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Diverse Books are Essential

Why are diverse books so essential and what can we do about it?


Any sort of progressivism, whether it be antiracism, anti-sexism, or any sort of actual allyship with the LGBTQ+ community, should be encouraged from a young age, so that empathy, tolerance, communication and cohesion are part of the fabric of the adults that grow through it.


Why White Kids Need Diverse Books

White people reading books by POC (People of Colour), and /or about POC, is a significant step in the journey towards antiracism, but it's access to these books at a young age that will have the biggest impact. Rather than having to unlearn race as an adult, encouraging children to read about POC will be a healthy investment for many reasons. We live in a globalised world and, despite Brexit, we still actually rely on each other for prosperity, for food, for culture, for technology, and for medicine. According to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, there are some problems, such as artificial intelligence and climate change, that depend on our collaboration with one another. We need to educate our young to celebrate, to be aware of, and to appreciate, diversity. Books are a way to do this.


One significant ingredient of racism is white centering. Think of all the TV you watched as a kid; all the books you read, all the songs you listened to, all the films you watched, all the adverts you saw, and all of the politicians and people in power you were aware of, and ask yourself how many of those were white. Whiteness is the assumed default in western countries. It's why so many white people suffer from white fragility. Did you hear about the reaction when Sainsburys produced a Christmas advert featuring a black family? I would provide a YouTube link here but I'm a big fan of not giving racists air time. Some racist white folk exhibit abhorrent indignation at the sight of non-white family simply because it is not what they are used to. They feel threatened and act reactively. Children reading about non-white characters can challenge that. If we encourage our white children to read books with non-white characters, not only do we better shape their empathy but their humility.


As white people, and living in a society that self-perpetuates its white privilege, we must educate our young people to recognise other cultures, particularly if those people have less opportunities to succeed. In 1988, an American scholar, Peggy Macintosh, wrote a paper called "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies". In it she lists 50 daily effects of white privilege (https://projecthumanities.asu.edu/content/white-privilege-checklist) and one that is particularly relevant to what I'm taking about is point 26: I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.


Why Non-White Kids Need Diverse Books


Of course children of colour need diverse books too. According to a study by The National Literacy Trust, 46% of children from black ethnic backgrounds do not see themselves in books.


“The struggle to find characters who look similar, or share similar characteristics or circumstances, can impact a child’s engagement with reading and its lifelong benefits,” said the NLT. “Just one book a child really connects with can spark a love of reading which can change their life story and help them to succeed in school and in life.”

According to another key survey from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), 5% of children's books published in the UK in 2019 had an ethnic minority main character. Although this had grown from 4% in 2018 and just 1% in 2017, and a positive trend is at least better than a negative one, 33.5% of the school population were of minority ethnic origin. It is clear from this analysis that there just isn't enough diversity out there.


Given the state of the publishing industry at the moment, and the lack of representation for non-white children, it seems that white children will continue to relate to, and seek more inspiration from books, compared to their black counterparts. Given that people, generally, strive to do well and better understand the world round them, white people have been given another favourable hand in the lottery of life. We grow up with stories about kids like us, written by authors like us. And it isn't fair.




I'd like to refer you to two excellent resources that explain my point better than I ever could. The video, below, is a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah, who tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice -- and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.


I did not know that people like me could exist in literature.


Secondly, I wish I could send you all a copy of the fantastic compendium of essays that is The Good Immigrant. 21 writers give their own personal accounts of immigration and all of the stories are illuminating. One of the pieces, written by Darren Chetty, discusses his experiences of teaching youngsters to write about themselves.


I suggested that they used the name of someone in their family for their protagonist. I wanted them to draw on their own backgrounds, but was worried about ‘making an issue of race’. When it came to sharing their stories, I noticed only one boy had acted upon my suggestion, naming his main character after his uncle. He had recently arrived from Nigeria and was eager to read his story to the class. However when he read out the protagonist’s name another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him. ‘You can’t do that!’ he said. ‘Stories have to be about white people.

It seems that children, very early in, start expecting white characters in books and I think it's important to challenge this so that it's not a narrative they retain as the grow up.


What can we do about it?


We, as adults, can all play our part. Reading non-white books, listening to non-white music and watching non-white performances are all worthwhile endeavours. Generally, absorbing and learning as much about other cultures and histories can, in my mind, only be a good thing. Focussing on literature though, I would say we need to read up and not just leave it to our children.


Read more by authors who are non-white


This doesn't necessarily have to mean antiracist literature, although of course that would be great. Last year I enjoyed reading Michelle Obama's autobiography, an awesome fantasy trilogy by N. K. Jemisin and Bernadine Evaristo's best-selling, crucial, Girl, Woman, Other, amongst others. Our school library has also done a really nice display showcasing a few black authors, including Malorie Blackman, Zadie Smith and Benjamin Zephaniah. There is plenty of choice out there, so there is no excuse!



Get your children to read books with non-white characters


If I'm being honest, growing up as a child in Suffolk, a county with less than 5% non-white people, I was embarrassingly ignorant about diversity, and books and TV would have, and should have, helped to educate me. Despite the fact that BAME characters are hugely underrepresented in children's literature, there are still some stunning books out there and more keep on coming out. I took this picture of some of the picture books we have in our house but this is in no way an exhaustive list. Just look around and you will find some amazing books for little readers. Again, the books don't have to be about race!





Anyway, I hope this is helpful. I feel passionately about tolerance and diversity but also passionate about books, so I apologise if I got carried away!


In short, we need diverse books!



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