This post is the first in a series of features on diversity in children’s books. This particular one doesn’t contain any book suggestions, but please keep on reading. I’d like to talk a bit about why diversity is so important.
It’s a truth almost universally acknowledged that children are shaped largely by their environment and what they see in the world around them. We already know that children learn to enjoy reading for pleasure by watching their parents, teachers and peers enjoy it. But this is bigger than reading for pleasure: if a child can’t see themselves reflected in a particular part of the world around them, is highly unlikely that they will imagine themselves within that sphere. If they don’t imagine it, they are unlikely to aspire to it. If they don’t aspire to it, they won’t become it.
This is true for so many things: it’s a massive cause of the gender imbalance in STEM programmes and the lower number of applications to Oxbridge from state schools ( especially those from poorer areas). Not only this – it’s depressing!
I’d like to play a game. Please note down as many books onto a sheet of paper as you can. Fill the sheet if possible. Do this before you read any further.
How many of the books have white main characters? How many are British or American main characters? How are white, male, native English speakers?
Now look at the list again. How many main characters are people of colour? How many are from other countries? How many speak a different language, or have belief systems that aren’t Christianity or Atheism (if the character changes religion to one of these halfway through it does not count). How many characters are from other cultures? How many have a disability? How many are LGBTQ? (It needs to be made clear in the book. Saying Dumbledore is gay AFTER the book was finished without adding ANY evidence to back that up doesn’t count – JK Rowling I’m looking at you). How many of the authors of the books would fit these descriptions?
For the vast majority of people who are ever likely to read this post, it’s a pretty high chance that the vast majority of books will be about people who are white, vaguely middle class, with no disabilities and who are assumed to be cisgender and straight. And that’s not really surprising – people write about people like themselves, and successful authors have historically come from a very specific, very white, very middle-class background. But here’s the thing – children aren’t all middle class white kids with dogs. I know it sounds obvious, but it clearly isn’t because we’re still having this conversation. Children want to read about themselves, and those who aren’t seeing themselves feel ignored. If children feel ignored by a medium, they are not going to choose to use it. Lack of diversity is actively discouraging children from BAME, LGBTQ and non-British backgrounds from reading.
And yes, I recognise that I am white, and I am British, and that perhaps as a result this particular rant seems a bit ridiculous from me. That’s fair enough to say, but there are plenty of other people who are far more qualified than me who have written LOADS on this subject. S.F. Said’s Guardian article may be a few years old now, but he really does explain it brilliantly. Megan Quibell’s call for more disabled characters in children’s books also encapsulates it well. Marley Dias, with her campaign to collect 1,000 books where black girls are the main characters, after she got sick of ‘reading about white boys and their dogs’ is EXACTLY what I’ talking about here as well. There is even a whole yearly conference all about building inclusivity in publishing.
The point here is really that diversity allows all children to see themselves in a story. It shows that anyone can be special, can be important, can be magical. And as old and corny as the saying may be, seeing IS believing. It’s as important for white middle class kids to see these stories as it is for the children who see themselves reflected in the books. Diversity of all types paves the way for a kinder, more inclusive future.
And that can only be good for all of us.