Returning to a theme on which I’ve been harping for a long time, The Guardian has reported that, over the course of a decade, less than 2% of authors and illustrators for children’s fiction were people of colour. According to a report by BookTrust, 2017 was the least diverse year for children’s fiction since 2009, with just 5.58% of creators in the category belonging to the black, asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) group. Given that 13% of the overall UK population identified as BAME in the most recent census, the lack of appropriate representation is stark and problematic.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the need to demand diversity in literature, with readers positioned to support trends in representation through their book buying habits. Representation in literature is an ongoing problem but it is even more concerning when light is thrown on the inadequate diversity of children’s fiction. Whether book lovers or not, the educational system forces children to confront fictional representations of the world around them. As a child, books play a major part in how we learn about experiences outside of the restrictive vision of our own lived encounters. Failing to interact with characters or situations that jive with our own identity is, therefore, implicitly indicative that we are not worth representation or consideration. My entire series on bibliotherapy is premised upon the science that shows how literature can rewire our brain, allowing us to consider and ‘practice’ our responses to scenarios before they present in the real world. Fiction develops our empathy and compassion, both as directed outward and the kind that we turn upon ourselves. It allows us to see ourselves but also choose who we want to be. As someone who has grappled with mental illness from a very young age, I can only wish that my experiences had been represented in fiction. Had they been, it might not have taken me until my mid-20s to seek the help that I needed. And I may not have spent much of my life believing that I was simply ‘made wrong’.
Belonging to minority groups at a time as politically and socially divisive as our own places an incredible amount of stress on the need for fiction – both children’s and adult’s – to meet a responsibility to diversity. Books have a significant role to play in the early formation of a child’s understanding of the world around them – and it is no longer adequate to repeat Toni Morrison’s famous instruction that “if there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” While there will always be more books to write and likely never sufficient representation across all experiences, we must demand better. No child should look to a book expecting a mirror and finding, instead, a blank wall.