What do we do?
Books drop through the letterbox at Little Box of Books every day, samples from publishers eager to share their latest diverse offering with us, a bookseller with a difference. For the past eighteen months we have been searching for children’s stories from top publishers and authors that show diversity in race, culture, family set up and socioeconomic background. Books that smash gender and disability stereotypes, to send to schools and families, so that children get to see the whole of society reflected back at them in the books they read.
We look for books where diversity isn’t the storyline, but rather is incidental to the storyline.
Why do we do it?
We do this because we know that children’s books have a diversity problem. The CLPE revealed in their Reflecting Realities report in September, that only 4% of children’s books published in the UK in 2018 featured a BAME main character, despite 33% of our schoolchildren being BAME.
We need more inclusivity
And it’s not just the lack of diversity in ethnic representation that is the problem. We’ve read hundreds of kid’s books since setting up Little Box of Books and have really struggled to find any books that reflect our family situation, a blended family with a mostly, not very wicked, stepparent. Prior to this, as a single parent, I struggled to find any stories that showed our family unit going about its normal business.
But this is the reality of many families, with almost 3 million single parent families in the UK and the estimation that one in three families in the UK are stepfamilies, it’s clear that there is a new normal when it comes to what families look like.
I See Me
Representation is important because it helps children recognise and realise their potential. It helps them to see that they are normal and that their life, history, family set up is as valid as anyone else’s. It helps them to see into the lives of people who may be slightly different, gaining understanding and insight about how others live. Seeing themselves in stories can encourage kids to read more books and be more engaged when they do.
Diversifying the national curriculum
There’s a lot to be done before our national curriculum relays the complexities of British racial history. It’s a postcode lottery as to whether children get taught about such things as Britain’s role in the slave trade, the key facts and stats about immigration and how the UK became the multicultural place it is today and whether schoolchildren are actively taught compassion and kindness and most importantly, to be anti-racist.
Even in the schools where the curriculum is interpreted in an inclusive and representative way, the storybooks available for children to read will most probably feature predominately white characters, in Mum and Dad family units, in a middle class setting. Teachers are time pressed and sourcing and buying different books is time consuming, which means there’s a great call for the work that Little Box of Books is doing, sourcing and curating books that reflect the UK population.
Recent political debate has been toxic, hate speech has been normalised in the highest echelons and this has had an impact. Islamophobic incidents rose by 375 per cent in the week after Boris Johnson compared veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes”. Homophobic and transphobic hate crimes have more than doubled in the last 5 years.
In this environment it feels urgent that we all do whatever we can to combat the discord and hate around us. Ensuring that children have access to inclusive and representative books is a necessary part of this.
Reflecting societal change
The last 100 years has seen a revolution in society, women vote, more women than ever go out to work, a third of our population are of BAME origin, men marry men, women marry women, children are born outside of marriage without controversy, the internet has opened up debate and discussion more than any other innovation. But research into the lack of diversity in children’s literature, show this hasn’t translated into publishing.
What are publishers doing?
The publishing industry seems intent on change but is made up of a disparate set of individual enterprises, self-regulated, struggling to unite behind a common course of action, managing around tight margins. But the conversation about diversifying children’s books and making them more representative and inclusive has been happening for 50 years. Mary Hoffmann, who wrote the seminal books Amazing Grace talks about fighting this fight for the past half century.
The time for talking has passed. We can’t let another generation of children be underserved by the literature that is designed to provide them with essential windows and mirrors.
Action for schools
So, at the start of a new decade, our plea to schools, to parents, who can afford it, to PTAS and to school governors in 2020 is to buy inclusive and representative books. These books have the power to transform children’s lives and learning experience and increase understanding and empathy across the entire school. We know budgets are tight, that some schools are asking parents to supply vital pieces of equipment and they often don’t know where money is coming from, but when you’re book buying for the school, please ensure that your shelves are packed with diversity.
Diversifying your bookshelf.
Ten books to help you start diversifying your bookshelf
- Lily and the Polar Bears by Joan Sheibani: A story about a young girl who takes in some polar bears after their home in the Arctic is destroyed. This is a brilliant book for starting conversations about refugees, displacement and conservation.
- Quiet by Kate Alizadeh: In this book the main character describes the noises they hear around the house. In one illustration a little stick with a ball on the end suggests they may have a visual impairment.
- Mixed by Arree Chung: Is a simple tale about colour and the importance of living peacefully alongside each other. It’s a brilliant book for starting conversations about race and skin colour as well as differences between communities of people and the importance of living together in harmony and equality.
- Molly Rogers Pirate Girl by Cornelia Funke: In one of the few books published in 2017 with a BAME main character, this is a great adventure story made extra good because it features female pirates.
- Buddy’s Pancakes by Judy Skidmore and Sheju Adiyatiparambil-John: The picture on the front of the book shows a mixed-race family. The story is light-hearted and features a Dad doing some cooking for the children. Stories that show men doing domestic work and childcare help break down gender stereotypes in the minds of young readers.
- Baking with Dad by Aurora Cacciapuoti: The family set up isn’t explained in this story about birthday celebrations, but it does seem to show a family with two dads. This gives great opportunity to discuss diversity in family set ups with children.
- Juniper Jupiter by Lizzy Stewart: A young girl of colour being a superhero is a rare find in children’s stories. The more diversity we have in main characters, the better it is for all.
- Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love: A beautiful story about a little boy who sees some ladies dressed likes mermaids and wants to dress like them. At its simplest this is a story about being true to yourself and the importance of acceptance, both of yourself and others. But can also be a good opener for discussions about LGBT issues and gender identity.
- Feelings by Libby Walden and Richard Jones: The main character could be a boy or a girl and is a beautiful book that names and describes all the feelings you can feel. Children need to learn the vocabulary around feelings in order to express themselves and what they need. This helps with that.
- Tom’s Magnificent Machines by Linda Sarah and Ben Mantle: An inventor and his son go through various hardships, expressing their feelings and voicing difficulties. An unusual book that shows a single Dad doing childcare well, helping his son get through difficult times.
Buy them in a book box here