In a research project that is the first of its kind, and funded by Arts Council England, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education asked UK publishers to submit books featuring BAME characters (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) in 2017.
The Guardian reports that of the 9,115 children’s books published last year, researchers found that only 391 – 4% – featured BAME characters. Just 1% had a BAME main character, and a quarter of the books submitted only featured diversity in their background casts.
This compares to the 32.1% of schoolchildren of minority ethnic origins in England identified by the Department of Education last year.
“When you’re figuring out the world, being able to see yourself in books, as well as people who don’t look like you, is really important. It means you see your story as valid, and it can contribute to who you imagine yourself to be – and a kid should be able to imagine themselves as anyone in the world.“
It is a stark and shocking figure when you see it in print,” said Farrah Serroukh, who directed the project for the CLPE and presented it to publishers on Monday.
The researchers also analysed the quality of the representation, as well as the quantity of BAME characters. They found that more than half the books featuring a BAME character were classed as “contemporary realism”, and 10% contained “social justice” issues, such as war and conflict. Only one children’s book featuring a BAME character was defined as comedy.
Author Nikesh Shukla, who has been a major force behind the push for diversity in UK publishing, sat on a steering committee for CLPE’s report.
“I do feel the industry is getting better but a report like this is a reminder of how much work still needs to be done – and a stark reminder of our readers, and how our readers are not getting what they need,” he said.
“When you’re figuring out the world, being able to see yourself in books, as well as people who don’t look like you, is really important. It means you see your story as valid, and it can contribute to who you imagine yourself to be – and a kid should be able to imagine themselves as anyone in the world. These mirrors are so important.”
Like a long-running equivalent survey in the US from the University of Wisconsin-Madison – which has charted a slow increase in BAME characters over the last decade and a half – the CLPE report is intended to be annual. A separate piece of research, by the BookTrust, is also currently under way, examining the number of authors and illustrators of colour working in children’s publishing. The BookTrust findings are due in September.