Everyone Should Exist in Literature

Janet Noble, CKG Judge

Janet

In July 2018, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published Reflecting Realities, the first UK study looking at diversity in children’s literature. Funded by the Arts Council, CLPE’s aim was to quantify and evaluate the extent and quality of Black and ethnic minority (BAME) representation and diversity in children’s publishing in the UK in 2017.

Summary of Findings

  • There were 9115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017. Of these only 391 featured BAME characters
  • Only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME characters
  • Only 1% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017 had a BAME main character
  • Over half the fiction books with BAME characters were defined as ‘contemporary realism’(books set in modern day landscapes/contexts)
  • 10% of books with BAME characters contained ‘social justice’ issues
  • Only one book featuring a BAME character was defined as ‘comedy’
  • 26% of the non-fiction submissions were aimed at an ‘Early Years’ audience

These findings are disappointing but not surprising.  I am 54 years old and yet I struggle to find books about the kind of child I was, and still meet, in schools and libraries across London every day.

That every child should be able to access and enjoy great books in which they see themselves depicted is eloquently advocated in this extract from the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie’s The danger of a single story 2009 TED Talk.

Janet Ted

I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “the danger of the single story.” I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader. And what I read were British and American children’s books. 

I was also an early writer. And when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. And they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow. We ate mangoes. And we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to. 

My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story. 

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books, by their very nature, had to have foreigners in them, and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren’t many of them available. And they weren’t quite as easy to find as the foreign books. 

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized. 

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are. 

Chimamanda Adichie has written the novels Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013), the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), and the essay We Should All Be Feminists (2014). Her most recent book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, was published in March 2017.

To view the full video of Chimamanda Adichie’s The danger of a single story 2009 TED Talk, please go to :https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

CLPE’s Reflecting Realities study can be found at: https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children

 

 

 

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One thought on “Everyone Should Exist in Literature

  1. 100% And white writers need to not only be aware of this but be aware that they can fail their audiences in so many ways:
    By mis-representing
    By stereotyping
    By swiping own stories
    By neglect

    It’s hard but we ALL need to step up by being diligent, supporting Own Voices and being respectful.

    And buy/borrow the books – show publishers that they’re wanted as well as needed!

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