Whose Reality Are We Reflecting?

In Amazing Grace, one of my favourite childhood picture books, Grace, a black girl, is told that she can’t play Peter Pan because he is a white boy!

No adult has ever told the (multiracial) nursery class that Peter Pan can only be white. But it is the only thing they have seen. Despite securing the audition for the role, Grace even starts to doubt it herself.

Eventually, Grace’s Nanny takes her to a ballet to see a black ballerina and gives her the “you can do anything” pep talk. Grace, of course, gets the role of Peter Pan. On the night of the play, Grace GIVES IT TO DEM. She kills the role of Peter Pan in the play like none of the other kids could- they even apologise for saying she couldn’t do it right.

I talk a lot about my status of Book Aunty. I find and buy books every year for kids (at request of their parents).

Nurturing younger readers brings a serious joy to my life. It helps me feel closer to my late godmother, I’ve talked about it before (she bought me books, I buy them books). It brings me joy to see these kids with their noses in books, for them to be excited because the book they wanted has finally been added to their collection, to hear them talk about their favourite characters and authors.

I was born twenty-five years ago. My parents struggled to find books for my childhood library that included black people; the parents of these kids are going through the exact same struggle.

Black kids who should be able to see themselves and the people around them reflected in the books they read.

This week, a study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) showed that in 2017, about 4% of children’s books published contained BAME characters. Only 1% of the books had a BAME protagonist. All of this, despite BAME children making up 32% of the children in compulsory education.

There were 9115 children’s titles published in Britain. That means that 391 books published for children have Characters of Colour present, that 91 books have Protagonists of Colour.

Am I surprised? No.

Am I disappointed. Yes… still.

I’ve been disappointed for years. First as a child, and now as an adult.

I wish I still had the application essay that helped me secure a place at Kingston University to study Publishing. I can’t recall the exact words, but I know the sentiment hasn’t changed.

Children are being failed.

Children are smart, smarter than we give them credit for.

They are intuitive, can pick up on cues. They listen in on “grown up” conversations. They watch the news. They look at the world presented to them in real life, on the page and on the big, small and tiny screens.

They don’t need to be told something explicitly to get the message.

And they are not colour-blind.

They see discrimination just as clearly as we do- even if they might not have the vocabulary to express what they are seeing and experiencing. And it affects them deeply. On a psychological level- the basis of their ego, their self-image, their worth in society.

Somehow, I guess I just didn’t think it was that bad.

After all, I always manage to find the books for the kids that aren’t just “issue” books for kids. A lot of books featuring black characters often do tackle the delicate way to explain racism and discrimination to children, there’s less black kids just doing “normal” kid things. Imagine being a child where the only characters that look like you are experiencing racism when you, yourself are also dealing with racism in your life.

Please, where is the escapism (something a lot of us value about reading) in that?

When I look at the titles I have purchased, they fall in to one of two categories: Books I remember from my own childhood and  American imports. This industry can’t just rely on Americans to do the work, nor can it rely on nostalgia- this country has to support and represent its new, home-grown talent.

There are so many nuances in the BAME British experience that America will never address because it doesn’t have them. Imagine hearing that BAME authors are not even attempting to get published initially in the UK but are instead exporting their stories because they are being told that there is no market for what they are writing!?

The Publishing industry in the UK needs to be braver. To be smarter. To do better.

We already know how. We’ve discussed it enough.

The time has come to match words with action.

Below are some people I know of who are doing more than talking, if you know any more, please add them in the comments below:

This is Book Love – a multi-cultural, multi-lingual pop-up (and online) book store.
Booktrust – The UK’s largest children’s reading charity.
Knights Of – A new children’s publisher team who decided to do the DAMN THING themselves. Originators of the #BooksMadeBetter campaign.
Alanna Max – An indie children’s publisher with naturally inclusive children’s stories.
Inclusive Minds – publishing collective committed to changing the face of children’s books.
Spread The Word – London based writers development agency devoted to the new writers of all backgrounds living in the capital, hosts of the annual London Short Story Prize.
Commonword – Manchester based, writers development agency that has been open since 1977.
The Good Literary Agency – the team behind best-selling, award-winning collection of the British BAME Experience The Good Immigrant working to supporting homegrown writing talent.
Mediadiversified – giving a platform to BAME Brits and founded the Bare Lit Festival, which amplifies the voices of writers of colour.
BAME in Publishing – a networking opportunity held every month for BAME people trying to get into publishing and those of us who have finally gotten our feet through the door.

If you would like to read the CLPE report for yourself, it is available to download in full here.