“Visibly invisible”: publish, support, and promote authors of colour
Melanie Ramdarshan Bold is Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in the Department of Information Studies at University College London. Her research focusses on diversity and inclusivity in children’s and YA publishing. She is a steering group member for Reflecting Realities and has collaborated with BookTrust to examine the representation of children’s authors and illustrators of colour in the UK publishing between 2007–2017, and looks at ways of better supporting them. Interns from UCL's Publishing MA degree contributed to the analysis of 2018's Reflecting Realities submissions.
It’s a positive sign that the percentage of characters of colour in children’s books has risen in the last year; however, as Farrah Serroukh and Louise Johns-Shepherd, succinctly, explain: quantity alone will not suffice, particularly if the quality is poor or, worse still, problematic. Consequently, it is really important that we continue to evaluate the quality of the representations in and examine who is creating books for children.
I do think there is a correlation between the quality of representation and authorship.
There is a long history of authors from majority groups (i.e. white, able-bodied, cisgendered, neurotypical, heterosexual etc. authors) writing outside of their lived experiences to create marginalised characters. Some of these characters and stories are, of course, respectfully written: the Lulu series by Anna McQuinn, for example, is delightful. However, there are also many harmful portrayals that are rife with stereotypes and tropes, as Karen Sands-O’Connor and Darren Chetty have written about in their Books for Keep column. They identify how, ‘Many representations of BAME children written by white British authors have been shaped by, and shaped, racial stereotype’, giving high-profile examples such as Enid Blyton and Rudyard Kipling. This type of hegemonic nostalgia is still an important driver in children’s fiction. For example, Blyton’s books are being republished, and fostered across different media, for modern audiences while ‘best children’s books’ lists, by prominent authors and commentators, often feature racist books such as Peter Pan and The Jungle Book.
One way to combat this is to invest in, encourage, and support authors of colour.
Authors of colour, and other marginalised authors, have repeatedly seen their stories appropriated and published as authentic, while they struggle to get published, or stay published, themselves: as we know from the BookTrust Represents research, fewer than 9% of children’s book creators (between 2007-2017) were people of colour. Many of these authors of colour have had to petition to get a portion of the accolades that their white (or other majority-group) counterparts get for writing marginalised stories. Even when these stories, by white authors, are sensitively and accurately written they do not have the richness or nuance that comes from writing from a lived experience/sharing the identity of the protagonist.
However, this is not to say that authors cannot write characters whose identity they do not share and outside of their own experiences, particularly if they do the research. Supporting authors of colour, and other marginalised authors, is not detrimental to majority-group authors; the bookshelf, as Farrah Serroukh outlines, is not finite. And this movement is not about policing what people write. The important thing to take away from the second Reflecting Realities report is how we, in the book community (in the broadest sense), can be more aware of the stories we write, publish, share, and promote. CLPE have given us a lexicon to identify if and when people of colour are “visibly invisible” in children’s books. Considering that the voices of people of colour have, historically, been invisible and/or silenced, in all aspects of society, it’s crucial that we do not continue to ignore authors of colour by focusing solely on characters of colour.
Interested in inclusivity in children's books? Read the other blogs in the series by experts in the field.