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How to improve diversity in children’s books to support an anti-racist curriculum
Only 4% of British children’s books published in 2018 featured a main character from a BAME background. Improve representation and diversity in your school library and classrooms, so that they reflect the society we live in, and BAME pupils feel represented and valued.
This article focuses on how to improve diversity in relation to race. You can, and should, apply similar principles to improve diversity in terms of gender, disability, sexual orientation and religion.
A note on terminology: we use BAME (Black, Asian or minority ethnic) throughout this article as a succinct way to refer to the many ethnic groups that are under-represented in books. However, we recognise that some people are not comfortable with the term. When talking about this topic in your school we'd encourage you to think about what will work best in your own context (other widely used terms include "ethnic minorities" and "people of colour") – and note that individuals should always be referred to according to their own ethnicity, rather than grouped in this way.
Improving diversity in the books in your school isn’t enough on its own to create an anti-racist curriculum and school environment, but it’s a good place to start. This work should go alongside work on reviewing your curriculum to make it more inclusive (more on this at the end of this article).
Your pupils can't be what they can't see
33.1% of pupils of school age are of minority ethnic origins, yet only 4% of children’s books published in 2018 had a BAME (Black, Asian or minority ethnic) main character, and only 1% the year before.
This means you have to be proactive in making sure the books at your school accurately reflect your school community, and modern Britain.
Only 4% of children’s books published in 2018 had a BAME main character
For all children, it’s important that the stories they encounter at school provide both 'mirrors' and 'windows':
- Mirror: a story that reflects your own culture and helps build your identity (e.g. a main character who looks like you)
- Window: a story that offers you a view into someone else’s experience (e.g. a main character who is different from you)
By providing books that do this, you're challenging the implicit racism of an all-white or majority-white library or book corner.
Books should challenge racism explicitly too
It’s important that alongside books that provide pupils with mirrors and windows, you also have books that address racism and racial justice explicitly.
Review the books you already have
The first step is to look at the fiction, non-fiction and picture books you already have in your school.
You could appoint one person to do this across your school (e.g. your school librarian or head of English), or create a steering group of a few members of staff. You could also ask individual class teachers to do this for the books in their classrooms.
Staff carrying out the review should look at:
- Books in your school library (if you have one)
- Books in classrooms (e.g. in book corners or on bookshelves, books teachers are reading to the class for pleasure)
- Books studied on your curriculum, for all subjects (not just set texts for English)
- Books that serve other purposes: textbooks, reading books, phonics books
These books send a powerful, implicit message to all your pupils (and parents, if these books are going home) about who is valued at your school, and whose stories and histories matter.
Questions to ask and discuss when reviewing your books
Don't just look at if BAME people are represented, but how BAME people are represented. Don’t forget to think about BAME authors and illustrators too.
When reviewing your existing books, and when buying new books going forwards, ask:
- How many books have a main character who is clearly from a BAME background?
- How many books include characters who are clearly from a BAME background? Do BAME characters feature, but predominantly in the background or margins (e.g. only as a few black or brown faces in a white crowd)?
- Are BAME characters well-drawn, well-developed and well-rounded? Does the portrayal allow for cultural specificity (e.g. careful consideration of hair texture, facial features and skin tones in illustrations) without reducing characters to one-dimensional stereotypes?
- Are BAME characters predominantly defined by struggle, suffering or “otherness” (e.g. are there more books about slavery than books about BAME people’s achievements)?
- Are there books that deal explicitly with racism, as well as books that have BAME characters where race and racism are not explicit themes?
- How many books are by BAME authors and illustrators?
- How are BAME people represented across book types, genres and topics (e.g. is there diversity in picture books for younger readers, but not in novels or history books for older readers)?
- Is British BAME history represented, or is there a focus on American or global history and achievements?
- How many books take place outside of the UK? Are indigenous people represented in these books or ignored?
- Are the books featuring BAME people high-quality texts with engaging stories and illustrations? Do pupils enjoy them, choose to select them from the shelf or borrow them from the library?
It's also important to think about your school's individual context and the communities within your school and in your local area. For example, if your school has a large number of Asian pupils, it isn't enough to improve Black representation. With this in mind, ask:
- Are the ethnic minorities within our school being represented in book characters? Where possible, are they being represented in authors and illustrators too?
- Are the ethnic minorities in our local area being represented (if these are different to within our school)?
- Are the achievements of these ethnic minorities represented? Is the history of these ethnic minorities represented?
You might also want to ask the general questions above, in relation to specific ethnic minorities in your local context.
How books are displayed matters
Finally, walk into classrooms and your library, and look at:
- Which books are used as part of displays, or have their covers facing outwards – are BAME people visible on book covers?
- Is it obvious which books feature BAME characters, and are they easy to find?
Download our question and action checklist
Give it to the staff carrying out this review. It features the questions above plus next steps. You can also use the next steps to guide staff when buying books going forwards.
If you’re able to buy new books, use these book lists
After carrying out the review, you'll have a good idea of where your biggest gaps are, and what you need to prioritise and improve on.
Your school might not have the budget to buy lots of new books in response to the review, but you can change your buying habits going forwards.
Use these book lists if you want to fill the gaps now, or use them next time you're able to buy new books. Share these lists with all staff who have responsibility for book buying.
EYFS and primary
- Virtual library – books are arranged by topic (e.g. Black heroes, Black Lives Matter), via BAMEed
- 50 examples of children's literature with BAME representation – book list by @MissNewton91, via BAMEed
Primary and secondary
- Books for children – this poster was created by BAMEed, based on a list created by Darren Chetty and Karen Sands O’Connor
- 21 British children's authors of colour you should know
- 10 brilliant books to read by Black writers, recommended by Round Table Books
- ‘No reader is too young to start': anti-racist books for all children and teens
Publishers, booksellers and further recommendations
- Letterbox Library is a children’s bookseller celebrating equality and diversity. They create book packs on different themes for different year groups (e.g. 'British authors and illustrators of colour pack for Key Stages 3 and 4')
- Other publishers and booksellers include: Book Love: book shop, Knights Of, Round Table Books and Tiny Owl
- BAMEed recommends following @thisisbooklove, @WiderReads, @LetterboxLib, @BooksRound and @TinyOwl_Books on Twitter if you're looking for diverse reading suggestions for children
Next step: review your curriculum
It’s a good start to have more diverse books in your classrooms and available for pupils to see and read.
Your next step is to review your curriculum, to find out where you can make it more inclusive and how you can start to teach anti-racism alongside the books you've introduced.
Use our curriculum review tool to help you.
Reflecting Realities - survey of ethnic representation within UK children’s literature 2018 and 2017 – Centre for Literacy in Primary Education
- The concept of 'mirrors and windows' was originally introduced in this essay by educator Emily Style
Many thanks to Sufian Sadiq (director of teaching school at Chiltern Learning Trust ), Dr Patrice Evans (deputy headteacher at Challney High School for Boys) and Mark Mailer (assistant headteacher at Challney High School for Boys) for sharing their expertise with us so we could share it with you.
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