by Karen O'Connor
The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education published their second set of statistics on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation in British children’s books in September 2019. The Reflecting Realities report is based in part on a long-running project by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
In 1985, when the CCBC first began to gather statistics about children’s publishing in the US [i], approximately 2500 new children’s books were published that year—and only 18 of these, they discovered, were written or illustrated by African Americans. In 1994, when they started tracking representation of ethnic minority characters, the numbers showed about 3% of the characters were African Americans, nowhere near representative of the actual US population (the 1990 census put African Americans at about 12% of the US population; the most recent 2010 census has that number increased to 14%; around a third of that number were school-aged). These numbers are very similar to what the CLPE discovered in their first Reflecting Realities report in 2017, where 4% of the books surveyed featured a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) character while 32% of the school-age population were of minority ethnic origin. So what lessons can the CLPE, the Reflecting Realities team, and all those concerned with inclusive children’s publishing take from the CCBC’s long history?
Lesson 1: Change Takes Time. The CCBC did not give up on publishing the statistics, even when the numbers remained relatively unchanged for years. In the last five years—almost thirty years after they began—numbers of children’s books about African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Asian Americans have all increased dramatically in the US, but numbers for books about American Indians/First Nations people remain dismal. And the numbers of children’s books about ethnic minority Americans still is not representative of the US population, even in the groups whose numbers have increased. The CLPE must continue publishing the Reflecting Realities reports, not as a way to criticize the publishing industry, but to show change over time, and indicate areas where growth is needed.
Lesson 2: Change Takes Involvement from all Sectors. Part of the reason that the CCBC statistics saw an increase in the last five years is due to increased attention to the statistics from groups outside the CCBC. The organization We Need Diverse Books, founded by a teacher-librarian and a university instructor in 2014, has raised the profile of the statistical lack of inclusive children’s literature in the US, and has used the CCBC statistics to do so. The publisher Lee & Low indicated that change had to come from their sector as well, producing a report on diversity in the publishing industry in 2015 that complemented the CCBC statistics. In the UK, librarians, primary school educators, publishers, booksellers, and university academics all must play a role in producing a change in children’s book representation of ethnic minority cultures.
Lesson 3: Independent presses play a crucial role. Many independent publishers and booksellers played a crucial role in changing the children’s book industry in the US, as these groups tend to publish and stock a higher percentage of books by and about people of colour. In the UK, many independent publishers have focused their lists on books by and about groups of Britons typically ignored by the children’s book industry. While school libraries continue to close, eliminating a crucial resource for British child readers, some independent bookshops have opened, including Round Table Books in Brixton—and some have continued to operate for decades, including Letterbox Library, which although based in London has an excellent online service that provides multicultural books to teachers and librarians around the country.
Lesson 4: Multiple genres matter. The CCBC reports that much of the recent increase in numbers of books published by and about people of colour has come in children’s series fiction. Series books have typically been seen as a lesser kind of children’s literature, and yet it matters that all children be able to see themselves in books that the majority of children consume. While some readers will not be interested in “serious” or “literary” children’s books, they will pick up a mystery, an adventure, or a character-driven series. If those readers only see white children as characters in these series, they may decide they don’t have a place in the book world at all. The Reflecting Realities report has highlighted areas where children’s books are lacking in ethnic minority characters, and should continue to put a spotlight on areas of growth.
Children’s books, for many of the adult professionals involved with them, provide a world of adventure, excitement, amusement and comfort. This world should be open to all readers, not just a privileged few—and the CCBC and CLPE, through their reports on publishing statistics, are helping to ensure this will be true in the US and the UK.
[i] Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can see their data from 1985 onward on their website: https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp.