What today's children's literature needs 📚
Three steps to getting more inclusive books on your shelves
When I wrote my first story at eleven, I named the twin protagonists after my brother and myself, and even wrote my parents into it. But with one major difference – they were all living in America and were white. I remember setting the whole story, my parents, brother, and everyone else I knew in a small town in America from one of the other YA books I'd read.
I wrote this five years ago, procrastinating a submission or two during my MA. Amongst my rambles and efforts to delay writing my creative piece, I had come to the bitter realization that most of what I'd read and consumed in my childhood were books that didn't feature anyone who looked like me.
Today, I'm rehashing this old blog post of mine — but I'm backing it up with reasons and facts for increasing representation and diversity in children's literature.
Step One: Understanding Why Representation Matters
From the ages of 15-20, I was a book blogger. That meant I was invited to read stuff before they were published, write a review or a blog post about the book, and promote it to my readers. All free, of course, except for the joy of getting a free book or ARC1.
I exclusively read Young Adult books — my choice. Most of them (~95%) featured white protagonists or were written by white authors — the industry's choice.
The concept of representation and diversity is relatively new. Ask anyone who's been a long-time blogger. Even though I'm not a blogger anymore, I'm on the other side now — I work with publishers and authors, and I know just how recent this "diversity boom" is.
Why only children and young adults?
I hear you. It's not like this is the Titanic. We always don't need to prioritize women and children, no? Except, we do.
Children are the future, quite literally. As adults, we can make conscious choices about the books we pick up. We can research ratings and reviews on Goodreads and pick up books based on recommendations from friends or colleagues. But when it comes to kids? They read or devour the books they're given. Adults shape a child's library.
There's a case for more mainstream diverse, and inclusive adult fiction but not today.
My first introductions to stories were Æsop's Fables and Panchtantra tales. All cute animal tales with lots of good morals and positive habit building ideas. Great stuff to read if you're a growing kid.
But did you know that more books feature animals as protagonists than kids of colour? In 2017, only 1% of the books featured a minority ethnic character.
That's 1% to represent every single kid who isn't white. This isn't years ago; this isn't even a decade ago. Literally five years ago.
Sure, it went up to 5% and is now at 15% (as of November 2021), but that's still well below the number of kids of colour who need to see themselves represented in books. Plus, that's a character — not even the protagonist. So being the token gay/Black/brown/Asian friend or neighbour is probably what dominates that 15%.
Also, these are numbers from the UK — a country that dominates global publishing (along with the US). Sure, every country publishes its own books, and there was a decent amount of representation in the books I read that came from Indian publishers.
But we've all read or heard about Enid Blyton. It's very unlikely that anyone outside India (or Indian diaspora) has heard of Tinkle comics or Amar Chitra Katha — staples in every house that encouraged reading.
"Research shows that a lack of representation in media can lead to negative psychological outcomes for those with identities that are underrepresented or negatively portrayed (Tukachinsky, Mastro, &Yarchi, 2017). Exposure to negative media depictions of their own ethnic-racial groups can undermine children's sense of self, whereas high-quality children's media can promote positive ethnic-racial attitudes and interactions (Rogers, 2021).
Representation in mainstream media matters because that's what's fed to us as the 'ideal'. Everything else is different and 'other'. Diverse and inclusive books introduce children to different beliefs and cultures and help them realize there are people both similar and different in the world they need respect, accept, and get along with — each in a different capacity.
Also, the right representation matters. Having an Indian kid who's bullied for smelling like curry and who befriends his bullies by feeding them said curry — no thank you. Authors (especially those who are white or not of that specific ethnicity) writing characters from backgrounds they don't know well need to steer clear (way clear) of stereotypes and make every effort not to worsen this situation. All representation is not good representation; let's get that straight.
In fact, personally, I'd prefer no representation in this case.
Step Two: Make Diverse Books Accessible
Let's say we're working on representation — because we are. I know and follow several authors and publishers working hard to make books better and more inclusive.
But are those books reaching the kids who need them?
Accessibility is a huge issue when it comes to representation. If we continue to recommend and gift Harry Potter or The Diary of a Wimpy Kid to the kids around us, we're failing in our duty. We need to introduce them to writers of colour who are writing books similar to that kid's experience.
At the same time, we also need to let the kids read widely. White kids don't have to read books with white protagonists, nor do brown kids only have to read brown kid stories. Kids should be encouraged to read widely, to broaden their perspectives — because isn't that what books are meant to do? They're meant to take you to different lands and times, into people's lives, thoughts, and actions.
In the last few years, I've been making a conscious choice to read diversely — trying to pick up books by writers of colour, with protagonists of colour or at least books that aren't your standard one-dimensional tropes.
But let me tell you, it's not easy.
You have to know which publishers are publishing diverse books. Or know if any of the Big 4/5 publishers have any new diverse books in their catalogue. Then, you have to check if they're as affordable as the mass market paperbacks of the non-diverse books.
This was an issue I faced back when I was in college and blogging on the site. I couldn't afford to drop INR 500-600 on a diverse YA book every week (or faster, given my reading speed). But if I wanted to see myself represented, I had to save up and do that.
Step Three: For Heaven's Sake, Promote Diverse Books!
What good is it to publish amazingly diverse and inclusive books if you don't promote them properly? Many of the bigger publishers and their imprints have bowed to public pressure and begun including writers and protagonists of colour in the books they release, but they rarely get prominent shelf space — if ever.
It's another one of those vicious cycles.
If you don't promote a diverse book properly, it won't reach the right audience and beyond. Then the author doesn't earn out their advance, and the book is considered a flop. That discourages the publisher from picking up more diverse books — "There's no market demand for such books."
And we're back to the same ol' fuddy-duddy books (no offence) lining our bookshelves.
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I’ll see you next week — maybe not at the same time, but definitely the same place.
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