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Colouring in children’s storybooks

Written by National, News

From urban folklore to carvings, storytelling is a cultural and social process in which narratives are shared for consumption. However, when the authors or storytellers adopt a single perspective, how representative and inclusive can the story be? Newcastle University’s Professor Karen Sands-O’Connor recently wrote a piece for ‘The Conversation’, in which she notes the concerning lack of characters of colour in children’s storybooks and calls attention to why this must change.

only 7% of children’s books published in 2018 featured a Black, Asian or minority ethnic character

The children’s book industry has been booming for the last few decades, with more books being sold now more than ever before in the UK. Children are highly susceptible to stories and images they engage with from an early age and during these periods of socialisation, a they begin to form their own selfhood, establishing how they perceive themselves in relation to the world around them. According to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, only 7% of children’s books published in 2018 featured a Black, Asian or minority ethnic character. In telling singular stories there is the risk of excluding those who are not acknowledged, rendering them invisible not just within the covers of a book but in wider society. Academic Melanie Ramdarshan Bold suggested that there simply are not enough authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds, which rings true, as according to BookTrust there is less than 2%, which could arguably explain the lack of diversity in children storybooks.

There are also occasions when the only characters of colour appear in the background as voiceless and to depict some essence of “diversity”

This is not to say that characters of colour do not appear in children’s books, but when they do, they are rarely the protagonist, often the “sidekick”, Sands-O’Connor argues. There are also occasions when the only characters of colour appear in the background as voiceless and to depict some essence of “diversity”. These methods have the potential to dehumanise people of colour by sidelining them to the peripheries of society and social narratives. There are also instances of “othering” people of colour in storybooks, as characters become defined by the colour of their skin rather than given an individual story and voice. Sands-O’Connor goes on to highlight the convenient timing of characters of colour appearing early in order for them to make a swift exit. Within a social climate of political correctness, representation and equality, these storybook tropes could be risk being described as microagressions. Especially for children of colour, growing up and not seeing themselves in the books they read can lead to a more personal conflict of identity later down the line, hence why things ought to change sooner rather than later, the professor argues.

More published authors and illustrators of colour could allow more alternative and unheard stories to be told. Collaborative work around children’s storybooks is also essential in developing the industry and moving it in a direction of greater diversity, through sharing resources, connections and institutions such as Seven Stories and the Little Rebels Prize.

Children’s storybooks can challenge depictions and perceptions about race, opening up the platform and opportunity for diverse conversation. This makes them very powerful, far more than just sheets of paper with fictional stories.

Last modified: 12th December 2019

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