Reading while brown: representation in children’s books

I started going to the library from a very young age. I still have fuzzy memories of my dad taking me to the main library in Bolton and being presented with a thickly-laminated yellow library card featuring a cheery red elephant. One of my parents would take me to choose a pile of books – always taking out the maximum number allowed, obviously – which I would devour at the weekends and after school before returning for more of the same the following week.

I’m pretty sure I read the majority of the books in the children’s library, and even more of the books in the much smaller section for teens. I remember the librarian once commenting on the fact that I was checking out a pile of entirely new stock, because I’d immediately recognised them as titles that hadn’t been there before.

Bolton Central Library
Bolton Central Library (CC image courtesy of Mikey on Flickr)

Then, as now, I read anything and everything. I loved Enid Blyton with a passion, especially the Famous Five and Mallory Towers, but I also sped through the more contemporary works of Judy Blume and Jacqueline Wilson, while also making a decent attempt at ticking off all the instalments of the various ‘Point…’ series – I loved Horror, Romance, Crime, Fantasy and Science Fiction (were there any more?).

I also loved the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, a bit of Diana Wynne-Jones and the occasional foray into a Choose Your Own Adventure, when I was in the mood for it. I adored Terry Pratchett’s Nomes trilogy, and even made a stab at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was less successful (I’m still not sure why those books were in the children’s library!). I devoured lots of classics – an abridged edition of Jane Eyre, all of the Anne of Green Gables books, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden, Alice, Heidi, Little Women… if it was there in Bolton children’s library in the 1980s and 1990s, I probably read it.

Puffin Classics - Lewis Carroll
(CC image courtesy of John Keogh on Flickr)

Books as mirrors and windows

I can’t say I ever really saw myself reflected in those books, if we’re just talking about ethnic background. Sometimes the odd black or Asian character would be mentioned in passing, or even get a line or two of dialogue, but they were definitely in the minority. More BAME characters tended to appear in the YA books I read, but they were still largely supporting characters rather than protagonists. The only real exceptions I can recall are Malorie Blackman’s novels for children and teens, although most of these were published after I graduated to the adults’ library.

I did, however, see myself in the outsiders of children’s literature. I’ve never been entirely one thing – not quite Indian or Hindu enough and definitely not white enough; perennially stuck between cultures with no name for the unique space that I and other second-generation immigrants occupy. I don’t think I was able to properly articulate this feeling until I was much older, yet this specific experience as a brown person in a white country was definitely absent from the books I raced through as a child, and has only started cropping up more in the books I read now relatively recently. But I did see other children who, like me, never felt entirely comfortable in the roles they were supposed to fulfil. They were kindred spirits, and I loved reading about them, never really noticing their race or religion until I was much older.

This seems to be a different experience to some other people – Anita Sethi suggests that she felt “deepening isolation” at not seeing more BAME characters in children’s books, but I honestly can’t say I really felt this in my own childhood, which is perhaps symptomatic of the extent to which the primacy of white culture was ingrained in me from the very beginning of my life.

Readers as writers

This fed into my creative writing at school, too. There’s an essay by Darren Chetty in The Good Immigrant about his experiences as a primary school teacher which really resonated with me and made me remember that in all the stories I wrote when I was a child, I never once made an Asian girl like me the main character. They were always white (and blonde, in the case of a young engineering whiz called Anthea Bubblesocks who built a monster-defeating machine – at least I had a streak of feminism at that age!).

This happened again when I became more prolific in creative writing as a teenager and at university – and I was still never conscious of what I was doing. I’ve tried to correct this in my more recent attempts to write, which has been both liberating and strangely difficult.

These days, I’m more clued up on the issues surrounding diversity in publishing, and I find myself gravitating more towards authors who are likely to reflect my own cultural identity (whatever that may be!) in their works.

It does feel like progress is being made when I look at the bubble of my Twitter feed and see all the posts from authors and readers of colour that I follow, but then I pause when I see statistics like those in the CLPE report that came out last week: only 1% of British children’s books have a BAME (black or minority ethnic) main character, and just 4% feature a BAME character at all, despite almost one-third of English schoolchildren coming from a BAME background.

There’s a lot of talk about what publishers can do to rectify this, and I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that they don’t just make a token effort – just as with books for adults. It’s not just about the number of non-white characters in books; it’s also about how they’re depicted in those books. Do they play a real role in the story as opposed to just providing educational soundbites about Islam or Hinduism? Do they have their own friends, families and lives, as opposed to just existing in the gaze of a white character? Do they have their own thoughts and personalities? Their own flaws and redeeming qualities? In short, are they actual people and not just smiling brown faces on a page?

I really hope things improve. I think it’s great that more publishers are launching schemes to encourage BAME writers to submit their work and undergo mentoring to steer them in the right direction, but more could definitely be done – both in the industry and in efforts to encourage wider reading and writing among children at home and school.

Once we have more children seeing themselves in the stories they read, we’ll have more budding writers who will one day create stories for a future generation of kids who can’t wait to go to the library each week and read about children of all backgrounds – including those just like themselves.

One thought on “Reading while brown: representation in children’s books

  1. I had so many thoughts and feelings reading this. In a lot of ways, you and I have had very similar experiences of being British growing up, but then I remember that actually we haven’t because I haven’t once had to be conscious of the colour of my skin. Obviously, yours isn’t my experience, which is part of the reason it makes me sad and angry to read this post. We should be further forward with this. I think Nikesh Shukla alluded to it in his comments on the CLPE statistics, that it’s important that kids encounter people who are like them and who are different to them in literature and on TV/in films if they’re going to develop empathy for other people’s experiences. It’s important that brown and black kids see themselves at the centre of a story in a positive role, as an actor not a bystander, as often as they see a white kid in that position. It’s also important that white kids see brown and black kids in the roles that are overwhelmingly occupied by white kids in books. I’m hopeful that things will improve. I think initiatives like Shukla’s literary agency, networks like Arts Emergency, and publishing models like Unbound mean that control over who gets published will start to leave the hands of white middle class graduates and a more diverse range of people will move into the book industry. It’s going to be a long slog, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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