Representation in Children’s Literature: The CLPE ‘Reflecting Realities’ Report
By Laura Jones, Aimee Haldron and Michaela O’Callaghan
In 2018, funded by the Arts Council, the very first CLPE ‘Reflecting Realities’ report was released. Its aim was to capture an image of the children’s publishing landscape in terms of representation and diversity. It sought to measure and record the inclusion of Black, Ethnic Minority and Asian characters appearing in the nearly 10,000 children’s books published during the previous year (2017). Four years later, and with the release of the most recent report, we take a look at how the children’s publishing landscape has changed, the improvements that have been made and the factors which still need addressing.
In 2017, just over 9000 children’s books were published, comprising fiction, non-fiction and picture books. Of these, just 4% featured characters from the BAME community. In contrast, due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, there were only 5875 books published in 2020. Of these, 875 books had clear representation of Black, Ethnic Minority and Asian characters within them, meaning a rise of 11% since the initial data collected in 2017. This upward trend is certainly positive, but is it just the number of books that matters or are there more to be unpicked?
Additionally, despite there being some representation and diversity in the children’s publishing market in 2017, it simply didn’t go far enough, offering a very limited view of the BAME community. Whilst “only one book featuring a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic character [was] defined as ‘comedy’ [...] 10% of books with Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic characters contained ‘social justice’ issues.” Thankfully, this is also a changing feature in the report, and an upward trend towards comedy featuring BAME characters has been noted. Some notable titles include Konnie Huq’s Cookie and the Most Annoying Boy in the World as well as Kevin Tsang’s Sam Wu series.
There has also been an upward trend in mystery adventure books, with the likes of Patience Agbabi’s Leap Cycle series and Serena Patel’s Anisha Detective series. What is most encouraging about this increase is the amount of series, as opposed to standalone books, being published. This shows a long-term investment by publishing houses to continue publishing such genres and characters.
But this long-term investment isn’t limited to the authors’ creation of genre and character, as more publishers seek to make the full publishing process more inclusive and reflective of our diverse community. One such publisher is Dinosaur Books, a small independent publisher founded by Sonya McGilchrist. Dinosaur Books’s mission is to “offer young readers a range of characters and locations that go beyond those that are usually represented in children’s books [...] through our character’s class or race, or through the locations of our stories.” Dinosaur Books seek to reflect diversity and inclusivity across the whole publishing process by using illustrators from a range of backgrounds, too.
The report has highlighted some key differences between fiction, non-fiction and picture books. Picture books contain the highest representation, but the quality of this representation can often be questioned. We would be excited to see more non-fiction titles that push beyond biography (as much as this can be an inspiring form) to consider broader movements and histories, as the report notes that this is seen to be lacking.
Earlier this year, it was announced that BookTrust had teamed up with inclusive publisher Knights Of and the CLPE to produce an anthology of stories from Black British authors and illustrators, including names such as Patrice Lawrence, Dean Atta, and Yomi Sode. The anthology was published in August, and it was also announced that BookTrust would be sending a free copy to every primary school in England, along with free resources in partnership with CLPE. By collaborating and releasing this anthology, they hope to “redress the imbalance and ensure that children see themselves reflected in the books and authors they read.”
Looking back over the past year, it is clear how successful children’s titles that feature multi-dimensional ethnic minority characters can be. There are a lot of new upcoming titles from publishers such as Owlet Press and Lantana Publishing that we are sure will continue the positive trend of increased representation found within the ‘Reflecting Realities’ report. However, more must always be done, and we need to consider how as an industry we champion these titles to ensure that books which reflect reality become the norm and not a tick-boxing exercise.
CLPE’s next move is to uncover how, with the right support and tools, schools can incorporate diverse titles into their daily lives, and how this impacts the pupils. With funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, CLPE will work with ten schools and track the learning journeys of 300 pupils over three years.
The end of the report features several links to resources that we encourage you to look at. CLPE highlights some booksellers that champion a range of diverse and inclusive books, alongside organisations and further reports.
You can read the report in full here.