Before I had children, the lack of racial representation within children’s literature was so far from a talking point for me. Not because I didn’t care, but just because I didn’t realise. I didn’t realise that when I eventually did go on to have children, they would have brought home hundreds of books from school to read and I’d see a talking penguin as the lead character more often than a child of colour.
That’s disturbing to me. My children’s school is in London, an extremely diverse city; and their school is equally as diverse. Yet the books they brought home did not represent the pupil demographic in the least. I can’t think of one occasion where they brought home a book with a black or ethnic minority lead character. That’s unacceptable.
As a child who loved to read, I remember having books with black characters as lead characters. What I didn’t realise until having children of my own was how hard my parents and family had to work to make sure that was a normal occurrence for me.
Today, there are more authors than ever popping up left right and centre (myself included, even though I’m sure anyone who knows me would say it was a given that I would follow a path that included literature) creating work with diverse characters and that’s amazing; but we also need to be mindful.
We need to mindful that in the first instance the work being produced is of a quality that actually makes children want to engage and to read the same story night after night. Children don’t get bored of good stories – parents who have let their inner child die, do. Writing children’s stories is harder than writing for adults because you have to say a whole lot more in a whole lot less. That means your story needs to be everything to all the children, all the time. You need to explain everything, whilst leaving room for their imaginations, draw them in with illustrations but still leave space for their own interpretations and you have to do it in under 800 words or so, for picture book readers. There’s no point flooding the market with thousands of pieces of below standard pieces of literature, that actually makes the job of ensuring diverse books are just part of every day collections much harder.
The other thing we need to be mindful of is that by driving this urgency of diversifying literature, we don’t make it a niche that people with no genuine interest in ensuring black and ethnic minority children see themselves in books, come in, get rich from and then leaves once the outrage is over. Diversifying literature for children is not a niche, it’s a requirement. Children have to see themselves in spaces we want them to thrive, they have to know they’re included in the places we expect them to be apart of.
Diverse books aren’t a niche. We need genuine commitments to making this a better space for our children.