The “paucity” of UK children’s books featuring an ethnically diverse lineup of characters is set to be laid bare by two Arts Council England-backed studies into representation in children’s literature.The issue of ethnic representation has long been a subject of research in the US, where the University of Wisconsin-Madison has charted the relatively minuscule proportion of children’s books by and about people of colour for decades: in 2016, it found that of 3,400 US children’s books, just 287 were about Africans or African Americans, 240 were about Asians, 169 about Latinos and 55 about Native Americans.While experts in the UK have pointed to a similarly “huge problem” for some time, until now the relevant statistics have not been available to back up the widely held view that, as ACE director for literature Sarah Crown put it on Wednesday, there is a “paucity of high-quality books for children and young adults by and about people from all walks of life”.
Now the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) is set to chart for the first time the extent and quality of ethnic representation among characters in UK children’s books, thanks to new funding from the ACE, while BookTrust is due to evaluate the number of children’s books created by authors and illustrators of colour. CLPE will publish its study, Reflecting Realities, in July, covering titles published in 2017, while BookTrust will report in September, looking back across recent years. Both intend the pieces of research to become annual events.“Under-representation, and a lack of quality of representation, has been an issue for a very long time,” said Farrah Serroukh, who is directing the CLPE project. Serroukh said that while there is “a creeping increase of representation evident, that is not necessarily indicative of quality”, with publishers and authors needing to reflect on whether characters reinforce stereotypes, and are well-developed.“It’s not just a case of creating ethnic minority characters, it’s a case of what proportion they represent, and what is the quality of that representation,” she said.CLPE has put out a call to publishers asking them to submit books aimed at children aged between three and 11 and published in 2017. “There is a strong moral, ethical and financial case for wider representation in children’s books,” it writes, calling on publishers to help it ensure that children’s literature “meaningfully reflects the realities of its readership”. Serroukh said she hopes to receive thousands of submissions.“We are not envisioning that [ethnic representation] is going to be particularly high,” she said. “All of us have a sense that it is not quite where it needs to be.”