Lack of diversity found in children’s books

Diversity in children’s books has become a more and more popular topic over the last few years, with the majority of people in agreement that there is room for more stories about women and a wider variety of ethnicities in the genre.

The issue was recently brought back into the spotlight by teenage American activist Marley Dias who was tired of reading about “white boys and their dogs” and started the campaign ‘1000 Black Girl Books’. This movement is needed as only nine percent of children’s books published in the U.S. in 2017 featured an African or African-American character, according to data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre.

A quick look inside popular Irish bookshops will show you that there’s also a serious issue here in terms of what books are on offer to children in Ireland.

The research was carried out in three major bookstores, Eason’s in St. Stephen’s Green shopping centre, Dubray Books on Grafton St. and Hodges Figgis on Dawson St. Of the selection of children’s books looked at in these three bookshops 48.8 percent had male protagonists, 22.6 percent were about animals and 28.6 percent featured a female main character.

There was a similar imbalance in terms of the author’s gender with 54.8 percent of the books in the selection written by men, 31 percent by women and 14.2 percent by a collaboration of male and female authors.

When it came to individual bookshops, the selection in Eason’s had a lower level of diversity with 72 percent of the books sampled featuring male leading characters and 76 per cent written by men.

By comparison, 35.5 percent of the books in Dubray Books had male central characters with 45.2 percent of them written by men. In Hodges Figgis, 42.9 percent of the books in the sample featured male leads with the same percentage of 42.9 percent written by male authors.

Of course, this is only a small, random sample that could have been influenced by a multitude of factors such as the way in which employees are told to stack shelves, be it by genre or by author name.

In saying that, there was nothing intentionally biased in the selection methods as it was a randomised sample. This meant the first children’s bookshelf spotted out of one specific section such as the character or fiction for 9-12-year-olds in each shop.   

To learn more about diversity in Ireland’s publications, Jenny Murray, Publications Manager at Children’s Books Ireland (CBI), spoke to The City. She said that diversity in books needs to be “wholeheartedly supported and encouraged” especially in children’s books. CBI is the national children’s books organisation of Ireland. Their aim is to make books central to children’s lives in Ireland through developing audiences for children’s books, and supporting and celebrating excellent authors and illustrators.

Children's book stand in Dubray Books, Grafton St
A children’s book stand in Dubray Books, Grafton Street // Ethan McDonagh

“You only have to walk into any school in Ireland, especially in Dublin, to encounter the most diverse age-group population in Ireland currently. It is an extraordinary time to be a child in Ireland, the sheer cultural range of language, religion, ethnicity and tradition in an average classroom in Ireland is so diverse.

“But while the environment is enriching it is also challenging to ensure everyone is represented. With regard to books, if children and young people cannot see themselves and their own experiences represented within the pages of books then their interest will wane, they will think that books are not for them. At CBI we think it is fundamental to all literature, but most especially within books for children and young people and especially when you are dealing with visual texts,” she said.

Recent figures released in the UK this year with regard to BAME (Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic) representation within children’s books, show that of the 9,115 titles published for children and young people, only 4 percent featured BAME characters. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) who carried out the study, found that only one per cent of British children’s books feature a main character who is black or minority ethnic. This compares to the 32.1 percent of schoolchildren of minority ethnic origins in England identified by the Department of Education last year

“We [CBI] do not as yet have comparable statistics for Ireland, but the UK and Irish markets are comparable so the statistics are relevant to us. The shockwave that the findings sent out across publishing was gigantic, with the majority of publishers swiftly responding and putting the publishing of representative titles to the very top of their to-do lists. Publishing, in general, is a reactive industry and is led by trends. While I don’t want to label this as a ‘trend’ per se it will essentially and hopefully have the same industry-wide effect, and in late 2019 we should see more titles hitting shelves that have BAME representation,” she explained.

Our research contained a sample from three bookstores and according to Ms Murray, although the results showed a majority of male characters compared to female, she’d have to disagree.

“If you take something like Children’s Books Ireland’s annual publication the Inis Reading Guide as a representative sample, this is an independent review of the best titles for children and young people aged 0-18. This year’s guide features 342 titles reviewed across age groups and including a poetry and non-fiction section. Within those 342 titles – 196 men were either author/illustrator/translator against 295 women. Almost 100 more women! I think female representation within books is lower, however,” she maintained.  

“According to a survey published recently in the Observer, girls and female characters, in general, tend to be underrepresented in books for very young readers, where they account for only about 40 percent of the main protagonists found in the hundred bestselling picture books of 2017. They are almost never baddies or criminal masterminds and are more likely to have a non-speaking part. Girls, in short, are often limited to the role of sidekick, when they appear at all. Unless, of course, they are mothers or grannies; parent characters are overwhelmingly female and dads are alarmingly absent.”

Despite our finding showing the majority of characters and authors being male, Jenny believes that  2018 was the Year of the Girl.

Children's Classic Section, Hodges Figgis, Dawson St
The Children’s classics section in Hodges Figges, Dawson Street // Ethan McDonagh

“As I mentioned earlier, representation of strong female characters and role-models with children’s and young adult fiction was low in previous year’s. But publishers listened to campaigns and adapted, leading to an industry-wide change. It did help that 2018 was the centenary of suffrage in the UK and Ireland, but there was barely one children’s publisher in 2018 without at least one title that fitted these criteria, the majority had numerous titles and almost all had at least one non-fiction title highlighting extraordinary women throughout the ages. Some of these were women we all know very well but more often than not they were women history has forgotten and even more welcome, there were titles focusing on current inspiring women, which is almost even more important.

“We [CBI] ran our own Bold Girls campaign around this subject matter and gained huge media and public acclaim. There is a definite push for books celebrating women’s achievements in science, sport, the arts and history in general. This is all to be welcomed and celebrated, but there is still a lot of work to be done around the casual, invisible sexism that pervades books that are not specifically about restoring the imbalance. In those books, more males should be seen cooking, cleaning and caring, more females working and wrestling and wondering. It doesn’t have to be the main point of the book; it would be all the more powerful for it,” she continued.  

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