33.5% of children in the UK come from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, yet in 2019 only 680 out of 6478 children’s books published in that year featuredcharacters from non-white backgrounds. It seems absurd that this is the case in what is considered to be a fairly progressive industry, and so begs the questions: why is this the case? And what can be done to change it?
In September I was lucky enough to attend the 2021 Booksellers Children’s Conference which, although took place virtually due to the ongoing Covid situation, was a well organised and engaging event. A talk that I found particularly insightful was the keynote speech by Arthur Levine who is the founder of publishing agency, Levine Querido. Levine’s mission in departing from Scholastic and establishing his own agency in 2019 was “giving voice to a world of talent”, as he also titled his speech.
Levine acknowledges that it is publishers that are responsible for the shocking statistics when it comes to minority representation in children’s literature. In the board room, talk often revolves around what is currently selling and what has worked well in the past. The issue is that this perpetuates a vicious cycle when publishers fail to acknowledge that certain themes, genres, and titles sell well simply because that is what is currently on offer. Levine admitted that he has heard statements such as “no one will buy a book with a boy of colour on the cover” thrown around in meetings. It is easy to claim that books featuring characters from minority backgrounds do not sell when only 680 out of 6478 options feature such characters. How do they stand a chance?
As for the solution? Publishers must face up to their own implicit biases and, although easier said than done, must be willing to take professional risks in order to be the change. Publishers have just as much influence on market trends as readers, it is they that supply the readers with options and if those options are not diverse and representative of a vast and vibrant demographic, neither will the buying trends be.
This is Levine’s strategy. His company aims to improve the diversity in their stories by going to the source – the authors themselves. Levine bypasses threats of tokenism and faux “wokeness” by publishing authors from the communities that so desperately require character representation. He also does not shy away from translated fiction where others may be wary of culture differences, after all, childhood is a universal experience.
The inequality in representation in children’s literature will not be fixed overnight, nor in even the next few years. However, the mission must start somewhere, and Levine’s company seems to be an excellent example of putting tradition aside, taking a risk, and handing the podium over to the people who can make the biggest impact. I think that other publishers would do well to follow his lead and hopefully in time every child will find someone who looks like them on the shelves of their favourite bookshop.