THE BLOG
17/07/2018 16:55 BST | Updated 17/07/2018 16:55 BST

Only 1% Of Kids' Books Have BAME Main Characters, So Here's How We Can Change That

It is simply not good enough to say that change will happen soon. It has to happen now

Wavebreakmedia via Getty Images

This morning, the UK’s publishing industry had an uncomfortable wake-up call. New research published by CLPE (the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) revealed that only 1% of all children’s books published in the UK in 2017 featured a non-white, or BAME, protagonist. As a publisher and an author, we wanted to give our thoughts on the findings.

Aimée Felone, co-founder of Knights Of, a children’s publisher

I think representation, diversity and inclusion are words that we’re hearing more and more of in publishing. But publishers are having to contend with the fact that their lists don’t represent the world in which we live, and agents are having to admit that they don’t represent any BAME authors. The truth of the matter is we’re failing BAME children and BAME authors. The Reflecting Realities report proves this to us.

What the report doesn’t show, however, is that the number of BAME people who work within the publishing industry is also shamefully low. Whilst there are a plethora of access schemes and internships specifically designed to get BAME candidates through the door, the number of people who hold top tier positions are few and far between. If we continue to place BAME individuals solely in entry-level jobs and temporary schemes, their voices will continue to go unheard. Whilst the responsibility shouldn’t be on BAME employees to lead the charge for greater diversity – this should come from the top – their input and expertise is desperately needed.

The industry needs to not only publish better, it needs to hire better. It needs to look beyond its current ‘normal’ way of getting people in and expand its line of sight so that more people with greater perspectives are sat around the table where decisions are made. The numbers are atrocious, that’s plain to see, and what we need to do now is create permanent change, not temporary conversations. The publisher I work for was created to address this issue - we are diverse from top to bottom, and we are committed to publishing commercial, inclusive stories. We’re showing that making change an actuality is possible, moving the problem from a conversation to a solution.

Robin Stevens, author of Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries

The 1% statistic is sickening, but sadly not surprising. Children’s literature is in a period of exciting renaissance, currently accounting for 40% of the UK market – but when it comes to diversity, it’s in crisis. It is not serving its audience (in the latest UK census in 2011, 14% of respondents identified as BAME, and the percentage of BAME children is higher) and it is not adequately reflecting the real world.

We have to urgently change this, and I believe that every author of children’s books can help, both by making diversity a natural, basic part of their creative process and by working to make UK authors more diverse as a group.

First and most importantly, if you are an author you should be putting a diverse cast of characters in every book you write. This is not pandering, or box-ticking – this is you reflecting the actual world you see around you. Every community is diverse in a multitude of ways, and it is strange to see that reality ignored in so many books. “Write what you know” is a great general rule, but try to realise that what you know is more than white, straight, wealthy and able-bodied. It’s your responsibility to research all of your characters thoroughly, as you would any aspect of your book, but if everyone in your story is interchangeable, you are missing out on something crucial.

Second, if you have any measure of success as an author, you should use that success to help lift up other people from a wide range of backgrounds. Mentor diverse authors, introduce them to agents and publishers, and request from your publishers that the illustrators and audiobook narrators and actors you work with come from diverse backgrounds. When you go into any event or meeting, pay attention to who is in the room, and think about who is not. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you don’t see someone you think should be there, or point out that certain voices are not being heard.

And finally, champion books that are by diverse authors and/or feature diverse characters. Often, when these books exist, they aren’t given very much focus. But if you talk about the diverse stories you see at every opportunity, your platform will help them reach more readers.

It is simply not good enough to say that change will happen soon. It has to happen now, and it’s the responsibility of every author, publisher, librarian and reader to use their influence to make sure that the 2018 and 2019 statistics climb away from that shameful 1%.