Farrah Serroukh, Research and Development Director at CLPE, explores the impact of five years of Reflecting Realities and the challenges that remain.
Last month CLPE celebrated its 50th birthday. For 50 years we have worked alongside colleagues in Primary schools up and down the country and beyond to support them in developing best practice in all aspects of their literacy provision. Part of our mission has been to determine the role that literature has to play in supporting young children on their path towards literacy. Evidence from teachers and the responses, engagement and outcomes of pupils have clearly indicated the transformative power that quality literature can have in shaping a young child’s reader, writer and learner identity. This is why determining what constitutes ‘quality,’ has been an ongoing consideration for our charity over the years. We know through our work that books can be affirming and have the capacity to enable connection. They can be great sources of comfort, entertainment and escapism. They can also spark curiosity and imagination, as well as, deepen knowledge and understanding whilst broadening outlook. This is why we house an in-print reference library of over 23,000 titles which represent some of best books currently available in the children’s literature market. This is also why books are central to our Learning Programme and feature so prominently through our online materials, from our Librarian’s popular ‘Phoebe’s Picks series’ to hundreds of videos and teaching resources.
In November 2022 we are pleased to be publishing the 5th Reflecting Realities Annual Survey. This area of work forms one strand of our wider research and development work. It is a piece of research that we initiated as part of our ongoing quest for determining the defining features of quality literature. As educators and curators of children’s literature, we will often seek to determine quality in terms of the language, narrative and characterisation of a text. We will consider whether the themes, subject matter and genre lend themselves to meaningful study or engagement. The question of whether or not a text is inclusive has often been an implicit consideration for many educators. Our annual survey sought to make this an explicit consideration by interrogating the extent and quality of representative titles available to young readers.
The term Reflecting Realities was inspired by Dr Rudine Sims-Bishop’s analogy of books having the potential to serve as mirrors, windows and sliding doors. By having aspects of our reality mirrored back at us in the books we read, we can experience affirmation and connection. Books can also offer windows into realities beyond our own, broadening our outlook. And books can serve as sliding doors, enabling us to slip into and inhabit other realities. With this in mind, the underpinning questions that have consistently driven our work in this area, have been, what is the extent and quality of the presence of racially minoritised demographic groups in UK children’s literature? And, to what extent do the portrayals of characters of colour that young readers encounter reflect their realities and that of society at large? These focused contemplations we hoped would clarify the extent of the issue, channel the momentum of longstanding advocacy in this respect and contribute further nuance in this area of discourse.
Reflecting Realities is not merely about characters of colour being present; it is an exploration of the ways in which they are present, how they are present and where they are present. In each survey we consider the ways in which they are characterised and portrayed and if they are multi-dimensional, well fleshed out individuals. We contemplate their level of agency, the casting dynamic and their proximity to the narrative. And, we explore the thematic range, subject matter and genres of the books in which they are located. We take such matters into account because through this work we hope to convey that it is not enough to be given the spotlight, we need to consider how our stories are being lit.
The data collated from the books reviewed for our very first report indicated that the extent of presence was very low and the quality was significantly lacking. Reporting that only 1% of main characters in books were characters of colour in that first survey sparked the ‘ReadtheOnePercent’ hashtag, which celebrated the important work of independent publishers like Alanna Max, Lantana, Tiny Owl and Knights Of. The response was overwhelming and inspired Knights Of to create a pop-up inclusive children’s book shop which has since taken up permanent residence in Brixton standing shoulder to shoulder with longstanding inclusive booksellers like Book Love, New Beacon Books, Newham Bookshop and Letterbox Library.
The first report provided a benchmark against which to measure progress, progress that we were hopeful could be achieved with a collective investment of time, money and focus. It was published at a point in time when the public discourse regarding the need for better inclusion was prompting much introspection across industries. We could not have anticipated just how responsive the publishing industry would be.
We have observed a steady year on year upward trend in all areas surveyed, which is remarkable given that this has been achieved in such a short time frame. This is of course something that we are greatly heartened by and welcome. It is important however to bear in mind that given how low the baseline was in the first report, there is still quite a distance to be travelled. Whilst there is a larger volume of inclusive titles available on the market, the growth is not consistent across text types, the growth of inclusive fiction has for example been much slower than the growth in inclusive non-fiction and picturebooks. The number of characters of colour present in the output has grown from 4% to 20% in this five-year period but characters of colour being cast as main characters has only grown from 1% to 9%.
Over the five years of reporting we have been keen to emphasise that increases whilst commendable, should be viewed with cautious optimism, because greater volume alone does not necessarily equate to better representation. In every report we have been very clear that the quality of the content of this growing presence must be carefully considered to ensure that the portrayals of racially minoritised characters do justice to their subject.
Each report marks a milestone on the journey that the industry has committed to taking in the interests of improving their output in this regard. Each year, we have been able to highlight exemplary titles that embody the principles and ideals of this work. We have delighted in spotlighting the growing pool of both emerging and long-established talent many of whom are creatives of colour. The fruits of the investments made in these creatives are evident in the richness and variety of high quality titles available to young readers and referenced in this year’s report.
Whilst there is much to celebrate, there is also still much to be done. Five years into this work we find ourselves at an important junction. We have a sense of the scale of what can be achieved when raised consciousness hones the focus and informs collective efforts. We have clear examples, of what quality portrayals look like. Highlighting these, we hope improves understanding of the ingredients that shape such portrayals. We also have insights and a lexicon that define features of problematic, surface or poorly executed portrayals and convey the ways in which these can compromise the quality of the presence.
This is a pivotal moment for the publishing industry. The potential to build on these gains cannot be compromised by complacency. It is our hope that over the next five years these annual surveys continue to support ongoing dialogue within the industry. We also hope that the volume of inclusive and representative output continues to grow, the nuance in representations becomes more varied and the quality of portrayals becomes more refined, ultimately leading to improved quality inclusive literature that reflects the realities of all readers.
To read and download your free copy of this year’s full report and the entire series of annual surveys click here.
Farrah Serroukh is Research and Development Director at CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education).