Children’s literature continues to omit BAME characters

Olivia Rook
Thursday, September 19, 2019

Books submitted by publishers continued to show ‘many instances where characters were visibly invisible’.

Only 743 of 11,011 children’s books published in 2018 featured BAME characters.
Only 743 of 11,011 children’s books published in 2018 featured BAME characters.

Only seven per cent of children’s books published in 2018 featured black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) characters, according to the results of a survey published today.

The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) Reflecting Realities report is a continuation of research published in 2018, which was the first of its kind to explore representations of BAME in children’s literature.

The results of the survey show that BAME continues to be underrepresented and undervalued in children’s literature, with only 743 of 11,011 children’s books published in 2018 featuring BAME characters. The survey also showed that only 4 per cent of children’s books published in 2018 had a BAME main character.

This is, however, an increase on 2017, when only 1 per cent of children’s books depicted a BAME person as the main character.

According to Farrah Serroukh, learning programmes leader at CLPE, the results show that children’s literature is ‘going in the right direction’ but there continued to be ‘many instances where characters were visibly invisible’.

She added: ‘It’s crucial that we understand what [BAME representation] looks like when it is done well.’

How was the research conducted?
CLPE invited UK publishers of children’s literature to identify, collate and submit all of their titles that featured BAME characters and fell into the categories of children’s fiction, children’s non-fiction and picture books. They had to be suitable for those aged between three and 11, and first published in the UK in 2018. The charity then worked with a group of experts to analyse the extent and quality of ethnic minority representation.

Speaking at a panel discussion, Darren Chetty, teaching fellow at University College London, said: ‘Children’s books are usually aspirational and in a genre that is aspirational… why is it the world it should be omits black and brown people?’

He explained there continues to be ‘an imagination gap’ on the part of authors in terms of representations of BAME people but he believes the report is a good step towards helping children’s literature to be taken more seriously.

Mr Chetty also said that it is important for white children to see they are not the only people to be represented in authors’ imaginary worlds. He went on to cite the story of one six-year-old who believed children’s books had to be about white people.

The biggest disparity between percentage of the population and representation in children’s literature was Asian people. While 6.8 per cent of the population is made up of Asian people, their representation only accounted for 0.14 per cent of books published featuring BAME main characters.

Black people, who make up 3.4 per cent of the population, featured most often (one per cent of all books published) in BAME depictions.

Looking at patterns and trends
While the first survey was designed to set a benchmark for future research in the area, the second survey was able to go deeper, looking at patterns and trends. Researchers discovered that BAME characters were less well drawn than equivalent white characters, in terms of actual illustration and in terms of character development.

A significant number of books included characters whose features had been greatly exaggerated in order to amplify their ethnicity. There were also instances of colourism, in which there was a direction correlation between skin tone and virtue of character.

Colour choices to denote various skin tones were also problematic, with researchers finding that orange, purple and grey were commonly used to represent BAME characters. Ms Serroukh explained this meant there was an issue with ‘whether the characters authentically reflect reality’.

She cited the book Ruby’s Worry by Tom Percival, which manages to capture nuanced skin tones even though it is in black and white. Ms Serroukh commented: ‘If we can do it in black and white, then we can do it in colour.’

Hair and the description of hair seemed to be the way in which ethnicity was implied in a number of the submitted books. In some instances, ‘wavy’ and ‘curly’ were the only cue that a character was from an ethnic minority background.

Louise Johns-Shepherd, chief executive of CLPE, said: ‘CLPE works to ensure all children can become literate and so we are heartened that more children will be able to see themselves reflected in their reading material but we are also aware that this is just the beginning of a journey. 

The call for more inclusive books is as much about quality as it is about volume. Better representation means just that, better in all regards, because all young readers deserve the best that the literary world has to offer.’

CLPE has pledged to continue its research and provide year-on-year figures to show developments in representations of BAME within children’s literature.





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