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Top ten reasons we need to see more diversity in children’s books

Reading

Written By: Alice Curry 24/8/15

Publishing is a mostly white business. Employees are mostly white and the books that are published are mostly by white authors and about white characters. This is not from lack of trying – an increasing number of initiatives are being launched to address racial bias within the industry – but it is not an easy fix. Below are my top ten reasons why it’s so important we see more diversity in publishing in general, and children’s books in particular:

1) The estimated percentage of books on culturally diverse themes published in the US and Canada in 2014 by authors and illustrators of diverse cultural backgrounds came in at under 5%. Statistics aren’t available for the UK but the percentage of books by and about Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) authors and experiences is likely to be similar. It is easy to see that this isn’t a fair or balanced representation of our multicultural societies.

2) Neuroscientific research over the past few years has shown us that reading can develop and hone key socialisation skills such as empathy and compassion. So what happens when you feel alienated from the characters you come across in books? If none look like you, think like you, experience the same problems or worries as you? For children of mixed-race heritage, those who have come to the UK as refugees or migrants, or those who have been born into the growing UK diaspora, it is difficult to develop a sense of pride and self-worth when you are essentially invisible.

3) The point above works the other way too. If you are a child of a dominant culture only reading about people like you, it is a big leap to develop the type of empathy, compassion and understanding for others that can make such a difference in multicultural communities. Not impossible, of course – but a good book celebrating diverse cultures can go a long way to aiding the process.

4) Globalisation has ensured that the world is smaller than ever before. You can wear Italian clothing, drive a German car, watch an American movie and order an Indian takeaway for dinner – all without blinking an eye. So why is globalisation in publishing a one-way street? Books produced in the West are shipped across the world on a mass scale yet the percentage of books in translation published in the UK hovers around the 5% mark each year.

5) Literacy skills improve in leaps and bounds when a child engages with the books he or she reads. If we want to develop a literate, inquisitive new generation capable of analytical and critical thinking, we need to give children books they can connect with on more than just a superficial level. Harry Potter was a wizard, yes, but he was a white wizard – where are the black or mixed-race Harry Potters?

6) It has been documented that diverse workforces are generally more productive, more creative and more profitable than those that are homogenous. In an industry where unpaid internships are the established route into the industry, members of the BAME community are far less likely to see publishing as a viable career option. Not only does this produce a white majority workforce but also increases the dangers of producing books that conform to a white definition of what is ‘authentically’ black or Asian.

7) Books are windows onto the world. I whiled away much of my time as a child going on imaginary adventures, indulging in madcap fantasies and living countless lives at the invitation of my favourite authors. Yet the lack of books produced about culturally diverse experiences means that the genres available to children are also limited. The majority are history books, non-fiction novels and biographies – fantasy, as a genre, is mostly off-limits. Why is it that only white children can go on adventures?

8) Diverse voices lead to cross-cultural dialogues which in turn open up a wealth of opportunities for shared knowledge and shared understandings. Here at Lantana Publishing, we’ve been witness to fascinating conversations between our authors and illustrators of different cultural backgrounds. I’ve learned how interpretations and understandings of plot and storyline can often differ depending on one’s cultural, religious and ethnic upbringing – listening to diverse perspectives has uncovered biases I didn’t even know I held.

9) Publishers will never push the boundaries or spearhead innovation if they stick to rigid protocols that standardise output and do not allow for greater diversity in their books. At Lantana we are trying to break down a few of these barriers, but our work is only just beginning. Cookie-cutter books on lookalike themes are tried and tested in the marketplace – books that celebrate minority cultures and dare to be different are largely unprecedented, although more and more are now thankfully coming to the fore. Excellent organisations like We Need Diverse Books in the US and Inclusive Minds in the UK are leading the call for more diversity in children’s publishing – the more support we can give organisations such as these, the better.

10) Last but not least, if we don’t encourage more diversity in children’s publishing, we won’t be able to support the incredibly talented diverse children’s authors who are being published and who are making a real difference to children’s lives everywhere. Take Malorie Blackman, our former Children’s Laureate, whose revolutionary and thought-provoking books are beloved by children of all backgrounds. Or African-American author Nnedi Okorafor whose wacky characters, incredible world-building and deep respect for her ancestral Nigeria have created books that have won more awards than I can count.

If anything in the above list strikes a chord with you, please lend diverse authors your support and buy their books. The greater attention this issue receives, the greater chance diverse children’s books can take up their rightful place – not in the margins but in the mainstream.

Source: Female First

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