Racial Inequality in Children’s Publishing
While Black authors and publishing professionals have long been calling out the racial inequality at the heart of the publishing industry, we hope that finally this is the year that the rest of the industry is forced to listen. In June, #publishingpaidme, a hashtag started by Black fantasy author LL McKinney, called on white authors to share their advances to expose disparities in the amounts paid for the work of white and Black authors. In the same month, the newly-formed Black Writers’ Guild demanded publishers address the “pervasive racial inequality” at the heart of publishing and condemned those “raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own.“ And in July, the Rethinking Diversity in Publishing report found that writers of colour are disadvantaged at every stage of the publishing process, and that publishers seriously undervalue BAME and working-class audiences.
One of the demands of the Black Writers Guild was for the big five publishers to perform an audit of books published by Black authors, including genres and advances. In research shared at this year’s The Bookseller Children’s Conference, University College London associate professor Melanie Ramdarshan Bold revealed that the proportion of YA authors of colour published in the UK in 2019 was 19.6%, more than double the 7.1% in 2017. However, Ramdarshan Bold’s research also found that last year fewer than 2% of children’s authors and illustrators in the UK in the past decade were British people of colour. So while the number of Black YA authors has risen significantly in recent years, the picture across the whole of the children’s publishing industry still looks pretty bleak.
In fact, a 2019 study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education revealed that only 7% of children’s books published in the previous year had a BAME character feature at all. Worse still, they often found that BAME characters were more poorly developed, both in illustration style and characterisation. The report stated that “we observed instances of colourism, in which there was a direct correlation with the skin tone and the virtue of a character. The more virtuous the character, the lighter their complexion and vice versa.”
If anything, children’s publishing should be leading the way in publishing truly diverse books. It is obvious that children from all backgrounds deserve to see themselves reflected in the books they read, but it is also equally important that children see a diverse range of characters and are exposed to new ideas, situations and cultures. Currently, children are more likely to read a book in which the main character is an animal than one with a Black protagonist. If this is to change, publishing has to address racial inequality at a commissioning level, something which would no doubt also be improved by employing a more diverse workforce and ensuring that Black voices are given equal precedence.
Inclusive indies like Knights Of, Lantana Publishing and Formy Books (featured in Issue 7) are already getting this right, but the rest of the industry has a long way to go to catch up.
It is too early to see the real impact of yet another racial inequality wake-up call this year and whether the industry will take concrete steps towards racial equality. But there are many fantastic children’s books being published this month by and about people of colour; here are three of our favourites:
A Story About Afiya by James Berry, Illustrated by Anna Cunha (Lantana Publishing)
This sumptuously illustrated picture book, written by the late Coretta Scott King Book Award-winning Jamaican poet James Berry, tells the tale of Afiya, a little girl whose dress changes to show memories from her childhood as she makes them. Visiting the zoo, she finds two tigers curled up on the fabric of her dress. And when she passes sunflowers, her dress is imprinted with “the yellow fringed black faces.” The book is a wonderful celebration of the freedom of childhood, and the words and illustrations are equally exquisite.
Zombierella: Fairy Tales Gone Bad by Joseph Coelho, Illustrated by Freya Hartas (Walker Books)
Zombierella is a deliciously twisted reimagining of the classic Cinderella fairy tale, written in verse by award-winning performance poet Joseph Coelho and hilariously illustrated by Freya Hartas. The first in a series imagining what happens when fairy tales ‘go bad’, Coelho treats his readers to a wonderfully disgusting story of an undead girl who, maggots and all, pursues her handsome prince… who may just be the last creature you expect. For a spooky treat, watch the author perform the first chapter here.
Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatle (Andersen Press)
Drawing on the true story of the Tacky Rebellion of 1760, Alex Wheatle’s gripping YA novel is both unforgettable and devastating. This little-known uprising of slaves working on a plantation in Jamaica is told from the point of view of Moa, a fourteen-year-old boy, who narrates the tale in Patois. What happens is harrowing, but this bloody and brutal story is vital in understanding the experience of slavery and its resonance today. The book is a deeply personal one for Wheatle, whose own mother was raised near where the uprising took place and grew up hearing the stories of the brave slaves who took part.