Something very strange has been going on, for years and years in children’s publishing – Black, Asian and minority ethnic characters have been mostly absent from books. It is depressing to walk into a bookshop to discover that the shelves do not reflect the multicultural Britain that I know and love.
A Centre for Literacy in Primary Education survey found that of the 9,115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, only 4 per cent featured BAME characters and only 1 per cent had a BAME main character. To me, it’s even more disappointing that, according to this survey, only one book featuring a BAME character was defined as comedy (mine!). If we’re not publishing enough books with ethnic representation, and many of the ones we are producing feed negative stereotypes, or centre around social issues, what kind of message are we sending to young readers? What kind of message does it send when, if they do happen to feature in a book, they are not important enough to be the main character?
Children need to see themselves represented in books to learn to feel confident in their skin, and to feel assured that they are understood and welcome in the environment they have been raised in. We often talk about marginalisation and how to work with disenfranchised youth, which obviously has its place, but why don’t we just do the groundwork to ensure they never get to that stage?
When a child walks into a major retailer and picks up a book with someone just like them on the cover, they immediately feel a sense of belonging and pride in their identity, which is a powerful thing. Feeling represented in a positive light, that child will then be able to build stronger relationships with people from different backgrounds and happily discuss small cultural differences with their friends.
Children’s books are a vital tool for challenging misconceptions and breaking down stereotypes, and also for teaching empathy, respect and understanding by allowing a window into the lives of people from different cultures. But in order to do that we need books that portray the everyday lives of people, with fun, quirky and relatable characters. Books that make the reader think: “Hey, I have a lot in common with this character!” Let’s nurture the sense of self of every child in their formative years. Let’s show them that they can be the hero in a story too.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian is published by Hodder Children’s Books