I’m sure you’ve all read about the Liar cover and its fallout. I don’t intend to revisit a topic that has been covered by Laura Atkins and Rhiannon Lassiter among many others. But it did get me thinking again about racial representation in my own work.
I am from a white, northern background. In my heart I’m a closet Scouser, though I was raised on the Welsh side of the border. I write about urban children in contemporary Britain. In my first book, there were no non-white children. Which, even as I wrote it, felt wrong. One in five children in the UK belong to an ethnic minority. I feel that it is the duty of children’s writers to reflect children’s own experiences back at them – to show them a world they recognise. With my first novel, I hadn’t done that.
With the book I’m currently editing, the hero is mixed-race. His ethnicity has no bearing on the story. It is not a book about prejudice, or acceptance or any of the other themes that might traditionally stem from being mixed-race. His ethnic identity is just a small part of who he is and the story romps on regardless.
But – and, it’s a whopping great ‘but’ for me – I felt I couldn’t write about someone whose cultural experience was too different to my own. Which is why he is mixed race, rather than Somali or Iraqi, or any of the other immigrant cultures that are part of modern Britain.
I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see more diverse characters in children’s literature, but, as a white writer, I don’t know if I’m qualified to invent them. I’ve no problem making up a Viking child, or a Roman or anything else so far removed from all of us so that you pretty much have a licence to write whatever you want. But it doesn’t feel OK for me to invent the thoughts and feelings of a child from another, contemporary, culture. Nor does it feel OK for me to use a white main character with ethnic minority friends as blackground.
I guess the answer is that we need more children’s writers from more diverse cultures. We need more non-white and mixed-race writers to tell us stories from their own point of view. I don’t know how we go about getting that, but I imagine that buying their work when you see it would go some way towards helping.
And if we’re ever run short of stories about Scousers, and Frank Cottrell Boyce is busy, then I’ll just have to stand up and be counted.
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