‘You have to be taught to be second class; you're not born that way. But the slanting process is so subtle that you frequently don't realize how you're being slanted until very late in the game.’ Lena Horn
It suddenly dawned on me. My son is eight-years-old, he’s currently in Year 4, and he started in the Nursery year of school. He’s already had five years of formal education and it was only last term that he first brought home a school issued reading book that had a central character in it that look liked him. This was only because a teacher knew he had an interest in his history, his culture and his origins. How could this be? was it an isolated experience? After an informal poll of other parents and research, I found that ours was not an isolated experience - many children are going through the education system without having seen anyone in books that looks like them or their families.
In 2017, only 1% of UK books published featured a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic main character, and according to the Centre for Literacy, of the 11,011 children’s books published in 2018, only 743 featured a BAME character in a background role. Children of African/Caribbean descent are in fact more likely to see an animal or a talking alien in children’s literature than their own social groups. One reason for this may be because, according the literacy charity the Book Trust, fewer than 2% of children’s literature is produced by British people of colour, so there is much work to be done in terms of representation in the field of literature itself.
Within the genre of children’s literature, however, there is also the issue of being ‘Cover Short-Changed,’ where a promise of a central BAME character is implied by the inclusion of one the front cover, for the reader to open the book and find that the cover is the only place where they are visible. BAME characters are also likely to be lost in crowd scenes, in a common style of illustration which features so many silent black and brown background characters that it resembles a racial ‘wallpapering’ effect.
Some positive movements have occurred. The UK Children’s Publishing industry has, for example, participated in a study by CLPE and are working towards better representation in Children’s literature. The Book Trust has also kick-started a commendable three-year programme to develop home-grown writing talent by providing vital opportunities for British writers and illustrators of colour across the country, with the aim of increasing the less than 6% overall total to 10% by 2022.
As parent-educators, we also need to ensure that the books we read at home are positive, diverse and enriching for all children. We need our children to see positive, racially affirming characters that hold a magical mirror up to their experiences, and to their own immediate and extended families.
As parents, we know all know that reading to young children lays the foundation for language development and early literacy skills. Reading black children’s books to them helps establish their early, positive self-image. It would be fantastic - and a sign of true inclusion - if the books stocked in local nurseries and preschools, books sent home from schools, and books available in public libraries reflected the diversity of our population to help our children feel a part of society. This is particularly important for households that do not have financial means to buy such books. As things stand, with the figures in UK children’s publishing as they are, these children are unlikely to ever see themselves reflected in the pages of a book either at school or at home.
As Marian Wright Edelman, an African American civil rights activist said, 'if you don’t like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.' In this spirit, SACCO has compiled a ‘Wishlist’ list of BAME books on Amazon to support reading with young learners. Visit it at https://www.amazon.co.uk/hz/wishlist/ls/11AHAEVSPH7VV
To maximize impact, try the following:
Buy plenty of these titles for your home and the children in your life for birthday and christening gifts
Buy one book and leave it in your local barbers and/or hairdressers for everyone to read
Ask your school/nursery to use any money raised from PTA, book fairs or cake sales to buy appropriate books for the school library
Instead of buying class sweets and cakes when it your child’s birthday, buy a couple of enriching books and donate them to their nursery and/or school
Email your child’s headteacher and let them know how necessary/wonderful it would be to have a greater selection of diverse resources
Email your local Library Service Team to encourage them to stock these titles