by Zaahida Nabagereka
I remember reading the first Reflecting Realities report that was published and the stunning feeling of disbelief at seeing the statistic that only 1% of all the children’s books published in 2017 had a main character of Black, Asian or minority ethnic heritage. I thought to myself how can this be, when my own childhood had been full of diverse children’s books. Books like John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Verna Aardema’s Bimwili and the Zimwi, Trish Cooke’s So Much and Verna Wilkin’s Dave and the Toothfairy. As a child what I didn’t realise was how hard my mum had to hunt for these books, as they were not in mainstream bookshops in the early 90s. I will always be grateful to her for doing that. As a white woman with three little brown daughters she was acutely aware that the majority of books available did not reflect us at all. Experiencing what underrepresentation looks like is painful as you become aware that your existence, though fully tangible to yourself and others around you, can be erased.
Experiencing underrepresentation and being aware of it are two very different things; the latest statistics in the Reflecting Realities report demonstrates that awareness in the publishing industry is definitely increasing and turning into positive action. From just 4% of all children’s books published in 2017 featuring a character of minority ethnic heritage up to 15% of books in 2020 is something to celebrate, and improve on for years to come. In classrooms in England children from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds make up 34.4% of the student population, so we do have a way to go yet.
This is exactly why WriteNow focused on Children’s publishing this year, supported by Penguin’s editorial teams in Puffin and Ladybird. Launched in 2016, WriteNow is Penguin’s programme to find, nurture and publish writers from backgrounds that are under-represented in publishing across the UK and Ireland. The programme offers two things, firstly a workshop designed to give writers the tools, information and inspiration they need to become a published author (longlisted writers also take part in a 20 minute 1-1 session with a Penguin editor who has read their work). Second, the chance to join a year-long editorial programme, which matches a handful of writers with Penguin editors to get their book ready for publication. To date, Penguin Random House imprints have acquired or published 20 books from 15 authors that have been on the editorial programme and 7 more have gone on to be published elsewhere. So far a total of 800 writers have been given one-to-one feedback from a Penguin editor. This year’s targeted focus on children’s publishing meant that we had more applicants than ever, we received a staggering 800 and for the first time the workshop element of the programme was opened up to everyone, not just the longlist applicants. This year’s WriteNow also offered a lot more support for children's applications with picture books and middle grade specifically.
Another programme that Penguin started with race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, to address representation in books is the Lit in Colour campaign. Founded in October 2020, Lit in Colour aims to support schools to make the teaching of English Literature more inclusive. In June of this year the campaign published research investigating the barriers that currently prevent schools from teaching more representative texts. The report found that in 2019, the last year that students sat physical exams, less than 1% of all GCSE students answered an exam question on a full-length text by an author of colour. Time, money, resources and a lack of subject knowledge and confidence in knowing how to talk about race in the classroom are detailed as major systemic issues to be overcome. There is no quick fix for such a multifaceted and complex problem, but there are actions that can be taken from tomorrow which will help. Actions like setting up departmental meetings for teachers to discuss all the texts taught in all English classes, seeking out writing from underrepresented authors and fitting them into existing schemes of work, finding out what resources are available online and using them. In practical terms Penguin is also able to donate books to schools and is investing in high quality free teaching resources based on books by authors of colour that we publish.
One of the positive things about the Lit in Colour report is that both teachers and students want more representation in what they teach and study; there is an overwhelming consensus that things do not have to be the way they are now. As with everything though, real change takes time, but is worth it for the generations to come. The latest Reflecting Realities report shows what that change can look like, the steady but incremental increase in representation year on year in children’s publishing is a welcome and necessary reminder of what we are all working towards.
For this year's Reflecting Realities Report blog series we have asked our friends from organisations close to CLPE to write blogs about what Reflecting Realties means to them and how it aligns with their organisations work.
Zaahida Nabagereka is the Lit in Colour Programme Manager at Penguin Random House UK & Runnymede Trust
Find the Zaahida on twitter here.