Opinion: Seeing yourself on the page

Emily Best, Knowledge and Research manager at the National Literacy Trust
Thursday, March 18, 2021

Diversity in children's books has improved but still has a long way to go. The under-representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic characters means that many young readers struggle to connect with story lines.

Books have the power to transform children's life chances. It only takes one book a child really connects with to spark a love of reading that can help them go on to become successful in school and beyond.

This can start from their earliest years, as a shared experience with family and friends and develop into a life-long love of reading.

In December, the National Literacy Trust launched a new research report into diversity and children and young people's reading in 2020, focusing on their own voices and experiences. Based on responses from nearly 60,000 children and young people aged between nine and 18 as part of our Annual Literacy Survey, we found that one in three (32.7 per cent) don't see themselves reflected in children's literature.

What's more, 39.8 per cent of children and young people said they would like more books with characters who are similar to them, and nearly half said they like to read about characters or people that are different from them.

Books as a mirror

Being able to see themselves in books can have direct benefits for young readers. CLPE's 2020 Reflecting Realities report comments that – ‘…[we] know that learning to read is a social process, to be successful you need to connect with your reading material, you need to be able to see yourself, in some way, in what you read. The under-representation of Black, Asian or minority ethnic characters means that readers from a range of backgrounds do not always have the opportunity to make those connections’.

This was highlighted in our own research, which found that 40 per cent of children and young people from ethnic minority backgrounds said they struggled to see themselves in the books they read, compared to 30.5 per cent of those from White British backgrounds.

It highlights how struggling to find characters who look similar, or share similar characteristics or circumstances can impact a child's engagement with reading, their journey to becoming a reader and by extension the life-long benefits reading for pleasure can bring.

Other commentators on this topic have noted that for some, books act as mirrors to affirm a reader's own identity (Bishop, 1997) while for others, books can act as maps that help readers to seek their place in the world (Myers, 2013).

CLPE's Reflecting Realities report also indicated that ten per cent of children's picture books, fiction and non-fiction for ages three to 11 contained characters from an ethnic minority. While this represents a year-on-year improvement – in 2018 only four per cent contained an ethnic minority main character and in 2017 it was just one per cent. This is still far from representative of the UK school population of ethnic minority children, which currently represent 33.5 per cent).

Enriching home learning

Diversity in children's books is not limited to ethnicity, however. Our research found that more children and young people in receipt of free school meals struggle to see themselves in books than those who are not (37.3 per cent vs 31.9 per cent). CLPE's report notes that in 2020 there was a 9.5 per cent increase in books with social justice themes, but this remains an important area for consideration when selecting a wide range of books for children.

We know that in 2019, 175,000 five-year-olds in England started primary school without the communication, language and literacy skills expected for their age. It's a gap many children may never recover from and can hold them back at every stage of their lives

There is a lot of great work being done to diversify literature and learning, but there is still a way to go. It's so important, that publishers, teachers and families continue to increase diversity and champion books that reflect all different experiences and walks of life.

Useful resources

National Literacy Trust Annual Survey 2020

Reflecting Realities: Centre for literacy in Primary Education 

National Statistics Early years foundation stage profile results

Emily Best is knowledge and research manager at the National Literacy Trust, and co-author of its annual survey.

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