Picture the scene. You’re a kid, about to head into a bookshop. You’re excited because you LOVE reading and want to find a brand new book to read and love. But you can’t find many books that reflect how you look. Every book you look at seems to have a character that doesn’t look like you. This is how the situation is today for a lot of BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) children. The worst thing? It’s 2018. Times have changed. So why the heck hasn’t publishing?
A recent study published by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education shows that in 2017, only 1% of books published featured a main character of a different ethnic origin to white. It also discovered that of the 9115 children’s books published in the UK in the same year, only 391 of these contained a BAME character. This statistic is, quite frankly, appalling. It’s also not shocking.
As a bookseller, I can see firsthand how damaging this is for children. Parents often come in asking for books with black protagonists, and of the small selection we have in, they’ve most likely read them all. As we can only hold titles that have, of course, been published, this leaves many parents frustrated and disappointed. However, ask me to recommend a book with a white protagonist? I wouldn’t be able to stop, as there is an overwhelming amount of them. It’s completely unfair. When books come in with black or mixed race characters portrayed on the cover, I latch onto them! They are the rare gems. Now this doesn’t mean that books don’t exist – they do. But try reading every single one and find one that’s really reflective of the current generation. You’re going to struggle.
Publishing has started the conversation of diversity but there hasn’t been enough done at all to reflect these conversations. Picture books are getting there, and teenage books are seeing a slow trickle of excellent books with BAME main characters – we have authors like Adam Silvera, Tomi Adeyemi and Angie Thomas to thank for such wonderful books – but the middle grade books are barely there. How can children feel confident and comfortable with their reading if they never see themselves portrayed in books? I’ve heard people complain about this, saying ‘We shouldn’t see race in books anyway!’. I’m afraid that we should see race in books. Because if we don’t, it alienates readers of different ethnicities.
I’ve grown up loving books. I tended to push aside the uncomfortable confusion of not seeing a mixed race girl with curly hair grace the pages of books, but it always bothered me. I know I’m not alone in this either. Talking to a friend on Twitter, it’s obvious that he also felt alienated as a reader and this statistic has disgusted him. You can read Joel’s thoughts here over on his Twitter. As an aspiring author, the 1% statistic pushes people like Joel away from the UK publishing industry. “As a UK BAME writer, I don’t feel like I want to get published here because it feels that the UK isn’t open to diversity nor inclusion.” . With publishing as limited as it is with BAME stories, it’s hardly surprising that many authors would feel the same as Joel, and would search elsewhere for an agent when pitching stories.
“Why should publishing change?” I hear you ask! As a society, especially in the UK (and definitely in London), we are hugely lucky to have such diversity. We have the ability to learn about different heritages and open our minds to all ethnicities, religions and much more. Look at the people you know, and see how diverse they are. Why shouldn’t the book industry reflect how diverse we are? Books are for everyone, and the range of titles should show that. If you’re walking around in London and see so many diverse walks of life, you should be able to see that in the books you read too.
Unfortunately, the world at the moment is full of anger. Racism floods the internet and people are uncomfortable to be themselves for fear of backlash. This alienates people so much, and many readers will want to find comfort in a book that doesn’t alienate them further. This is hard to do when there’s no book for them. This alienation can stick for a long time too, and can make readers lose faith in books. It closes the door of reading for many, when the door should be wide open. But not only is making reading diverse good for different ethnicities, it’s also good for white readers. It opens up many different perspectives and walks of life for readers who wouldn’t have ever experienced them before. It changes and educates how children can look at the world, and when there’s a diverse cast of characters in their books it makes them feel more comfortable. Reading can be an educational tool for white readers when choosing a book with black characters. It allows kids to be more receptive and understanding of the world around them, and also helps them develop a much more open mind.
Publishers need to stop talking about including diverse voices and start actually acting on the conversation. Publish diverse stories. Publish own voices. Let readers see themselves in books, because all children should feel welcome in an activity they love.