at the representation of authors and illustrators of colour in children’s books published in the UK over an 11-year period, between 2007 and 2017. This report, commissioned by BookTrust, seeks to establish a clear picture of who writes and illustrates the books our children read. Spoiler alert, it’s mostly not people who identify as ethnic minorities.

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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