The proportion of children’s books featuring a minority ethnic character has almost quadrupled in the last four years, according to a new survey – but researchers say “we are not yet at the point where children of colour have the same experience of literature as their white peers”.
The annual Reflecting Realities Survey from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), which monitors the diversity of the UK’s children’s books, launched in 2018, when it found that just 4% of the children’s books published the previous year featured a black or minority ethnic character – and just 1% had a minority ethnic main character. Described as “stark and shocking” at the time, the proportions have increased in each year since, to 7% in 2018 and 10% in 2019, and – with 5,875 children’s picture books, fiction and non-fiction titles published in the UK in 2020 – to 15% in 2020, with 8% of titles featuring a minority ethnic main character.
According to the latest official data, 33.9% of children of primary school age in England are from an ethnic minority background.
“We know how long it takes to turn things around in the book industry. From idea to publication is quite a long process, so we weren’t really anticipating in the early phases of doing this work that we would get an upward trend every single year,” said the report’s author, Farrah Serroukh. “It’s a pleasant surprise.”
The increase has been particularly significant for picture books and children’s non-fiction, with 48% of picture books now featuring a character of colour, compared with 6% in the 2017 output, and 34% of non-fiction titles.
Fiction, however, remained static in 2020, with 7% of titles featuring characters of colour, the same as the previous year. “Of the three categories, it’s probably the hardest to do well,” said Serroukh. “It’s really hard to write a character of colour quickly. You can’t go from the intention of a character being white to shifting that character to being of a different background without doing the labour that’s necessary. There are no quick fixes. So you have to, from the outset, have had the intention to write the character of colour. And if that wasn’t the intention, you can’t really turn it around and change it to be something that it wasn’t originally.”
Picture books, on the other hand, can “give the impression of presence quite easily by changing the palette”, said Serroukh, and “we have certainly seen a lot of that happening”. While the report praised picture books such as Pete Oswald’s Hike and Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Tries, it notes that often the higher presence of characters of colour in illustrations didn’t “always carry through into the detail of the text itself”, and “there were also instances of ambiguity and fluidity in portrayals of ethnicity in illustrations”.
Novels such as Catherine Johnson’s To Liberty! The Adventures of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, illustrated by Rachel Sanson, and AM Dassu’s Boy, Everywhere were also praised as “captivating”, while You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied was noted for its “nuanced portrayals” of demographic groups that have traditionally rarely featured as central characters.
The report also highlighted the fact that in 2020, 90% of the main cast of characters of colour in children’s books influenced the narrative “in their expression of thought, voice or action”, compared with just 38% in the first year of the survey. “This is a positive indicator of the agency afforded to characters of colour,” the report said. “[It] indicates to us that significant editorial decisions are being made to ensure that characters of colour are given agency and voice.”
But it criticised the “many” novels which fell short in this area, either because the ethnic minority presence “was too insignificant to reasonably be recognised as a meaningful reflection of realities”, or because the portrayal was “insufficiently or poorly developed”.
The study compares the fact that 33.9% of children of primary school age in England are from a minority ethnic background, with the 8% of children’s books that have a minority ethnic main character. “There is still some way to go before UK children’s books more accurately reflect the reality of the school population, but the speed of change serves to reinforce the benefit and tangible impact of the survey and a wide range of other initiatives across the publishing, charity and literature sectors,” it said.
“Every year we say this work is not just about the numbers, and we say it again this year. We can see that across the industry there are real and concerted efforts to change the quality of pictures, descriptions and stories of people from racialised minorities,” said CLPE chief executive Louise Johns-Shepherd. “We welcome these changes but we are not yet at the point where children of colour have the same experience of literature as their white peers.”