Children’s books must have more black characters, a study funded by the Arts Council has said.
Only 4 per cent of books published last year aimed at primary school children featured a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic character, according to research commissioned by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE).
When analysing how many children’s books had a main character who was from an ethnic minority background, researchers found that the proportion dropped even further down, to one per cent.
Meanwhile, almost a third (32.1 per cent) of pupils in primary schools in England are from minority ethnic backgrounds, the latest official figures show.
“The demographic make-up of the UK did not align with the presence of BAME characters in books published in 2017,” the report said. “Each ethnic minority category was significantly under-represented.”
The study was funded by the Arts Council, which is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
The CLPE urged publishers to use more characters from ethnic minorities in children’s literature, not as a “tick box exercise” but as a “meaningful and accurate representation of the interconnected, diverse society”.
Ethnic minority characters should not be defined by their “struggle, suffering or ‘otherness’” the report said and should not just feature in the “margins” of the plot. Instead, they should be “central” to narratives, and should be “authentically portrayed”.
Of the 9,115 children’s book published in the UK in 2017, just 391 featured an ethnic minority character, researchers found.
The author of Foyle’s war and the Alex Rider series of teenage spy novels said that an editor told him it would be “inappropriate” to draw from experiences other than his own.
He told Event magazine: “’This is maybe dangerous territory but there is a chain of thought in America that it is inappropriate for white writers to try to create black characters.
“That it is actually not our experience and therefore to do so is by its very nature artificial and possibly patronising. Therefore I was warned off doing it. Which was, I thought, disturbing and upsetting.”
Louise Johns-Shepherd, CEO of CLPE, said that every child should be able to read books that “honour, value and reflect the reality in which they live” as well as “offer perspectives on lives and contexts beyond their own”.
She went on: “In the course of our charity’s work we read thousands of books a year, but we still find it hard to source enough books to add to our collections that are true and authentic reflections of the wide world in which we live.
“This survey marks the beginning of a conversation, it provides the entire industry with a knowledge base from which we can work together to move forward and ensure all our children are able to see themselves in our books.”