Children’s books are the best seller
The market for children’s books in the UK is in rude health with around 10,000 new children’s titles being published here every year, according to the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.
23 April 2020
What’s more, the nation’s children's book market grew for four consecutive years to November 2018, with around £380m worth sold and over 63 million children's books bought in that year. As Nielsen BookScan data reports it, one in three books now sold in the UK is a children's book.
No happy ending for some in this story
According to recent research by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), around 32% of children in compulsory education in the UK are Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME).
However, according the BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity, in a report they commissioned by University College London (UCL) associate professor Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, fewer than 2% of authors or illustrators of children’s books sold in the UK were British people of colour.
A vicious circle
Melanie’s report combined an analysis of all children’s books published in the UK between 2007 and 2017 and included interviews with 15 writers of colour. The BookTrust’s director of children’s books, Jill Coleman, said it revealed a ‘desperate lack’ of people of colour in the industry.
With initiatives aimed at correcting the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, the report found that the percentage of creators of colour increased between 2007, when it was 3.99%, and 2015, when it peaked at 7.8%. However, since then there’s been a two-year downturn to the current 1.9%, so the disparity is actually getting worse.
And this disparity - between the children reading the books and the people who create and star in them - really matters.
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.
Books hold up a mirror to the world
As Diana Gerald, CEO of BookTrust put it, ‘We know from years of experience that representational voices in children’s books are important for all children from all backgrounds. Books are multifaceted, providing insight into a variety of different lives and cultures, and they have an important role to play in holding up a mirror to the world; what they reflect impacts on how young readers see themselves and the world around them. They also affect a child’s motivation to read and their aspirations to become an author or illustrator in the future.’
BookTrust initiated this far-reaching research project to discover in more depth the complex barriers and enablers to becoming a children’s book creator for people of colour in the UK, to drive change and thus get more children and families reading.
Choosing Melanie to lead the project made absolute sense to BookTrust. She is a Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor at UCL, where she teaches and researches topics related to publishing and book cultures. Her main research interest centres on the contemporary history of authorship, publishing and reading, with a focus on children’s and young adult (YA) books.
A new chapter for creative people of colour?
African-American author Toni Morrison once said, ‘If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.’
This sentiment was reflected in a comment from Malorie Blackman, former children’s laureate and author of the best selling Noughts and Crosses series, who was also interviewed for the BookTrust report. She said, ‘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.’
Malorie also stressed the importance of monitoring the situation to ensure there was a tangible improvement in the number of British people of colour writing or illustrating children’s books.
So in 2017, fewer than 6% of children’s authors and illustrators were people of colour BUT less than 2% of these were British people of colour, Jill Coleman of the BookTrust concluded, ‘Our aim is that by 2022, we will have increased the number of authors and illustrators of colour in the UK from less than 6 per cent to 10 per cent.'
Books can be life-changing
Off the back of the report, BookTrust announced its own initiative: BookTrust Represents. This three-year project supports and subsidises authors and illustrators of colour who create stories and artwork for children and teens, enabling them to promote their work and reach more readers through events in bookshops, festivals and schools. It also works to inspire aspiring authors and illustrators, supporting them to progress their careers.
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. Malorie Blackman concluded, ‘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.’
Working together, cross-sector and industry, to redress the balance
Shirin Hussein, Senior Contracts Manager and In-house Counsel for UCL Consultants, who arranged and managed the contract with BookTrust, commented, ‘Reading books enables children to take their imagination through different worlds from the comfort of home, it’s almost magical. However to achieve this, books need to represent all parts of society and the different heritages that shape the world around us. It was great to be able to support Melanie doing this project for BookTrust, to examine the extent of diversity in children’s books and I have been looking forward to the outcome from the beginning. Whilst it is disheartening to hear the result that children’s books do not reflect our diverse society enough, it’s fantastic to hear that following Melanie’s work, the BookTrust Represents has been launched to address this disconnect. I hope it will succeed in enriching the lives portrayed in children’s books.'
UCL project lead Melanie added, ‘Working with the BookTrust and UCL Consultants has been a really wonderful experience. It has helped me gain new perspectives on possible directions and approaches for my research. Most importantly, I have been able to see the tangible impact of the work that I'm doing. The issue of under-representation in children's books and authorship is systemic and has a long history. The only way we can help improve the situation is by taking collective responsibility and working together, cross-sector and industry, to redress the balance.’
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