Arts Muse

Diversity in children’s literature

Hannah Carley on the new children's anthology showcasing the work of Black British authors and illustrators.

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Image Credit: Knights Of Media

Children’s reading charity BookTrust has teamed up with the inclusive publisher Knights Of and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) to produce an anthology of stories showcasing Black British authors and illustrators. Titled Happy Here, the collection intends to promote themes of joy, home and happiness in its stories and poems. Booktrust is also planning to distribute a copy of the work to every primary school across the country; with the aim of promoting diversity in the literature curriculum.

One of the authors that will feature in Happy Here is Oxford graduate and first generation student, Jasmine Richards. Her fantasy series Secrets of Valhalla introduces children to Norse Mythology as two children battle to save the world from Ragnarok. Her work promotes an interest in an exciting educational topic that younger students are often less exposed to (sorry, I’m not counting Marvel films.) Richards also promotes representation within literature, advocating for the inclusion of more diverse characters within stories and authorship. As founder of development studio Storymix, she also encourages and supports other underrepresented voices to strive for success.

Poets including Dean Atta are also featured within the anthology. Atta is of Greek Cypriot and Caribbean descent, and is a member of the LGBT+ community. These aspects of his identity heavily influence his work and are shown in the poem I Come From. The poem reads almost like a love letter to the cultures and people who have shaped Atta throughout the course of his life. The constant repetition of the phrase “I come from” indicates both the pride Atta has in his identity and background, and how this identity is made up of so many different parts. Atta does well to encapsulate so much of his life into such a short piece – class, race, immigration, motherhood and gender to name just a few. The self love and self respect Atta communicates through his work will likely provide a fantastic example for students reading the anthology.

However, the significance of Happy Here goes far beyond showcasing the great writing of these creatives. Work such as this also plays a critical role in raising awareness and combatting a widespread lack of diversity in children's literature.

In 2019, a survey by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that only four percent of children’s books published in the same year had a BAME central character. This is completely disproportionate to the 33 percent of primary school students who come from minority ethnic backgrounds. It is likely that many of these students have never seen themselves reflected in the stories that they read. Other students don’t see it either, and are instead presented with a distorted worldview that cultivates a lack of understanding of other cultures. This unfortunately helps to perpetuate racism and discrimination in wider society, as these children grow into adults with these same unresolved misconceptions. It is quite simply a case of marginalisation.

When I think back to my own days in primary school, I can only remember books where all the characters looked like me. At the time I was too young to realise, but looking back I can see that the literature I was consuming did not accurately reflect the world I lived in. I grew up in a diverse community, and yet the majority of my peers would not have found characters to relate to in the ways that I could. My experience was a privilege that many others deserve but do not get.

This disparity is grossly unfair– the power of reading comes from being able to connect with the characters and becoming invested in their stories. There is power in seeing yourself accurately represented in any form of media. Not only should we all be able to see ourselves in literature, but we owe it to society to make sure we can also see others. Accurate and thoughtful representation helps to break down stereotypes and create the empathy we need people to have in order to combat racial injustice. It may seem trivial, but often what we do not see, we simply do not care about.

Which is why anthologies such as this – not to mention the national distribution to primary schools – are so important. One anthology is not going to fix the mass diversity problem within children’s literature; a problem that is not even just limited to race and culture. However, every additional book is one more child who can look into a book like they look in a mirror. It is another person discussing the issues about representation and racism that are prevalent across all of society. Initiatives like this offer hope.

So I personally hope that Happy Here is a success when it hits the shelves in August. Even if it helps just one child to see themselves in literature the way I was privileged enough to see myself, it will have done its job.

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