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Publishers Are Failing Black Children: Thank Goodness For Those Who Represent Them

BY NOW, most of us literature lovers will have digested the news that only 4% of British children's books published in 2017 featured Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) characters.

The figure comes courtesy of a UK study conducted by the Centre for Literacy and Primary Education (CLPE). The research, which was funded by Arts Council England, also found that only 1% of children’s books featured a BAME main character.

Aptly titled ‘Reflecting Realities’, the report, which was published earlier this week, makes dire reading – especially when you consider that last year, the Department of Education identified that 32.1% of schoolchildren in England were of minority ethnic origins.

Still, for those of us passionate about diverse children's literature, the report may be saddening, but it isn’t surprising.

You only need to walk into a mainstream retailer to see that books featuring BAME characters are far (far) outnumbered by those that don’t. And sadly, this is something that many BAME literature-lovers have become used to.

However, there is a silver lining: In among these grim statistics is a host of diverse children’s books that didn’t make the statistics; countless titles that make up what could be described as an underground railroad of books that truly reflect BAME children.

But first, here come the figures…

In the CLPE’s study, 40 UK publishers submitted 587 books published in 2017. Of those submissions, 391 met CLPE's criteria of being written for children aged 3-11 and featuring at least one BAME character.

Those 391 titles make up just 4% of the 9,115 children’s books that were published last year. And in breaking the figures down further, the report found that only 1% of those 391 titles featured a BAME main character.

To put it kindly: If the publishing industry was a school student, its’ end of term report would surely read, ‘must do better’.

To put it bluntly: Publishers at large are failing BAME children. And while this is something many of us already know, the CLPE’s groundbreaking report makes for damning reading, which will hopefully urge the industry to address this issue with urgency.

But back to that aforementioned silver lining – namely, the authors who are doing for self.

Indeed, there are a host of BAME children’s authors who have either self-published their books or released their titles through smaller, independent publishers.

Such titles won’t always grace the shelves of mainstream bookstores; they may not be reviewed in big-name publications or be included in surveys or lists that reflect the landscape of children’s literature.

But many of these books are showcased at festivals up and down the country. They’re represented at book fairs both in the UK and internationally. And they’re stocked in libraries and by independent retailers, as well as being available to purchase online.

Additionally, the authors of many of these books deliver talks and readings to children at schools and events far and wide. And they have the support of parents, teachers, book bloggers and a host of literature aficionados, who make it their mission to represent diverse children’s books.

As such, these titles are positively impacting the lives of countless youngsters – allowing BAME children to see reflections of themselves, and enabling non-BAME children to see reflections of the diverse world they live in.

So hats off to UK children’s authors such as Casey Elisha, Tola Okogwu, Lorraine O’Garro, Rachel Beckles, Michaela Alexander, Lola Adebayo and Nicola Tenyue (to name just a few), whose titles represent diversity in literature.

And salutes go out to retailers and book organisations including New Beacon Books, No Ordinary Bookshop, My Book Basket, Book Love and Promoting Our Heritage (again, to name just a few), who work tirelessly to promote and support BAME titles.

The UK’s mainstream publishing industry has some serious catching up to do. But we salute all of those – both in the UK and internationally – who are leading the way for BAME children’s books and supporting the simple message that representation matters.

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