BookTrust Represents highlights cultural malaise in children’s publishing

Joy Francis looks at the latest research from BookTrust, seeking to increase representation of British writers and illustrators of colour in children's publishing, feels the heavy gust of déjà vu and calls out mainstream publishing's cultural malaise.

We are used to less than appetising statistics regarding the lack of progress in publishing on cultural inclusion. Since In Full Colour was published in 2004, followed by Spread the Word’s Writing the Future in 2015, progress has been painfully slow.

Now, all eyes are focused on the lack of progress in children’s literature, which has spawned the Breaking New Ground brochure, featuring 100 British writers and illustrators of colour, alongside BookTrust Represents  – a three-year project to promote children’s authors and illustrators of colour with a focus on representation.

Behind this strong gust of déjà vu, is the familiar numbers game, which still isn’t fun to play. Based on research covering an 11 year period, BookTrust found that less than 2 per cent of published authors and illustrators in the UK are British people of colour.

Between 2007 and 2017, white children’s books creators had around twice as many books published compared to those of colour, an average of four books in comparison to approximately two books per person. Yet 32 per cent of school age children are of colour.

Among its findings is the fact that creators of colour often struggle to simply be creators without talking about their ethnicity (or issues relating to it) within or outside of their book. Also, it is unsurprising to learn that unique titles by people of colour are more likely to be published outside of the UK compared to their white counterparts. This finding is reinforced by the fact that creators of colour are more likely to resort to self publishing children’s books which, again, is unsurprising.

Author Polly Ho-Yen, quoted in the research, says: “I feel like everyone is talking about diversity in the industry now that the awareness is more centre stage, but I feel concerned that after the noise, it might become a short-lived trend.”

Author John Aggs adds: “It’s a vicious cycle. It’s like you don’t have brown people in children’s books so brown people don’t grow up reading children’s books or enjoying children’s books, so they don’t make children’s books…”

BookTrust Represents aims to increase the number of authors and illustrators of colour in the UK from less than 6 per cent to at least 10 per cent by 2022. Among its multi-pronged approach is the plan, from June 2019, to pay guest author and illustrator fees for school visits.

Guest writers will be shadowed by an emerging writer while school children will receive free copies of the visiting author’s book. Created in partnership with The Bookseller Association, Scholastic, Pop Up Projects, The Fab Prize and Speaking Volumes, there will also be pop up events hosted in independent bookstores.

Illustrator Dapo Adeola set up a Meetup group for Black British Illustrators after finding himself in a tiny minority of seemingly one. With his breakthrough and the success of The Last Last-Day-of-Summer came a flood of  industry offers of work “instead of investing time and resources into discovering more talent like mine within my demographic”.

Before his discovery he says he was “stuck in limbo with no access to do what you are gifted at”. Now he has a three book deal for a picture series about an ‘irrepressible girl’ called Rocket with author Nathan Byron.

As for award-winning writer Patrice Lawrence, her first book Orangeboy was published when she was 49. A child of immigrants who went to university at 27, she admits that there is still a disconnect with seeing her name in print, though she appreciates that she is “pissing off racists, one book at a time”.

Far from being an overnight sensation, it took Adeola 10 years from going part time to focus on being an illustrator to where he is now. He recalls that during a recent school visit he had to convince the children that the illustrations he showed them were drawn by him.

Part of the problem is the persistent lack of transparency in publishing – from what they do, how they commission and how they operate. Lawrence argues that emerging writers need to know the “language publishers use and how they work” along with what writers are getting paid. Adeola agrees and believes that publishers need to do the “leg work” by going into communities and connecting with them as just “opening the door for us to come in isn’t enough”.

With independent children’s publisher Knights Of taking the brave and logical step of opening its own culturally relevant children’s bookshop (Round Table Books) in Brixton after a hugely successful pop up and crowdfunding campaign, publishers have to step up their game.

Publishers also need to be called out for their continued inability to sustain a commitment to inclusive change. Some are making inroads, such as Hachette UK, or are launching imprints. Others chase after creatives of colour who have already done the hard graft of building their online audiences, making them a safer bet. But this industry-wide cultural malaise in children’s literature is inexcusable, hence the growing value and impact of independent publishers, including OWN It London and Jacaranda Books.

Meanwhile, as author Irfan Master’s literary journey indicates, we have a more deep rooted and historical problem to heal: “I was conditioned to believe that I had nothing to offer. The danger of a single story. I never believed. I had no confidence that anybody would want to read my stories and I had no reference points”.

BookTrust Represents: Representation of people of colour among children’s book authors and illustrators  (April 2019) by Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, UCL