Thursday, 31 October 2019

Reflecting Realities Again by Chitra Soundar

On September 19th of this year, CLPE published their second annual reporton BAME representation in children’s literature in the UK. The purpose of the report as stated by Farrah Serroukh is “The value of reflecting realities, individuals, identities, cultures and communities is rooted in the importance of elevating all lived experiences and recognising them as worthy of note and exploration.”

While some high-level statistics might show an upward trajectory, there is still a long way to go.

Three in every 10 children is from a BAME background in a UK classroom, only 7 in 100 books represent their presence. But not all of that representation was authentic or the central to the book. Only 4% of the books had a main character from a non-white background. And this does feel stark when compared to 42% of the books have animals as lead characters. It underscores and unconsciously tells a child of colour that they do not rank the same privileges as animal characters.

The research also breaks down the stats into specific ethnicities and as a British Asian I do find it alarming that while 6.8% of British are Asians while only 0.14% of the books are for them. I’m scribbling away as fast as I can so that my nephews get to read the books they feature in, they are the lead characters in.

But as a single author or even as a small group of authors, we cannot change the make-up of the bookshelves in Waterstones. It’s important for all writers to consider authentic representation in their books. 

However, in this regard the survey clearly points out that many of the portrayals raised concerns. Some concerns were regarding how these characters were illustrated and, in some cases, darker the skin-tone in the illustrations, less virtuous the characters. In 2019, as a writer of colour and an aunt of two mixed-race nephews, I worry that the subliminal messaging of good vs bad will set in far too early in young minds.

Here is a recent video from Guardian that talks about how children view this world of books.

The other important factor uncovered in this survey is the “skipping over” of uncomfortable truths in history – glorifying western explorers without referring to the harm they caused during those daring acts of bravery. Language is another area where the report points out hidden bias, stereotypical references and of course pointing out that one character is a person of colour by describing them and keeping the white characters default.

The report also highlights excellent examples where the books have succeeded in in good representations in terms of words and pictures.

While reading the report, I was reminded of an article written by Mitali Perkins, who points out that all writers have institutional bias and language shortcuts in their writing – this is because even writers of colour grew up reading white writers and hence adopt unconsciously the same techniques. Here is an article that she wrote almost 10 years ago for the School Library Journal which sadly is still relevant. Recently Mitali produced a checklist for writers and editors to use to edit their texts of such bad representations. Editing as all writers know is a conscious task and hence will help undo some of the unconscious language that might have swept into our stories.

While thinking about this report, I also want to talk about the care that needs to be taken when writing another culture. What we see on TV or our close friends in one or two social interactions do not substitute for research. This research article on the ice-berg of cultural understanding will help to prevent our own stories from sinking due to inaccurate portrayals.

The CLPE Reflecting Realities 2019 report has created some useful terminology that all writers and editors and publishers can use to check their own text. Some notable ones are Wallpapering, Ethnic fluidity, The Jasmine default.

Most often the cure for a problem can be found when it’s diagnosed. In some cases, like cultural representation, measuring is a key tool. US started their research via CCBC in 2002. UK has just started its measurements in 2017 and there is a long way to go to establish patterns and watch trends.

But in the meantime, as writers, we can all be more aware of our position in this pyramid and how we can use the space and voice we have, to empower children of all colour and abilities. 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published author of over 40 books for children. Her books have been published in the UK, US, India, Singapore and translated into German, French, Japanese and Thai. Her picture book Varsha’s Varanasi was included in the White Ravens catalogue this year, a prestigious list of international literature for young people. Her picture books Farmer Falgu Goes Kite Flying was included in the IBBY International Books of USA and You’re Safe with Me was shortlisted for the 2019 Kate Greenaway Medal for the Poonam Mistry’s unique illustrations. Follow her on twitter @csoundar

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