For a decade in the UK, fewer than 2% of all children’s book creators – authors and illustrators – were British people of colour, according to the latest research into the publishing industry’s systemic lack of diversity.
Commissioned by BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity, the report by UCL associate professor Melanie Ramdarshan Bold combines an analysis of all children’s books published in the UK between 2007 and 2017, as well as interviews with 15 writers of colour including Benjamin Zephaniah and Malorie Blackman. BookTrust director of children’s books Jill Coleman said it reveals a “desperate lack” of people of colour in the industry.
The BookTrust report found that only 5.58% of children’s book authors and illustrators were people of colour in 2017 – the least diverse year since 2009, and starkly comparable to the 2011 census’s finding that 13% of the UK’s population belong to a BAME background. When the researchers looked at British creators of colour, the proportion was lower still, at just 1.96%.
Despite initiatives aimed at correcting the lack of diversity in the books industry, the report also found that while the percentage of creators of colour increased between 2007, when it was 3.99%, and 2015, when it peaked at 7.8%, there was then a two-year downturn.
Creators of colour also had fewer books published on average – two – than white creators, who on average published four . They were also more likely to self-publish, with one-third of British creators of colours’ titles self-published, compared to 10.74% of titles by white British creators.
The report comes after research commissioned by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education last July, found that just 1% of British children’s books featured a black or minority ethnic main character.
Illustrator John Aggs, who was interviewed for the BookTrust report, described it as a “vicious cycle”. “You don’t have brown people in children’s books, so brown people don’t grow up reading children’s books or enjoying children’s books, so they don’t make children’s books, and so on,” he said.
Blackman, the former children’s laureate and author of the bestselling Noughts and Crosses series, said that “having to wait so long to see myself in the books I was reading was a major part of why I became an author in the first place”. Zephaniah recalled that, when he started out, “I had publishers saying, ‘We don’t publish black and Rastafarian poetry. We don’t know what to do with it.’”
While the causes of under-representation were “complex”, the report’s authors admitted they identified a “negative cycle” that begins with children not seeing themselves in books during the period they would begin thinking of future professions. People of colour would then face “subtle barriers to those not from middle/upper-middle class background” and have difficulty finding an agent or publisher.
Author and illustrator Nadia Shireen said that when she read in schools, the response from children of colour was “incredible”. “You can see their faces light up with possibility. I underestimated the importance until I saw it with my own eyes,” she said. “There’s that phrase, ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’. It’s important that all children – of all ethnicities – understand that people who look like me can do jobs like this. It’s not just for posh white women or old white guys with beards.”
Many authors and illustrators interviewed for the report voiced their concerns that diversity was being used as a buzzword in the industry due to its mono-culture, despite years of initiatives.
Off the back of the report, BookTrust announced its own initiative: BookTrust Represents, a three-year project that will support and subsidise authors and illustrators of colour to promote their work and reach more readers through events in bookshops, festivals and schools. Teaming up with Speaking Volumes and Pop Up Projects, the charity is distributing a brochure that celebrates 100 British writers and illustrators of colour to schools across the country.
Coleman stressed the importance of monitoring the situation. “If you don’t have any proper data you can’t measure impact,” she said. “Our aim is to do this same piece of research in 2020 and 2022 and our goal is to get the 5.6% to 10%. I do think that’s doable. But without a baseline it’s jut a lot of talk with no information … Children need and deserve to see themselves in books, and to have access to a rich and diverse range of voices. If they do, it can be life-changing.”
The UK only began to track diversity in children’s books last year. In the US, where the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has tracked diversity statistics for years, campaigners recently pointed to a “seismic shift” in representation, with the number of children’s books featuring African-American characters more than doubling over the last 10 years, and the number featuring Asians more than tripling.