Louise Johns-Shepherd, Chief Executive, CLPE.
On September 19th CLPE will publish the second survey of representation in children’s literature. Funded by Arts Council England, and with the support of 46 publishing houses, the survey will report the number of books for children from 3-11 published in 2018 that featured characters from an identified ethnic minority category.
Before the publication of the first CLPE report in July 2018 the term ‘Reflecting Realities’ was not widely used. In the last twelve months it has become a commonly-used phrase to explain the importance of ensuring the world of books is accurately portraying the real life experiences of readers. The first survey generated a great deal of interest and activity and before we share the outcomes of the second survey we have been reflecting on this last year and all that has happened.
At CLPE we work face to face with around three thousand primary school teachers each year – and thousands more use our online resources. The purpose of our charity is to help schools to teach literacy in the best possible way and to support them to put children’s literature at the very heart of learning. Our team is made up of teachers and librarians and we are always looking at the latest research into reading and writing and, of course, we read thousands and thousands of children’s books each year. We are passionate about the vital and transformative power of books and we know that one of the most important things we can do is to give children a love of reading – and to do that we need to find books that really speak to children. We need to source books for our work with schools that have characters and contexts that resonate with the children, books that help shape them as readers and broaden their world view.
We embarked on the Reflecting Realities work because we knew that we often had to look to specialist booksellers and order titles from abroad to secure a breadth and range of inclusive titles for our work. There has been a long-standing debate about the degree of ethnic representation in the content of UK children’s publishing output and tireless advocacy from grassroots organisations, independent publishers, booksellers, writers and academics. However, unlike the US, we have never had the extent of the issue quantified. A lack of statistical data in this area meant that often we were relying on our gut to determine the size of the imbalance. We were keen that the Reflecting Realities initiative would provide a benchmark to help inform all stakeholders about where we actually are and provide guidance to help us move forward.
As a team that is working with children’s literature every day we have a good sense of what the publishing market offers. The original statistics were not particularly surprising to us but what we didn’t expect or anticipate was the overwhelming interest from outside the world of children’s literature or indeed the outpouring of support for the rationale that underpins this work and the chord that the findings struck with people within and beyond the industry.
It has become clear that there is an appetite for hard data because this helps us have a clear idea of what needs to be done and provides a benchmark against which to measure our efforts. The publication of the survey inspired long-standing advocates in the field as well as emerging champions. Letterbox Library has developed a Reflecting Realities book pack and new publisher Knights Of set up an inclusive permanent book shop in Brixton, both direct responses to the survey findings. We have had countless people and organisations reach out to us to share the amazing work they are doing to redress the imbalance. Alongside our work, colleagues at BookTrust, CILIP, Pop Up and many more have developed initiatives that will help to redress the balance, promoting opportunities for authors, illustrators and creators of children’s literature that will move us all forward as an industry. Publishers and promoters of children’s literature were already working to improve and develop things in this area and we have been heartened to see the enormous range of projects supporting efforts to increase representation. Things will only improve through collective efforts and the survey has galvanised many to move forward together.
This year, and in years to come, we hope to contribute to an ongoing conversation that supports the producers of literature to be critically reflective and considered about the choices that are made in the book making process. The core purpose of CLPE’s work is not solely to redress the imbalance and encourage an increase in the volume of books featuring BAME characters, we also want to encourage quality portrayals and presence. Quantity alone will not suffice, particularly if the quality is poor or, worse still, problematic. The value of reflecting realities, individuals, identities, cultures and communities is rooted in the importance of elevating all lived experiences and recognising them as worthy of note and exploration. To understand and be understood is at the heart of the human experience. The call for more inclusive books is as much about quality as it is about volume. Better representation means just that, better in all regards, because all young readers deserve the best that the literary world has to offer.
So as we move towards the publication of the latest survey we are feeling hopeful. The first year of this work set a benchmark. The American equivalent produced by the Co-operative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been established for over 35 years and during that time there has been a steady positive trajectory. Whilst the imbalance hasn’t been totally redressed and there is still much work to be done, this model of an annual cycle means that the importance of representation in children’s literature is kept in the public consciousness rather than being reduced to a conversational trend that arises once every few years. This we hope will, over time, amount to meaningful and long-standing change.
We are heartened by the overwhelming commitment and support of this work across all stakeholders and we look forward to a continued investment in making the highest quality inclusive and representative literature for the benefit of all young readers.
The latest report will be published on the 19th September 2019 and available from www.clpe.org.uk