Reflecting Realities in the school library
Joy Court discusses the results of CLPE’s first study into ethnic representation in UK children’s literature and how libraries can get involved with the movement for change.
“An important report was published at the end of July, after many of you would have finished for the summer break, and so it really needs flagging up again. Reflecting Realities is a programme set up by CLPE (The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) with Arts Council funding, to establish the first study into ethnic representation in UK children’s literature. Produced annually, the survey will assess the representation of BAME characters in children’s books published in the UK. The survey is inspired by the model from the Co-operative Children’s Book Center in the USA, which has published data on US children’s books since 1985.
The Department for Education reported in 2017 that 32.1% of pupils of compulsory school age in England were of minority ethnic origins. In stark contrast, the CLPE study reveals that the books published in 2017 did not reflect these classroom populations. Only 1% of the children’s books submitted had a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic main character, and only a quarter of the books featured BAME presence in the form of background characters.
Books defined as ‘Reading Schemes’ made up nearly a third of submissions (29%), which would indicate that an even lower overall proportion were available through bookshops. Over half of the fiction books with BAME characters were defined as ‘contemporary realism’. 10% of books with BAME characters contained ‘social justice’ issues, and only one book featuring a BAME character was defined as ‘comedy’. 26% of the non-fiction submissions were aimed at an ‘Early Years’ audience, which raises concerns regarding the availability and quality of BAME presence in non-fiction titles as children move through childhood. The report concludes that fiction and non-fiction currently offer fewer opportunities for children of BAME backgrounds to experience positive and varied representations in the books available for them to read.
In our current political climate, where it seems that the risk of marginalisation of minority groups is increasingly heightened, these are issues of concern for us all. If children and young people do not see themselves reflected in the world around them or only see problematic representations mirrored back at them, the impact upon vulnerable individuals can be tremendously damaging. As the report says:
“To redress imbalances in representation is not an act of charity but an act of necessity that benefits and enriches all of our realities.”
I think there is a genuine momentum for change building within the industry; in late 2017, the Publishers Association announced a ten-point industry-wide action plan to tackle inclusivity within the industry’s workforce which includes a new commitment to undertake an industry-wide survey of the workforce of UK publishing houses. We can be proud, too, of how our profession is leading the way with the recent publication of the Diversity Review of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards and the immediate actions put into place by CILIP and YLG to show we “are committed to ensuring that the Awards are a positive force to promote readership and diversity across the industry”.
Meanwhile, as school librarians, we have a duty to look carefully at our existing stock and how it reflects the reality of our school population. Enlist student help to analyse your fiction (potentially a more interesting task for reluctant reviewers), and you can use the data produced to make a case to senior management for funding to stock a more diverse range of titles. Look closely at illustrations and examples in information books you are considering for purchase. We are used to considering accuracy of information, and accuracy of representation is just as important. Research tells us that learning to read and write is a social process, and reader identity is a key factor in helping children to be successful. It is therefore important that all children in our schools are represented in what is available for them to read.”
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