Posted on May 23, 2022

Black Representation: Parents Urged to Read Diverse Books to Kids

Caleb Riley, BBC, May 21, 2022

Parents should be encouraging their children to read stories about black characters, an author has said.

Catherine Johnson said: “Children – white readers – will read books about bears and owls and cats. Why can’t they read books with black families in?”

A white mother from Newport said it was a parent’s duty to educate children about different cultures.

But campaigner Donna Ali said the onus was on editors and publishers to stop seeing these books as niche.

Catherine Johnson said: “You want other people to understand the experiences of those children, you want to normalise that experience – it is not an ‘other’ thing, it’s a normal thing.”

‘I took it upon myself’
Sarai Prosser, a midwife from Newport, said: ”Unfortunately the British education system is notoriously lacking in content and representation of black history and therefore I took it upon myself to teach my son.”

She said she began reading her son books about different cultures and accepting people despite their differences. As he got older she read to him about “all of the fantastic black scientists, inventors, activists and sports people”.

She said their favourite book at home was The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Rauf and she had recently bought a biography of Marcus Rashford.

“The media can be guilty of misrepresenting black people and instilling negative opinions,” she said.

Donna agreed it was important for children, especially those from white rural areas, to be taught about different backgrounds but was uncomfortable with the idea of telling parents what books they should be reading.

“I don’t know about advising or suggesting to white parents they should choose books with black characters – it’s their choice,” she said.

“If you really concentrated on the editors and the publishers, focussed on not seeing these books as niche… we could get more books flooded into schools and on the shelves… parents will naturally gravitate to the story rather than cherry picking it because of the content.”

Reflecting Realities, a report published by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, found only 7% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017, 2018 and 2019 featured characters from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

Catherine recalled Grenada-born publisher and author Verna Wilkins approaching schools with her books many years ago.

“White head teachers would say, ‘No, no, we don’t need those books here, we haven’t got any black children’,” she said.

“But why shouldn’t there be books for everybody that reflects everybody?”

Writer and screenwriter Em Norry, who grew up in Cardiff, said: “I think it’s reasonable that people should be expected to see themselves reflected in the media that they consume and that’s especially important for children.”

But Catherine said the books must be of excellent quality and not a tick box exercise: “We want good representation, we don’t just want coloured-in white characters.”

Donna, who is working on her first book for children, said it was important books about black people did “not default to slavery”.

“We don’t talk about the excellence of black businesses, and the contributions like the medical advancements, all these wonderful things that black people contribute.”

When I started school in the south Wales valleys I was the only black child out of about 200 pupils – there were also very few boys like me in the books I would read.

The closest was maybe Mowgli from The Jungle Book, the fictional Indian boy raised by wolves.

My parents tried their best to find books with black characters but I never really found a black literary hero.

But there was Superman. Although he was white I could relate to him as the sole survivor of the planet Krypton.

I may not be from another planet but the way I was constantly stared at, I may as well have been.

I was never on the end of overt racism but there were the odd cases of random people touching my hair and I was often the last child to be picked for schoolground games.

So reading was just another thing in my life that told me I was different.

I felt alienated, my self-esteem nose-dived.

Since my childhood in the early 2000s I’ve seen things change.

I would no longer be the only black child in that school, people are more racially aware and there are more books with people who look like me.

These days, when I’m in a bookshop and see books with brown and black boys or girls on the cover it gives me hope today’s children can have a hero who I never quite found.

Catherine has been writing for more than 30 years and thinks class is as much of a barrier to be a published writer as race.

She said when she began writing she had small children and a part-time job but lived in subsidised housing, qualified for working tax credit and was able to attend things such as council-run writing groups with a creche – things not readily available today.

“I haven’t written a novel in five years because I haven’t been able to afford to,” she said.

“How can an ordinary person afford to be a writer?” she said.

“How can an ordinary person afford to put some time aside – that assumes that they’ve got other income from somewhere.”

‘Very upper middle class’
She said most novels were written speculatively even by writers who already have a profile.

She wants to see people from all backgrounds across the industry from literary agents, to publishers to writers.

“I’ve had one black editor in 30 years of being a writer, and she was great, but she didn’t stay in publishing because the wages are reasonably low,” she said.

“For most immigrant parents, they will be wanting their children to go into something that will make some money, and writing is a gamble.”

“Publishing has been for a very long time very upper middle class and very white and that’s just a fact really,” said Em.

“We need more black or brown editors, agents, and commissioning editors who can help decide on what can get made.”

Literature Wales, the company responsible for the development of literature in Wales, said it was “committed to transforming our literary culture so that it represents everyone in Wales” and addressing “historical and structural inequalities”.

It pointed to a number of projects it runs to fulfil this commitment, including a programme last year that gave 12 writers of colour a bursary and a year of intensive training.

The Books Council of Wales, the partly Welsh government funded charity set up to support the publishing industry in Wales, said: “Addressing underrepresentation and diversity in Welsh literature and in the Welsh publishing sector is a priority.”

It said last year about 70% of Welsh language young children’s story and picture books it sponsored included pictures of characters from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

This week it announced the recipients of £186,000 of grant funding, which will fund projects including setting up new publishing houses owned and run by editors and authors from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, digital platforms to reach new audiences and mentoring authors from under-represented backgrounds.

Donna is hopeful that the Welsh government’s plan for “a Wales that is anti-racist by 2030” can help drive change.

“We are really privileged to be in Wales [where] we have the anti-racism plan so hopefully, we can use this plan to hold people accountable, that’s including publishers and agents,” she said.

“People need to stand behind the action plan and feel confident in using it as a piece of legislation to have these conversations.”